Gardens - Featured Gardens

A Quebec artist tames a bluff

Larry Hodgson
Photography by
Harold Fortin

Turn a steep cliff into a verdent garden with thumbnail terraces, tumbling cascades and stone-edged planting pockets

taming-slopes-inset.jpgGarden facts
Size: 35 x 25 metres
Orientation: southwest
Conditions: very steep slope, bedrock partially covered by 20 to 30 centimetres of added soil
Growing season: April to early October
Garden: focus waterfall and mini-terraces
Zone 4b

What do you do when your home is perched halfway up a cliff? If you're a passionate gardener like Teresa Pacheco Roy, you create garden space wherever you can, even when it means turning a steep cliff into a series of thumbnail terraces, tumbling cascades and stone-edged planting pockets.

Still, when Teresa and husband Gilles bought their home in Sillery, a suburb of Quebec City, in 1971, gardening was the furthest thing from their minds. They were newlyweds and looking for a place to raise a family, and it's easy to see why they were drawn to the house, even with the garden limitations. Their two-storey home is beautiful, with a wide veranda on three sides, reminiscent of a Swiss chalet, a likeness heightened by its position halfway up a cliff forested in spruce, pine, maple and oak. The Roys can watch the ships sailing by on the St. Lawrence River—nearly half a kilometre away—from the numerous picture windows. It seemed the ideal spot, but living here had its downsides as well.

The property was built on a lot blasted out of a cliff face at one of the rare points along the road where a driveway was possible, which meant no neighbours, no backyard—the kitchen window looks out onto a rock wall—no basement and a ground floor consisting only of a small foyer (used by Teresa to overwinter some of her tropical plants, along with her Japanese carp) and a bit of storage space (now a workshop for Gilles, a model-boat enthusiast). The lot drops five metres from the front door to the street, with a stone retaining wall dividing the slope into two: a steep grade to the street and a more gentle upper incline. When the couple bought the house, both sections were lawns sprinkled with a few shrubs. And as their family grew, there was no room for their two children to play outdoors, other than on the veranda or the driveway; they weren't allowed on the lawn, for fear they could tumble down onto the street.

At first, neither Teresa nor Gilles were interested in becoming gardeners. Back in her native Chile, Teresa had always dreamt of becoming an artist, a passion she put into practice in Canada; she now teaches painting at her own workshop located nearby. Gilles had even less interest in gardening than Teresa: his career as a pharmacist, from which he has since retired, took up most of his time, and the little energy he had left for landscape work he invested in the less intensive maintenance of the grounds of their summer cottage.

But Teresa saw in her challenging lot a source of inspiration for her paintings. She began to garden, timidly at first, planting a few tulips in a narrow bed she dug at the top of the lawn. They were a success, and she began to experiment with other plants. Her goal? To have a garden of non-stop colour, like those back in Chile.

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