Admittedly, the Jardin de la Petite École is not on any major tourism circuit, unless you’re doing a “Quebec and Maritime Provinces” trip, in which case it would be right on your route. But it is well worth making a special trip to see it, as it is certainly one of the most stunning gardens I’ve ever seen.
The garden is located in the town of Témiscouata-sur-le-Lac in the Lower Saint Lawrence region of Quebec, about 3 hours east of Quebec City and just a few minutes drive from the New Brunswick border. It fact, it is only minutes from the US too… but not many people travel to Fort Kent, Maine, best known as the northern terminus of U.S. Route 1. It’s many miles from any major city and the scenery is beautiful and largely unspoiled: rolling hills of dark green coniferous forest and peat bogs, spotted here and there with quaint villages.
A Garden With No Lawn
The landscaping of Jardin de la Petite École is totally original. You will certainly sense a bit of Japanese flavor (notably in its use of foliage and textures rather than vast flowerbeds) or a tinge of English landscaping style, but it really doesn’t fit into any category I can think of. Yet it is perfectly harmonized throughout.
The garden is the work of its owner, Jacques Cyr, a retired high school teacher, who essentially does all the work, from planting to terracing, only bringing in help for the most strenuous jobs. It is a private garden in the sense that it is located on a suburban lot and the owner lives in the house, but he nevertheless opens his garden daily to visitors throughout the summer months and charges for admission, so it is a public garden as well.
What fascinates me in this fairly small garden (32,000 square feet/3000 m2) is the perfect balance between plants and structural elements: pergolas, slate paving stones, ponds, bridges, streams, etc. And the total absence of any lawn. Conifers dominate, often dwarf varieties with blue or golden foliage, helped by luxuriant groundcovers such as golden moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) and Scotch moss (Sagina subulata glabrata ‘Aurea’) and a cluster of mature paperbark birches (Betula papyrifera). There are also perennials, aquatic plants and annuals, including some spectacular tuberous begonias. Still, in this garden, foliage definitely reigns: flowers here are like punctuation in a script about foliage colors and textures.
The garden is further enhanced by a “borrowed landscape”: it seems to extend right to Lake Témiscouata, a narrow lake 28 miles (45 km) long, yet the lake is actually located 1,300 feet (400 meters) below, on the other side of a subdivision.
Years of Hard Work
You’d have thought the lot’s extreme slope would have encouraged Jacques Cyr to stick to a more a minimalist landscape plan, but it had the opposite effect. He felt challenged to bring a semblance of order to the unruly lot. He has been expanding and perfecting the landscaping yearly since he first moved there in 1980.
He started first with the relatively level part near the house: a flat section of gravel-covered landfill void of any vegetation that was originally part of a schoolyard, then gradually descended the slope to the edge of the property, integrating elements of the original boreal forest into the garden and as a background. And he has yet to finish. I’ve been able to visit this garden almost every year for over a decade now and have seen over time an in-ground pool disappear ( “it didn’t match with the rest of the garden,” Jacques said, “and I wasn’t using it any more.”), a pergola appear, the terrace increase in size, a pond be added, etc. Since the beginning of 2016, a new bridge crosses the stream.
In visiting the garden, you descend from terrace to terrace, from pond to pond. All are connected by what appears to be a natural stream flowing down into the lake below, but it is actually a series of streams that pop up then disappear, each managed by a well-hidden pump. And despite appearances, the stream never makes its way anywhere near the lake.
In this garden, it’s easy to forget you are in a residential area! Plantings, hedges, and fencing hide any sign of neighbors. Water gurgles everywhere and mingles with birdsong to create a natural symphony that isolates you mentally from the world outside.
But Where is the Schoolhouse?
The name Jardin de la Petite École means Garden of the Little Schoolhouse, but you’d be hard pressed to figure out why, as there is no sign of a school today. You really have to ask Jacques to explain the site’s history.
It turns out the house was originally an old rural one-room schoolhouse built in 1948 and moved to the site in 1964 with several other school buildings to create extra classrooms for the local high school. When a larger high school was built a few years later, the schoolhouses were sold off for use as residential dwellings.
In the case of Jacques’ home, the old schoolhouse has been so heavily modified over the years (it’s more then tripled in size, for example!) that it looks nothing like a school: only the name gives any indication of its past.
When You Visit
The garden is open daily from June 24 to Labor Day (first Monday in September) from 10 am to 5 pm. (If you visit at the end of June, don’t be surprised to see tulips still in bloom! The local climate is cold (USDA zone 2, AgCan zone 3) and winters are long: some snow often persists well into May, delaying the flowering season.)
Témiscouata-sur-le-Lac is located in eastern Quebec, near the New Brunswick border, just off the Trans-Canada Highway.
If you are ever in eastern Quebec, northwestern New Brunswick, or the northern tip of Maine, don’t miss this unique garden. In fact, why not plan a trip specifically to visit it and a few other great gardens in the region, like the internationally acclaimed Reford Gardens, the New Brunwick Botanical Garden, the Jardin de Gus or the Jardins de Doris?
Jardin de la Petite École
794 Rue St-Viateur
Tel: 418 899-2740
Children 12 and under: $5