The Million Dollar Garden

– Posted in: Book reviews, Design
12 comments


I’ve often thought my biggest hindrance to becoming a professional garden designer is my aversion to spending money, mine or anyone else’s. Consequently, I tend to filter out great-but expensive-ideas almost as soon as I’ve thought them, even at the risk of being penny-wise but pound-foolish. So it should surprise no one that I find The Greater Perfection: The Story of the Gardens at Les Quatre Vents mind boggling.

I have no idea of author Francis Cabot’s net worth, nor whether he inherited most of it or single-handedly multiplied the family fortune. All I know is this guy has a lot of moolah, and he knows how to use it, at least from a gardener’s perspective. Les Quatre Vents has been in Cabot’s family for over a century, but he did not start his own work on the gardens until 1975. The estate, which is reckoned in square miles, not acres, would be squarely in USDA Hardiness Zone 3 were it not for the moderating influence of the St. Lawrence River, which is broad enough at that point to be considered an inland sea. Not the type of climate most people would consider ideal for creating a world-class landscape.

I should make that plural: landscapes. Rock gardens, Japanese gardens, woodland, perennial borders, potagers, orchards, magnificent views, intimate spaces–this place has it all. About the only thing missing is polar icecap and steamy jungle, but the rope bridges certainly lend that kind of tropical ambience. Yes, rope bridges. Two of them. If the height of the bridges is given, I can’t find it in the text, but this altitude-averse writer can attest it looks high enough. Cabot himself had second thoughts the first time he went across:

By the time I was halfway across, however, I was convinced that I had made a terrible mistake. The bridge swung in three directions at once–at least two more than I had bargained for. It not only swayed from side to side but the floorboards undulated along the axis of the bridge as well as wobbling alarmingly. It was terrifying and I found it impossible to look down into the ravine at the masses of large-leaved species, which was a principal reason for the exercise. Despite misgivings, once past the center of the span, the traverse became easier and the terror subsided. It was a real challenge, but a surmountable one, and in the best romantic tradition terror might as well be included in the range of emotions to be evoked by a journey through the elements in the garden at Les Quatre Vents.

(Excuse me a moment while I wipe the sweat off my palms.) This quote also illustrates the kind of “horticultural enthusiast” (as he describes himself) Cabot is. He’s not just after pretty pictures; he wants to evoke emotions.

Emotions and sensuality are what a garden is all about. We should be transported from our regular preoccupations. With an open heart and soul we can be receptive to the images, scents, sounds, spaces, and views that surround us, as well as to the touch of the wind and the rain, to the peace everlasting of the “genius of the place.”

What makes The Greater Perfection much more than a drop-dead gorgeous coffee table book is that Frank Cabot is much more than a rich guy showing off. He is a gardener, with a gardener’s desire to plant, grow, and make the world more beautiful because of it. In the text, he doesn’t just describe each area of the garden, he explains what kind 0f effect he was trying to achieve and how he went about it. You learn about his mistakes as well as his successes; you see what types of things inspired him and what makes him change his mind.

You may get a certain voyeuristic thrill seeing how one wealthy man attempts to achieve “the greater perfection,” but you will eventually realize that this book is full of lessons that can be applied to your own small plot and limited budget. Climate, as it turns out, is not much of a limitation. The Greater Perfection is about dreaming big, something every gardener can afford to do.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In the end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Balsamfir May 5, 2009, 6:54 pm

After trying for years to get more information on these gardens in zone 4 (Penelope Hobhouse mentioned them in one of her books) I jumped at the chance to hear Mr. Cabot give a slidetalk for Stonecrop, after which he generously offered all attendees an invitation to view Quatre Vents. By then, I’d slavered over the book for months, but the gardens are far more exciting than the book. I chickened out on the bridge, however, which is now covered in moss. The tea house is in a steamy microclimate surrounded by meconopsis and weeping hemlock in drifts, and many other things. The primula gardens along the stream were enchanting, and … . Quatre Vents is very large. We were barely able to tour through at a rush in one day, and I would love to be able to return at another season. The trip has other pleasures, since that region of Quebec is also charming, with excellent food. I believe the Cabots donate most or all proceeds from the book and the entry fee of the gardens to preserving the truly extraordinary habits of northern Quebec. I have seen many vast gardens over the years, but this was unique for me, perhaps because the hand that created it is still tending it in person, rather than as a museum to the past.

Mary Beth January 18, 2009, 2:04 pm

The book sounds like bits and pieces of living in the mountains. I’ve walked the swinging bridge at Camp Nathanael(.org) (it was a scary at first), and worked in my own garden at my home. I’ve seen absolutely beautiful flowers and foliage along the mountain trails here. I’ll have to check to see if the book is on Amazon.com or half.com. Great Post!

Kathy Purdy January 18, 2009, 3:13 pm

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Mary Beth. I hope you come back and read more recent posts!

Kathy Purdy December 14, 2006, 7:03 am

Susan, glad you stopped by. Perhaps when people are willing to spend a lot of money it helps to see what else they’re spending money on, and remind ourselves that these landscaping and gardening expenditures are much more worthy. But this is probably a difficulty better put to Rick Anderson of the Whispering Crane Institute.

Carol December 9, 2006, 11:36 am

I have a fairly flat terrain to garden, so no chance for a rope bridge, though find a way to view a garden from above is a good idea. I guess being the 1st to cross that rope bridge would be like the 1st to ride a new roller coaster. You hope it works!

Sounds like a great book to put on my wish list.

Susan Harris December 8, 2006, 11:00 am

Great post, Kathy, and you’ve got me planning a trip next summer to see the garden. And I share your aversion to spending money and it’s getting in the way of my working with clients who have some. I find it intimidating, presuming to tell people how to spend a LOT of money.

Kathy Purdy December 7, 2006, 7:27 am

You’re welcome, Kim. I go back and forth about the money thing. After all, I got used to spending more money on gardening than I ever thought I’d “waste” on a hobby, so I could probably get used to spending yet more . . .

Kim (Blackswamp_Girl) December 6, 2006, 11:00 pm

I think I would like to spend other people’s money on a garden. 🙂 My problem is that I don’t think I could make a plan for other people, because gardening is so personal for me.

And I’m terrible about some of my personal likes and dislikes–the first few times someone insisted on black-eyed susans I could swallow it, but the fourth time would probably do me in!

I have read stories of Les Quatres Vents, but didn’t know there was a book on it. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, by the way.

Kathy Purdy December 6, 2006, 3:26 pm

It is an expensive book, Annie. I probably wouldn’t own it myself if I hadn’t received it as a gift–but I’m very glad that I do.

Annie in Austin December 6, 2006, 1:12 pm

This book sounds totally fascinating, Kathy – especially Frank Cabot’s idea of transporting oneself from normal preoccupations. He can keep the rope bridge… I’d need dramamine just to look at the photos.

Amazon says that 85% of people viewing the page for this book will pay $55 to buy it. So there is plenty of garden money out there. I hope you can figure out how to get people to pay for your garden designs!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Kathy Purdy December 6, 2006, 10:50 am

Desire might be too strong of a word. I have often pondered whether my gardening hobby could or should turn into something more, and what that “more” would be. So far, the only auxiliary occupation I have developed has been my writing, but since I feel I was a writer before I was a gardener, that wasn’t much of a stretch.

bill December 6, 2006, 9:26 am

Is it your desire to be a professional garden designer?