Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Most Surprising Garden

For the last in my series on the European gardens I visited this past May, I'd like to take you on a quick tour of Villandry, a beautiful castle and garden located on the south side of the Loire River. I call this the most surprising because, although I was vaguely familiar with it, I was not prepared for what I was about to see. In the back of my mind, I recalled some images that I had seen in landscape history class of French chateaux and gardens. These drawings, sketched by architectual designer Jacques I Androuet du Cerceau were done in the 16th century.

Based on these engravings I was expecting an elegant, but cold garden, divided into flat, fussy, parterres (c'mon, isn't that what you think about French gardens?). How wrong could I be! Yes, it has immaculate parterres, but nothing like I had expected.

The garden is probably most famous for its vegetable garden, with its edging clipped to an unearthly precision. But I was surprised but the intense color of the flowers and even the vegetables. It was almost like being on an acid trip!

Large masses of cabbages and lettuce gave the veggie garden a nice variety of color and texture.

Most of the castle dates from dates from the Renaissance, though it was built on the grounds of a 14th century keep. It's not hard to make out the older tower below from the "newer" parts of the building (The tower provides an excellent spot for viewing the intricate design of the garden). In 1906 the rundown building was purchased by Joachim Carvallo, a Spanish doctor, who created the present gardens. He was partly inspired by the sketches of Andruet du Cerceau that I mentioned earlier but wasn't afraid to use his own ideas in the design.

The beautiful sketch below is from the official Villandry website (I hope they don't sue me for using it!). If you notice in the plan the layout is a mix of asymmetric medieval design and Renaissance geometry. This is what I especially like about this garden. It's not a strict reconstruction of a historic garden; it spans a wide range of eras, right up to the present.

The garden is devided into sections defined by a changes in elevation. The potager, or kitchen garden, is on one level; the love garden and music garden are above that; the water garden is above them; and the sun garden is at the highest level. These changes in elevation feel very different from how they look from above. From the top of the tower, the garden looks sort of flat, but only because the garden is so large. Walking through the garden, you experience a great variety of spatial definition.

The garden is also divided by canals which run through the property. The water ways have beautifully detailed stonework and were dotted with red valerian growing along the canal walls when I visited.

So wandering up from the veggie garden, you'll find the love garden and the music garden, which get their names for the motifs used for the hedge patterns. While not as colorful as the vegetable garden, it's still fascinating to wander through the music garden paths (the love garden is cordoned off).

These hedges are similar to a maze (of course the garden has one of those too). It was very peaceful wandering through them.

Near the top of the garden is the water parterre, designed in the shape of a Louix XV mirror. A geat spot for reflecting on the reflections!

And beside the water parterre, at the top of the garden, is the newest addition - the sun garden (it was great to see that new spaces are still being added). One part of the sun garden features an English style garden with the arbitrarily meandering paths typical of English landscape design It's filled with cool colored plants like violet catmints, white dicentra, and the blue-violet delphinium below.

Next to that is another garden with radial paths emanating from a star-shaped fountain.

It featured lots of bright warm plants like orange poppies (below), yellow daylilies, and red columbine.

The picture of the bed below doesn't quite capture the intensity of the colors.

It's kind of sad that while I was looking over the garden plan for this article, I started to see all sorts of other spaces that I never even got to see. I could easily have spent most of a day there. And I'll probably never be back there - there so many other places to visit before I can I can start to do repeats.


Janet said...

What wonderful gardens. I love the strict design of he hedges --something I would never have the patience to do.

jo©o said...


There you go again: making me envious with another delicious garden visit :-)

I do like the French style all-green gardening. Watching the Tour de France you get to see many chateaux from the air (helicopters follow the Tour) and they are mostly green and gravel. Box for the hedges I presume?
Did you like the smell of the box, standing in the middle of it? I always think it smells of fox.
I wonder, will snails leave box alone?

JCharlier said...

I visited Villandry a couple years ago. The garden stays with you long after you've gone.I was there in the Fall and had never seen such a colorful garden. It was the most surprising garden, in that I'd never seen vegetables grown in such a colorful, strict manner. I came back and replanted my raised-bed kitchen garden as a French potager, inspired by Vilandry– including rose standards, gravel paths, miniature boxwood dividers and surrounding apple espaliers (though keep in mind my potager is 10 ft. x 12ft!).

how it grows said...

jo©o, I feel a little stupid, I didn't actually look at the hedges that closely, I would assume they're box. I don't remember the any smell, but maybe I'm immune to after living many years in Williamsburg.

how it grows said...

You're very brave to take on anything Villandryish, even if it is small!

compost in my shoe said...

Super tour of this garden. Also on my list of want to see gardens. Thanks!

JCharlier said...

Brave? No. Stupid is more like it. The elements that make up the design–paths, rose standard, espalier and boxwoods take up so much room I have less space for vegetables and the rose standard & boxwoods cause shade where I don't want it–but it looks cool!

Phillip said...

Wow, this is stunning!

How It Grows said...

I wish I had known more about it's history and designer before I visited - I think I would have had a better appreciation of the garden. Who knows if I'll ever get the chance to go back?