Posts Tagged ‘winter garden’

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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A recent post praised the January drabness of two Paris gardens. It seemed to strike something of a chord, so today I offer another place where winter is at her unassuming best.

The musée Albert Kahn is a trove of early films and photographs from around the world. Named after the wealthy French banker who commissioned the images, the museum sits on the edge of four hectares of gardens in Boulogne-Billancourt, just to the southwest of Paris. It is easily reachable from the city centre by metro or bus.

Of the museum’s distinct garden areas, the most visited is the contemporary Japanese garden. In late Spring (when I shall write more), it is dazzlingly luscious, bursting with greenery and vibrant flower colour. Later, in summer, the adjacent classical French garden is lovely, with its trained roses and fruit trees.

spruce and beechBut, in winter, it is the woodland that beckons. Inspired by forests in the Vosges, where Kahn grew up, this tiny (third of a hectare) space is a mixture of spruce, hornbeam, oak, beech and hazel. It is all mossy softness and quiet in the low January sun. While the museum’s website may trumpet the area as a mass of daffodils and foxgloves in the Spring, now everywhere is drab green and brown. The little forest is resting and waiting.


As a careful abstraction of nature, it is less dishevelled than the other two gardens I praised. There is little evidence here of decay or abandon. But in its dappled stillness, this small woodland is still a fine place to visit in mid-winter.

wooded slope

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Fashion dictates that gardens should offer year round interest. In particular, winter needs to be forced to play its part with evergreen shrubs, coloured bark, late-flowering perennials, quirkily-shaped stems, early bulbs. All must be colourful and bright and perky.

But increasingly I am inclined towards gardens that reflect the reality of nature, in its disorder, decay and death. Such places help us grasp the reproductive purpose and ready mortality of plants. In the end, perhaps, they remind us of our own mortality. The iconic essay “Systems, Signs, Sensibilities” by Catherine Howett makes the case for such an approach on ecological grounds, arguing that we need to celebrate the beauty of natural cycles and processes in designed landscapes, rather than continuing to create bland ornamental images.

Certainly I am not much interested in lurid forced flowers and shiny alien evergreens at this time of year. January feels wan and cold to me; it is bleak, lifeless, the colour of straw and trodden snow.

Gilles Clément garden

Gilles Clément gardenIt feels suitably like mid-winter in the garden at the musée du Quai Branly in the 7th. Designed by Gilles Clément, the undulating garden is apparently meant to be experienced as a contemplative journey. At this time of year (these photos are from last February) it is full of ghostly miscanthus stems, oaks with their fine tawny leaves still attached, bare soil, twiggy shrubs. The contrast between the pale wintry plants and the bravura coloured forms of Jean Nouvel’s architecture is striking.

Gilles Clément gardenThe parc de Bercy in the 12th is not one of my favourite landscapes, but the eastern end at the moment also has a charmingly quiet, slightly desolate, January feel about it. Frost has turned some exotic pink camellia flowers into a pleasing brown mush. You can also see tatty, straw-coloured miscanthus, brown buddleia seedheads, little clusters of snowberries amid rotting autumn leaves, and signs of damage by snow and wind.seedheads

Buddleia and miscanthussnowberriesWe know Spring will come, in all its brazen colour and exuberance. For now, I’m savouring the quieter charms of slumbering January.

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