a landscape lover's blog

garden tales from a Brit abroad

Villandry in winter

Villandry has been called ‘the finest potager in the world.’ For much of the year its beds are a mass of vegetables, from soft herbs and jewelled beetroot to blowsy purple cabbages and bright chubby pumpkins, all edged by long, low lines of trained apples and pears. It is a kitchen garden like no other, planted out with 60,000 colour co-ordinated vegetable plants, and then primped and tweaked by a team of eight full-time gardeners.

Empty PotagerBut it has its charms in winter too. We first visited one February, when we enjoyed the drama of the empty potager beds and the almost alien knobbliness of the pollarded limes (tilia). In the jardin d’amour, we admired the box hedging, tightly clipped into shapes that symbolise four different kinds of love. The low winter sun lit up the pièce d’eau (an elevated water garden). Almost the only visitors, we strolled along the terraces that surround the gardens, enjoying the vistas, and the early signs of Spring in the surrounding woods.

Pollarded limesJardin d'AmourPièce d'eau

early bluebells

For me as a landscape historian, Villandry is a magical place, a combination of very different eras and influences. The gardens were first created in the 1530s around a chateau built by Jean Le Breton, finance minister to the king, on the site of an earlier Loire Valley castle. This was over one hundred years before André Le Nôtre introduced the grand vistas and perspectives that we now associate with classical French gardens. Instead, the gardens at Villandry developed from the enclosed geometric forms of medieval monastery gardens, and showed the influence of the Italian Renaissance (Le Breton had been French Ambassador to Rome).

The chateau and gardens at Villandry passed through various hands including, at one point, those of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother. Fashions changed and, in the early nineteenth century, the gardens were replaced by what one visitor in 1854 called “a vast and delicious English-style park.”

As happened to so many great gardens in France, by the end of the nineteenth century Villandry was virtually abandoned, and the chateau threatened with demolition.

Villandry 1869

Villandry’s English park, from Casimir Chevalier, Promenades Pittoresques en Torraine, 1869.

Abandoned park

The abandoned gardens, c.1900. Image from Ministère de la Culture (France) – Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine.

It was saved by Spanish doctor Joachim Carvallo and his American heiress wife Anne Coleman, who bought Villandry in 1906. Carvallo recalled that when they first saw the property, “the park was in the English style, with dales and hillocks … thickly planted with newly imported exotic species: cedars, pines, thuyas, magnolias, all massed together on the sides of artificial little hills. The chateau itself was hidden in the middle of a forest of trees and greenery.”

Tuileries plan

Cerceau’s Engraving of the Tuileries garden (detail), c.1570s.

Sadly no records existed of how the gardens at Villandry had originally been laid out, and so Carvallo and Coleman turned for inspiration to the detailed engravings in Jacques Androuet du Cerceau’s Les Plus Excellents Bastiments de France 1576 and 1579.

Armed with Cerceau’s engravings of many French gardens, including the jardin des Tuileries, the couple designed and laid out a new garden for Villandry. It echoed the late sixteenth century styles that Cerceau had so carefully recorded, but could not fail to include more contemporary influences, including some Art Nouveau curves and more modern choices of plant.

Villandry continues to be run by the descendants of Carvallo and Coleman, and today is one of the most beautiful and most visited gardens in the Loire.

Aerial photo of gardens

Aerial photograph of Villandry gardens (detail), 1950. © Inventaire général, ADAGP

And that’s why I like Villandry so much. Yes, it has a dazzling potager. But it is also quietly beautiful in winter, and stands as a perfect reminder that historic gardens never simply refer back to a single point in time. As at Villandry, you can always scrape back the layers to find hints and glimpses of many different periods and influences.

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14 comments on “Villandry in winter

  1. Eliza @ Appalachian Feet
    January 28, 2011

    That’s an unbelievable garden, you’re so lucky to be able to visit it. It’s hard to think of something that large being defined by the word “potager” even if the garden design fits. Great post!

    • landscapelover
      January 29, 2011

      Thanks for the comment. Actually the potager “only” consists of the nine large squares you can see to the right of the house in the aerial photo. The parterres, water garden, terraces (and a new sun garden) form other elements of the landscape at Villandry. But even so, the potager is very large – about 3 acres (1.25 hectares).

  2. Fascinating post. I hope you will have a chance to revisit when the gardens are growing. I would love to see what they grow and how.

  3. Garden Walk Garden Talk
    January 28, 2011

    This is an incredible place, I too vote for your return for when it is fully growing.

  4. michael 'hazeltree' thompson
    January 29, 2011

    hello , i do love pollarded limes, yes you must return and show us the potager in its summer glory, thank goodness that Carvallo and Coleman and their family took the garden on…

    • landscapelover
      January 29, 2011

      We have visited Villandry in the summer and it is indeed wonderful – but of course rather more full of visitors and a very different experience. I will post more at some point. If you are curious now, an internet search will produce plenty of images of the potager’s glory in spring, summer and autumn…
      And I agree about Carvallo and Coleman. Some splendid gardens were saved from destruction in the early twentieth century by enterprising couples such as these two.

  5. Malinda
    January 29, 2011

    Beautiful post – I’m glad that I can visit this remarkable garden and potager vicariously. I’ll add it to my list of “must sees”

  6. PlantPostings
    January 30, 2011

    Wow, what fun to visit these gardens when I visit your post. So neat and beautiful, even in winter!

  7. sequoiagardens
    January 30, 2011

    So pleased to have found your blog – and the fact that you too use wordpress makes it all so much more convenient. I saw Villandry some years ago and loved it! Regards – Jack Holloway

  8. lifeshighway
    February 1, 2011

    Oh My, that is a real place. At first I thought it might have been a Escher painting. Totaling mind boggling in its complexity. I would love to be able to see this garden. You are indeed fortunate.

  9. lula alvarez
    February 1, 2011

    I agree with you that winter offers a better perspective, full vegetation is missing, to admire the design of the garden. Your photos are very descriptive. I’d like to know more about this couple that were so brilliant deciding in saving this gorgeous garden, I’ll dig not it. Thank you for the story. Lula

  10. Gabriel
    February 8, 2011

    You’ve got a great blog! I’m very happy to see much interest from a Brit to the Potager du roi (among others…), where I’m going everyday to study landscape design. Such a gorgeous place.
    Looking forward to reading new articles on your great walks throughout our “patrimoine”.
    Gabriel

  11. Alice Joyce
    February 8, 2011

    Wonderfully enlightening. I enjoy taking in the bones and the winter greenery of a garden, especially one on such a grand scale.

    It’s time I revisited France!

  12. gardenmad
    September 29, 2011

    Thanks for visiting my post on Villandry, and recommending this one for more information. It was wonderful to read a little more about the design of the current garden, and I really enjoyed seeing your photos. It’s great to see the whole garden in the aerial view. I would really love to see the garden in the fall, as I love pumpkins, and I’ve seen photos of the potager with pumpkins spilling out. But every season offers something beautiful in it’s own way. Thanks again!

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This entry was posted on January 28, 2011 by in France outside Paris, Gardens, History and tagged , , , .

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