The time had come, not to “talk of cabbages and kings”, as the walrus suggested to the carpenter, but to visit the last of the grand castles built along the banks of the Loire.
I had been working up to the Château de Villandry. And I wasn’t even going to tour the interior. The gardens – six of them, laid out on three terraces – are the most spectacular in the region. And the most spectacular part of all is the potager. The first picture I saw of Villandry’s famous veggie garden had been taken in the fall. The highlight at that time of year is the chou (cabbage).
Surprisingly, at least for an English speaker, the humble cabbage crops up (sorry!) quite frequently in French. Something we might describe as ‘easy as pie’ becomes ‘bête comme chou’ (simple as …) Mess up and you’ll find yourself dans les choux (in the …). And when it comes time to retire, in French you go ‘planter ses choux’ (plant your…). I’ll stop now.
In the 17th century, French garden designers needed a new garden style that could accomodate the roses of the traditional French gardens and all the strange, new vegetables that were being brought back from the New World.
They combined a few elements of the hortus conclusus, the enclosed abbey gardens of the Middle Ages (see Post – Abbey of the Good Harvest) with a few from the pleasure/power gardens of Renaissance Italy to come up with le Potager Décoratif. The Ornamental Vegetable Garden.
A checker board was the farthest thing from my mind as I wandered, aimlessly entranced, along the box-lined paths. But, as I found out later, the original design, on which the modern garden is based, was meant to create the illusion of a multi-coloured checker board. How did they do this? Like so many things that appear extraordinary at first glance, the underlying concept is surprisingly simple. The entire area is divided into nine squares of identical size, which are planted twice a year with 40 different varieties of vegetables – mainly lettuces and peas in spring; cabbages, squashes and gourds in the fall. Whoever is in charge of all this faces an enormous challenge – striking a balance between aesthetic and horticultural concerns. Not only do the vegetables have to create the spectacular patterns the garden is famous for, but they also have to be planted in periodic rotations to minimize pathogens and avoid impoverishing the soil.
In 2009 Villandry introduced ‘le jardinage bio‘. What we might call ‘environmentally friendly and sustainable gardening’. Amongst the practices listed is bêchage, which means digging up the soil. To the dismay of all the gardeners who, for years, at great peril to their backs, have religiously turned over the soil in their vegetable gardens every spring, it has recently been shown to have little or no effect. I wonder if the gardeners at Villandry still do it.
The stuff that was getting sprayed on the plants may have been environmentally friendly, but I still wasn’t keen on any of it landing on me, so I decided to head up to the belvedere for an overhead view.
The parterre by the base of the wall was a hive of activity. As in the gardens of Tuscany I’d visited the year before, it looked like May was boxwood trimming season here too.
In a few weeks most of these plants would be dug up and replaced with summer and fall plants. As beautiful as it was in May, the photos I’d seen of the spectacular show created by the ornamental cabbages and squashes and gourds in fall made me wonder if Villandry might be one of those rare gardens that are just as beautiful later in the season.
About this time I began to wish I’d had more than my usual croissant et café for breakfast. Visits to this place should really come with an advisory, like those travel alerts. Something along the lines of ‘Warning! Enter at your own risk, or at least on a full stomach. You may be here for a very long time’.
The Jardin d’Ornement, the Ornamental or Embroidery Garden, aka the Garden of Love, is divided into four sections.
The annuals had yet to add their bit, so I had to consult the guide to figure out what was going on in the other three sections. As in real life, here were themes which, despite being all too familiar, remain essentially incomprehensible – passionate, fickle and tragic love.
Eventually I left the drama of the Love Gardens for a calmer part of the garden. The greenhouses.
While interesting, even the most ardent horticulturalist would have difficulty describing the greenhouses as attractive, so it seemed normal that they would be located, more or less out of sight, in this remote corner. But I was surprised to see another building close by. What was such a lovely little structure doing here?
Built in the 18th century, it is called l’Audience. Here the Marquis de Castellane would give audience to the farmers and peasants who worked on his land. By the time I reached the bottom of the slope, a tour group had arrived. A tour group with its very own Marquis and consort.
Time for me to check out the rest of the gardens.
The Jardin d’Eau is surrounded by a cloître de tilleuls (cloister of lime trees).
Just when you think you’re almost done, that there can be nothing else to stop you in your tracks, you come to the latest addition to Villandry’s splendours – the Jardin du soleil.
Even for someone who is not fond of orange (it’s actually my least favourite colour) the garden was beautiful. I only left when I saw the ‘Marquis’ and his entourage approaching.
There were still two more things to look at in order to declare one had ‘done’ the gardens – a labyrinth and a garden of ‘simples’.
Within seconds of my taking this photo, total pandemonium broke out. The kids started running and screaming all over the place. The teachers looked at me apologetically and did their best to corral the pent-up energy of their young charges. I wasn’t all that surprised. Even I, who had quite a few decades on les jeunes, was beginning to feel the effect of all the sensory stimulation.
I decided to skip the labyrinth. Besides, I had already visited the most spectacular labyrinth in Europe in the gardens of Villa Pisani in northern Italy. Leaving the screams of delight behind, I passed by a number of posters. I was pleasantly surprised. So much of French pedagogy – and Italian too – is terribly dry. Ponderous. Laden with details. But these had just the right amount of information for the setting. Like the amuse-bouches, the small, always delightful, complimentary appetizers offered at some restaurants, they presented just the tiniest tidbits of history and horticulture. And left you eager for more.
Bolstered by the thought that there was just one more garden to be looked at and then I could go, conscience clear, look for somewhere to eat, I made my way to the incongruously named jardin des simples. In Italy I’d encountered the same thing – giardino dei semplici. These ‘simples’ were herbs. Aromatic, culinary and medicinal herbs.
The layout was so stunning it was hard to give more than a cursory glance to the poor ‘simples‘. There was, however, an even bigger problem with the Jardin des simples. It overlooked the potager.
Not for the first time I was glad to be on my own. I’m sure I would have driven even the most patient companion crazy, as I went back and forth, looking at it from different angles. Taking ‘just one more shot’. Again and again. It was only because I was crevée de faim – (a pneu crevé is a flat tire; faim is hunger; you get the general idea) that I finally dragged myself away.
There was just one last hurdle between me and lunch. The gift shop was an easy pass, but right by the exit were the most exquisite roses for sale.