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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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When Louis XIV decided in 1678 that he wanted a potager (kitchen garden) near his palace in Versailles, where he could bring visitors to admire the abundant produce, the site chosen was unpromising marshland, known as l’étang puant, or the stinking pond. Five years of work and perhaps a million francs later, the plot had been drained and new fertile soil brought in by means of an ingenious machine from the nearby Satory hills.

Potager du Roi 9

Master architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart constructed imposing walls and terraces on the site. Then royal gardener Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie laid out the potager in a classically geometric pattern, with a grand circular fountain surrounded by 16 square vegetable beds. Arranged around this central area were 29 separate fruit tree gardens. A gilded gate provided access directly from the palace gardens.

Potager du Roi 2The royal gardeners experimented with new varieties of fruit and vegetables, and the latest flavours were much discussed at court. In 1696, Mme de Sévigné was to write that “the craze for peas shows no sign of abating; the impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the joy of eating them again; for the last four days these have been our princes’ only topics of conversation.”Potager du Roi 8

Presided over by the eighteenth century Saint Louis cathedral, the garden is today part of the National School of Landscape Architecture, and remains recognisably the potager created for the Sun King.

Potager du Roi 1Last weekend was a celebration of the Saveurs du Potager (“Flavours of the Kitchen Garden”), with guided tours, tasting games for children, stalls selling fruit and vegetables from the gardens and artisanal produce, and displays of traditional juice pressing and bee-keeping.

Potager du Roi 3

Potager du Roi 4The gardens are lovely, with some 5000 trained pear and apple trees providing beautiful divisions between the various sections.

There were late summer perennials in full flower, a fun maze made of sweetcorn and sunflowers for the kids, and much evidence of a respect for wildlife, from this lovely insect house to a sign explaining that a path was closed off because of the presence of a solitary bee colony.

Potager du Roi 5

Be warned that the potager is not primped and perfect like the one at Villandry: there is evidence of work-in-progress by the students who today get to practise in the plots; some of the areas were uncultivated or rather untidy; while fat geese honked and charged around rather appealingly in one space at the back. But it was still a good place to visit on a warm October day, and a chance to mark the end of summer harvests and the arrival of chill autumn.

Potager du Roi 6

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rainbows and daisesrainbows and daisiesAt one of the side entrances to l’Eglise Saint Germain des Prés in the 6th arrondissement are four little box-edged flower beds. This summer, one of them is thickly planted with rainbow-stemmed swiss chard, pink cosmos and dahlias. (There are also some rather unnecessary, straggly standard roses.)

My daughter and I stood for a few moments on Saturday to admire the planting. The chard was translucent in the sunshine. Even in the short time we were there, several other people also stopped and commented on the display, noting admiringly that the leaves were edible as well as beautiful.

It was a tiny space, a few annuals, and a delightful moment.

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St Jean de BeauregardToday is the first day of the Chelsea Flower Show and each year we become rather wistful, thinking about the wonderful show gardens, and indeed about our own little plot back in England. The French don’t really have an equivalent to Chelsea. But many chateaux run fine plant shows, like the well-known Journée des Plantes at Courson, and the equally lovely Fêtes des Plantes at the Domaine Saint-Jean de Beauregard. We were there last autumn, admiring the many heirloom vegetable plants, the variety of herbs on offer and the beautifully presented perennials. One stand offered 23 different varieties of echinacea.

There is also a fine seventeenth-century potager, apparently tended by a single gardener, which is beautiful in autumn’s gold and russet tones. The next fête runs from 24th to 26th September.


St Jean de Beauregard

St Jean de Beauregard

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