Can you be dazzled by vegetables? In France, indeed you can.
Villandry is one of the most famous gardens in all of France. While Monet’s Giverny may be more familiar and Versailles more historic, Villandry is more fantastic for what it does with plants. Located some three hours southwest of Paris in the Loire Valley, Villandry is best known for the carpet style bedding plants in its famous kitchen garden. Villandry dazzles you with vegetables.
My visit was in mid-September and the gardens were lush and thriving. Open 365 days a year, and it is worth a visit any day. “In the kitchen garden, each year, two planting schemes are set in place… .115,000 flowers and vegetables are planted.” (garden brochure)
March is the beginning of the spring plantings which stay in place through June. The second season is from June to November. The squares are restricted from visitors though broad walking paths allow you to get close. The12 acre kitchen garden is the lowest level of the terraced gardens. Viewed from the Chateaux tower, you fully appreciate the lines and colorful patterns punctuated with ornamental features of topiary and fountains. It is hard to describe the impact mass plantings of celery, purple basil, and cabbages can achieve. The garden is a feast for the eyes using annual vegetables planted solely for their looks and not necessarily for their place on the dining table.
Every view is spectacular. I can’t imagine how much creativity, collaboration, preparation, energy, and dedication goes into making such a garden. Signage helps you understand this remarkable artistry with the planting scheme illustrated and listing of plants used. In keeping with good gardening practices, the planting palette is carefully changed each year to avoid replanting the same vegetables in the same design in the same soil.
Yes, it is all for the show, yes, it is a business, and it has continued with the Carvallo family management for three generations. Joachim Carvallo rescued Villandry in 1906. The Chateau would become his family home, and the recreation of the historic geometric Renaissance garden would become his passion. He consulted literary sources and archeological surveys to verify the original design to guide his garden making. This project would take him 18 years.
The vegetable artistry would be enough to make the garden worth visiting, yet there is so much more. The garden is extensive, with seven defined styles taking full advantage of the sloping site terracing three levels of elaborate gardens.
The Ornamental Garden, designed to be viewed from the castle room windows, illustrates a saga of love in four squares of perfectly shaped hedges.
First comes Tender Love with heart shapes, small flames, and flirtatious masks. The vivid green boxwood shapes are planted with red and pink annuals to emphasize the passions of the heart. Love grows into Passionate Love, and the hearts break apart into a dance. Though passion may not be enough and Flighty Love represents the touch and go of changing feelings with butterflies and fans. Tragic Love (does this always follow?) is a lover’s rivalry, dueling with daggers and swords. Here red blooms signify the resulting blood. The designs are clearly defined, the patterns colorful, and pretty. Though I confess, I needed the garden brochure to help me understand the meanings.
Climbing higher, you come to the water garden with a large reflecting pond, green topiary, and a well-behaved pair of white swans. It is a lovely scene. The design of the planting imitates a Louis XV mirror. The frame is defined by gravel pathways and squares of manicured lawn. The reflecting pond is shaped just like a mirror with a curved arch atop a long rectangle. Even better is the surrounding Linden trees shading the benches placed just right for admiring the tranquil view.
There is more; a grand woodland garden rises behind the chateaux with another high viewing point as well an 18th-century pavilion set below a terrace of dahlias and summer perennials. Linden trees provide a shaded walk from one side of the garden to the other.
There is a hornbeam (hardwood tree) maze designed with no dead ends encouraging all to reach the hut in the center for spiritual insight and revelation. Trees surround a lawn tennis court. An herb garden with a grape covered arbor running the length of the Kitchen-garden. Weathered balustrades with repeating patterns of hearts and knots surround this level.
A perennial garden with mixed borders with a section named the Sun chamber with orange and yellow blooms surrounds a star-shaped lake. Both of these in late summer were fully grown, tall stalks falling into the pathways, mixing in a colorful cascade.
The garden employs ten full-time gardeners who provide attentive, constant care. Fully organic methods adopted since 2009 show excellent results. Planting, shaping, growing 1/2 of the 115,000 annual plants in the greenhouses, cleaning, hoeing weeds, and trimming day after day can only be achieved by knowledgeable, experienced gardeners. The 1,051 Linden trees, (put in single file would be to equivalent 32 miles (52km) must be pruned (pollarding) each year by a team of four gardeners. The pruning process takes seven months. This work is gardening for astonishing results. We spent the day here, walking down and around all the various gardens. We looked out from the multiple viewpoints. We saw the gardeners pruning. We watched the changing shadows as the day turned into evening. Walking away in silence and absolute awe, unable to express in words the gratitude I felt for the opportunity to see such a fantastic garden.