Richard Ouellette and Maxime Vandal, the duo behind Montreal design firm
Les Ensembliers, have always loved a beautiful garden. But here at Humming Hill, their latest weekend home near Knowlton, Quebec, they’ve created something that’s a lot more than just an aesthetic masterpiece. Their 32-hectare property is also a working farm, with a serious vegetable plot, honeybees, chickens and a sugar bush that will produce gallons of maple syrup. Since buying the property in 2016, Richard and Maxime have been digging, building and planting, not to mention painstakingly hand-dividing hundreds of dahlia tubers and installing a growing chamber for starting seeds in the basement — all in preparation for opening a flower farm.
All summer long, the flower gardens burst with color, with vegetables and more precious blooms corralled into a tidy parterre crisscrossed with pea gravel pathways that recalls the best ornamental gardens in France and England. “It’s inspired by a Victorian maze and is designed to be seen best from above,” says Richard.
As they’ve created their outdoor spaces, the pair have become students of permaculture — a sustainable approach to working the land — seeking advice from specialists in the area, most notably, expert Caroline Gosselin. For the designers (and soon-to-be flower farmers), gardening has become a way of life. “Humming Hill is about creating a place with purpose, where we can grow flowers and vegetables, enjoy a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, entertain and share good times,” says Richard.
Here, Richard and Maxime tour their vibrant, hardworking garden.
The coach house sits beside gates that access the parterre.
The coach house’s upstairs balcony has become a favorite spot to look out at the property. “It gets the morning sun, and then it’s the perfect little shady hideaway during the afternoon heat because the sun is on the other side,” says Richard (left, with Maxime and mini pinscher, Zack).
Wide stone steps were installed across this expanse of lawn to echo the proportions of the planting beds nearby. The stones connect architecturally with the width of the coach house door, and they create a path to the fields.
This table on the side of the coach house shelters firewood, is a repotting station, a place for sorting and packing fruits and veggies, and adds a work surface for food prep (including pizzas from the outdoor oven,
far right). “When you serve a meal, and people know it’s been produced on the grounds, it puts everything in perspective,” says Maxime.
The pea gravel pathways of this classic parterre enhance the symmetrical style, help the area drain well and provide less muddy access to beds. Raised beds for vegetables are nearer the centre, while the ground-level beds at the periphery hold small fruits, flowers and decorative elements that help camouflage the fence. The fountain at the center, nestled among lavender and roses, is a gathering place for butterflies, dragonflies and hummingbirds (for which the farm is named). The pair outsourced the construction of the raised beds and pergola, but do the planting, garden maintenance and much of the harvesting themselves with help from Maxime’s brother, Bernard.
Although this is mostly a working garden, Richard and Maxime care about the visual, and they plan the color and scale of the flowers and vegetables carefully. Raised beds are an earth-friendly, low-impact way to make gardens work better: they offer good drainage, discourage weed and slug migration, help soil maintain its nutrients and keep it from getting compacted.
Richard and Maxime keep Chantecler chickens, a locally developed cold-resistant breed. They also keep bees, essential for pollinating the flowers and, last February, they started tapping their maple trees for delicious syrup. They’ve also started a collective of local farmers, mostly weekenders, to share information and resources. “We merge our efforts to be more productive and specialize in what we do best — we’re creating synergy,” says Maxime.
Richard and Maxime built this pergola from Eastern red cedar beams and is outfitted with Muskoka chairs.
Richard and Maxime invested in an irrigation system. “If you really want success for this type of garden, you have to have a built-in system,” says Richard. Their drop-by-drop system lets them select timing and quantity by zones. Mulch, which covers most beds here, is an easy and sustainable way to keep the soil cooler, damper and fight weeds. The pair makes their own mulch from trees they take down in their forest to make way for trails.
Even the gentlest trickle of water enhances a garden by layering in sound and movement. “We added this Corten steel waterfall when we built our koi pond,” says Richard. “It’s a quiet, meditative spot, and the wooden Buddha has been in all our gardens over the years.” Built of concrete, the koi pond basin is designed to be a raised “water bed” on par with the earth-filled beds surrounding it. “At night, we get the light effect of the water dancing on the ceiling of the coach house,” says Maxime.
A tall metal potting bench
(below) lets Richard shift planters in and out of service. He brings half the garden’s potted plants inside each winter to reuse the next year, an eco- and budget-friendly move.
The pool house got a fresh coat of paint, and then Richard “threw in odds-and-ends furniture to make it cozy and fun,” he says. If you have the space, a shower is a fun addition to an outdoor area. Here, it’s tucked in a nook in the pool house wall and, to make it as private as possible, it’s oriented to face empty fields. The property’s mature trees, from oaks, pines and maples to lilacs and cherries, were a main selling point for the property.
The pool house is used as a changeroom for swimming and tennis, as well as guest quarters in warm weather. Richard and Maxime designed the ikat fabric, Les Nomades, on the ottoman for
Brunschwig & Fils, and Richard painted the verdant artwork hung behind the sofa.
The pool house also includes a small bar
(background), so it’s easy to fix drinks during an afternoon of swimming. The quilt is from an antique show in Knowlton, and the photograph is by Ned Pratt.
Omit edging around a swimming pool — or choose terracing with a natural look — to help it blend in to the garden more seamlessly. “We took away all the hard surfaces, so it looks less manicured,” says Richard. “We’re thinking of making it dark next year to blend in even better.”
Author: Katie Hayden
House & Home May 2020
Richard Ouellete & Maxime Vandal, Les Ensembliers