Denis Diotte and Richard Sarault, Gatineau, Quebec
Story and photos by Shauna Dobbie
Finicky is not the right word. Someone finicky—fastidious? or exacting?—connotes an old fussbudget, and Denis isn’t that at all. He is warm and, with his partner, Richard Sarault, invites you into the garden with the understated pride of the parent of a prodigy. Yet what could you call it when someone pulls the pine needles off the branches before they fall so that they don’t make a mess? Meticulous? Conscientious.
Denis laughs at himself. He knows he is more particular than most. But he loves what he has built and spends 15 or 20 hours per week to keep it that way in the spring. He estimates it takes five to 10 hours per week in summer and a good 10 hours per week starting in mid-September. There is nothing he doesn’t love to do, including pruning the evergreens candle by candle. Well, he doesn’t love tending to the upper parts of tall evergreens that require a ladder; he has a terrible fear of heights, and Richard needs to foot the ladder while Denis goes up. The tallest evergreen in his yard is 12 feet; he cut the leader to prevent it growing higher. But you’ll do anything for your children. “It’s an extension of me. It’s like part of my family,” he says in a way that you understand he knows it’s eccentric but he is not fighting it.
He picks detritus out of the gravel to neaten it up. Once or twice a week during the growing season, he cultivates the soil around all his plants. He likes it to be fluffy, and he says that if he steps into the soil, it is so friable that his foot goes way down. He doesn’t step on it, though; he has rocks placed that he can stand on in order to reach everything.
The garden focuses particularly on green and the different shapes and textures of the plants. There are a few perennials, yet even those tend toward interest in the foliage, from the feathery fountains of leaves in Liatris spicata to the gorgeous variegation of Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Sunstruck’. And of course, there are hostas. He has a lovely selection of mini hostas.
Denis is a collector of interesting plants. He has a Sciadopitys verticillata ‘Green Star’; Paxistema canbyi; and a mass of Dryas octopetala, to name just a few. If you haven’t heard of them, don’t worry, just look at the pictures and be dazzled. He has others you don’t think you recognise at first that he has pruned to expose the wood. A black pine, for instance, looks far more tame in this garden. A dwarf elm (Ulmus ‘Jacqueline Hillier’) has been trimmed into a cloud tree, making it look particularly avant-garde. You can tell what all the plants are because he has named them all with professional metal labels he orders by mail.
He has managed to put his compilation together exclusively from local greenhouses. The furthest he travels is to Joliette, about two hours from Gatineau. Of course, he takes his inspiration where he finds it and is acquiring a number of different mosses from the wild in his area. Some will thrive, others will not, but he gives them his best efforts by putting sheep manure down and planting the mosses on top of it. Around the pond and in amongst his mini hostas they look like tiny shrubs and forests.
Back a few years Denis ran into an article titled The Main Elements of Japanese Gardens. After reading it, he was stricken by the similarities of a Japanese garden and his own gardens. “It has provided me with a better sense of guidance,” he says. He named his gardens Espace de Vie to reflect the Japanese to French translation. A beautiful stainless-steel sign was made and installed on the upper part of the front gate.
Denis has his own method of pruning trees. It’s inspired by Japanese principles (Mekiri and Metsumi), and he refers to it as “Japanized”. This means he can follow his own eye and not worry about what he should do outside of that. He strips the lower branches of growth, exposing the wood and the wonderful shapes. This works beautifully, never more so than with the recumbent pine, Pinus sylvestris ‘Albyn Prostrata’, which snakes across the ground next to the pond.
He grew up living in apartments and had no concept of gardening; he didn’t even know the difference between a perennial and an annual until he met his first partner, Muir Teasdale. Muir was a horticulturist by training and owner of a landscaping company. Little by little, in assisting Muir in the build of their own gardens, Denis noticed an everlasting interest and passion for gardening. After their relationship ended, he bought this house, 15 years ago. It was the first one he saw. A private sale, he did his best to be circumspect, to not let on his level of interest. When he saw the back yard, although it was bare lawn at the time, he was struck by a complete vision of what it could be. And within seven years, he finished the layout when he planted some rhodos.
Since then, with the invaluable assistance of Richard, of course he’s added some plants, moved them, replaced them. The layout of the garden hasn’t changed, though, and he doesn’t intend to change it. For Denis, the joy is in maintaining it. And for the visitor, the joy is in absorbing the manicured beauty.