Today I was going to faire d’une pierre deux coups (hit two targets with one stone). The Château de Valmer was not only a Jardin Remarquable, it was also a producer of one of the most prestigious Appelations Contrôlés of the Loire – Vouvray.
And for someone who is crazy about Italian gardens, an added inducement was that the gardens – 5 hectares of them – were inspired by the Renaissance gardens of Italy. Since it was still early, I decided to save the dégustation for the end of my visit.
Valmer is in the ‘Upper Loire’, the most north-eastern part of the Loire wine-making region. The soil here is predominantly limestone, which is good not only for producing excellent wines, but also for digging tunnels like those I mentioned in ‘Elsie’s Garden’, as well as caves (wine cellars). At Valmer, where you would expect to find a few caves carved out of the soft rock, aka tufa, instead there is a rare Chapelle Troglodytique.
According to the info sheet I was given at the ticket office, it was commissioned by the head of the king’s household in 1524. I would have preferred it if the writers had left out some of the descriptive details and had instead included some idea as to why the king’s servant had decided to go to the trouble of building an underground chapel. Apart from the moss, it looked like many above-ground chapels I had seen and just as beautiful.
Back to ground level and the 21st century was a strange sight. If you go back two photos, just to the left of the entrance to the chapel you will see a section of severely clipped yews. Rather bizarre, but then you realize there are more of them. I really don’t like reading these info sheets when I’m visiting a garden, but now and then…
The yews represent, identically, the footprint of the original chateau which was destroyed by fire in 1948. The openings are the windows. This was obviously not a garden that lent itself to intuitive exploration.
The area I was now looking over was the ‘Moat’. Visitors were encouraged to view this garden, planted in 1979, from ground level. The only problem was, I couldn’t see how to get down there. Back to the info sheet.
Apparently you went down a curieux espalier à vis (spiral staircase), vintage 15th century. And where was the entrance to this staircase? Hidden in the giant yew in the corner of the Terrace of Leda.
There was one more garden I wanted to see, the potager, which by now had become my favourite part of these castle gardens. It was clear that this was the real thing. The elegant layout was inspired by – what else? – classic Renaissance gardens.
All along the wall an assortment of fruit trees – nectarines, apricots, apples, pears – are trained contre-espalier. At the other corner was a larger tower, where the gardener once lived. Next to it was a curious little structure.
A sheet on the stump explained how to set up your Bug House and what locataires (tenants) to expect.
The list describes the aménagements you should provide for nine groups of ‘tenants’, beginning with chrysopes – Chrysoperla for the experts, Lacewing for the rest of us (it isn’t just Italian gardeners who have it so easy with those Latin names!). They like a red box filled with packing fibres with a few slits; for the bourdons (various types of bees), you need a box with a hole 10mm in diameter – and don’t forget the ‘flight board’ for landing and taking off! I was surprised to see forficules on the list of desired lodgers. I wasn’t aware the earwig had any redeeming value. But the carabe was the biggest surprise of all. Welcome the beetle?! The ravager of roses and lawns? The destroyer of elm, ash and spruce trees? Curious, I did a bit of research on this one.
It turns out that when it comes to beetles we want to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are some good ones too! Am I the only one who wasn’t aware of this? In French the good beetles are called carabes and the bad ones scarabées (un-beetles). The good beetles – one is even called la carabe jardinière – are carnivores. They gorge on aphids, snails and slugs. Luckily for them – and consequently for us gardeners too – their days of undeserved ignominy appear to be coming to an end, as their real role as beneficial participants in the biodiversity of our gardens becomes better known. Note: in case a hedgehog starts eating all your good carabes, give it some cat food – just make sure it’s the good stuff, with lots of protein. Hedgehogs are lazy. When it comes to choosing between food they have to chase after and food that just sits there waiting for them, the hedgehog is not too choosy.
Closer to home, Mark Cullen recently extolled the benefits of the ‘Bug Hotel’ (Toronto Star (August 23, 2014). Since, as he explains, 99% of the insects in our gardens are beneficial, we should welcome them. Build them a hotel. Just make sure it isn’t too ‘sanitized’. Bugs, like nature – and life – like things a bit on the messy side.