The little houses stood half-submerged, and the water kept bubbling up toward their roofs. Then one of them, its walls bright orange, was swamped by a fresh wave. The cause: a girl of about 8 in a yellow kayak, paddling choppily through the water while talking with her mother nearby.
These weren’t real houses, but models each about a metre high. They stood submerged in an artificial pond, part of an installation called The 100-Year Line that symbolizes the effects of climate change. Part of the International Garden Festival, the work, designed by a collective including architect Etienne Bernier, stands somewhere between playground, conceptual art and landscape.
And this is what the festival – located at Reford Gardens in eastern Quebec – delivers: “gardens” that advance the art of landscape architecture and make you think. The 100-Year Line exhibition “was meant to evoke fun, but also the complete terror that such events” of extreme weather “could evoke in those who experienced them,” says Alexander Reford, who leads the festival and also Reford Gardens.
This will fit the bill for the next round of projects in 2022. Each year the festival invites proposals from landscape architects (and other designers) for pieces on a particular theme. They recently released the call for next year, on the theme Adaptations.
“Our theme for 2021 was a response to COVID,” says Reford: Magic Lies Outside was the rubric. “It was the notion that the natural world is something we need to return to. This year, it’s time for us to confront the truths of climate change as they hit us in the face.”
Reford Gardens is located near the town of Grand-Métis, and it is known in French as Jardins de Métis. It was first created by Alexander’s great-grandmother, Elsie Reford, between 1926 and 1958. Now Reford, who had an earlier career as a historian, leads both the festival and the garden.
Next year the gardens will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Elsie’s birth, and Reford suggests her work sets a powerful example. “She was among the handful of people who really showed the way as Canada as a place to cultivate gardens,” he says. “But she was not a trained landscape architect, and she was not a man. And she used the landscape without bulldozing what had been there, as most of the men of her period did.”
Adapting to the hilly terrain, she built an English-style garden on the south shore of the lower St. Lawrence. Even today it is a remote spot, 330 kilometres east of Quebec City; the lower St. Lawrence is solidly rural region which has also long been a vacation spot for affluent Quebecois. “Since COVID, like a lot of rural places, we have seen a lot of property changing hands, a lot of new development,” Reford says. “It’s combination of a happy influx of creative people and also a need to cope with some social changes.”
Climate change is also a force here. In 2021, the gardens received too little rain and then too much, Reford says. Warmer winter temperatures and diminishing snowfall threaten certain plant species on site.
For the moment, this is a region of cool, soft light, coniferous forests and rolling farmland. And the gardens are a unique draw. Under Reford’s leadership, the festival has surrounded Elsie Reford’s gardens with a regular crop of installations by some of the most creative landscape architects (and other designers) in North America.
“One of the challenges we give designers is to make something that creates a buzz over the course of an entire season,” Reford said. And some, like the The 100-Year Line, last for multiple years; others are repurposed into new installations. All construction is done by staff members.
When I visited in the summer, Pierre Thibault – one of Quebec’s great architects – was having lunch at the gardens. Thibault was completing a wooden open-air stage, one of several projects he has done for the gardens over the years. It’s a rare mélange of contemporary architecture and landscape in a sylvan setting dotted with rare plant species.
Festival projects from previous years were still there, including giant slabs of marble rescued from a Vermont quarry (by Michael Van Valkenburgh, 2011) and a black burlap tent supported by birch logs (by artist Mathilde Leveau and architect Ronan Virondaud). “Is it landscape? Is it visual art? Is it architecture?” Reford asks rhetorically. “There is a great mixity between the professions.”
Such conceptual and formalistic approaches are being met by more ecological ones, in the world and in the gardens. “Many young designers are engaging with agriculture,” Reford says. “There is a nostalgia and also a genuine embrace of the agricultural world. They are moving away from the pretty and toward the productive.”
And also toward a deeper understanding of how landscape must adapt to the effects of climate change. “We are seeing less precipitation, shoreline erosion, and a loss of animal and bird species,” Reford says. “There’s no question that we too must adapt to changing circumstances.” Change is coming, and you can feel it in the garden.
The International Garden Festival is accepting submissions from designers until Jan. 11. The festival begins June 25, 2022.