Wednesday, 17 August 2011


One of the many things I love about travelling through France is the breakfast. I spend a lot of the night before looking forward to it and this one was typical.  Good coffee, good bread, home made compote  and a piece of prune tart, sitting in the scented garden serenaded by several songbirds.  Later I took a walk along the River Cher whiling away the time until the Bois Richeux opened.

The view from the end of the garden towards the chateau

This garden is fairly small and confined to a coutyard bounded on two sides by a very old chateau.  It is organised into three checkerboard patterns. The garden of ‘simples’ containing medicinal plants like meadowsweet, plantain, thyme and marigold and bordered by thick rounded box hedging. The aromatic gardens for herbs and plants used in perfumery including roses, lavender, myrtle and bergamot, edged with old grey stones. Finally the ‘hortus’  or kitchen garden -vegetable beds edged with osier. There is a hornbeam cloister leading from the ‘room of love’ to the ‘room of meditation’.  It would have been sad to have missed Bois Richeux.


There is also a very good salesman who managed to sell me some expensive pefume made from the herbs grown here.  Actually it is interesting –smelling of lavender and roses with a hint of something resin’ish like Juniper.  I was happy to pay for the privilege of having the garden to myself – the group must have turned up after I had gone.

The chateau of Chaumont Sur Loire

Then a long drive to Chaumont sur Loire and the garden festival, which I have seen almost every year since it started in 1992. It is essentially a liason between architects,garden designers and and artists. There is a different theme each year and this year the theme was conservation, so many more plants were used.  Some years you find that plants are almost secondary to artefacts – as you often do at Chelsea, but not his year. As you approach the festival area, there are long thin sun ray beds, some using blues and silver and some using pinks and purples with  small shrubs perennials, grasses and annuals in wavy formation reminding me of Monet’s summer planting. although slightly more organised than that.

One of the ribbon beds outside the main festival area

There is always attention given to growing things at this festival and it is no different this year.  There are many kinds of mulches used around vegetables – shells, corks, offcuts of all sorts of materials.  Also quite a few concept ‘gardens’ illustrating the theme, but not ‘gardens’ in the true sense of the word.  They are more precisely ‘artists installations’.  The artists have a sense of humour though and there were enough gardens and plants around to make it worth a look.

How to save our threatened species

I have a problem with concept ‘gardens’. They are never ‘gardens’ – the word has been abused. Concept gardens often have a theme that is as far from the old idea of gardens as  relaxing, joyful, inspiring and productive spaces as it is possible to imagine..  Why not have a separate festival of outside art installations and not try and sneak these things in as ‘gardens’ to a garden festival.  It is good to take a break from the continual barrage of war and cruelty and the celebrity hyperlife we are exposed to, and hugely disappointing to hundreds like me who go to garden festivals to see plants.  At Hampton Court last year, after half an hour of trying to understand one of these installations, i asked the artist what I was looking at.  Turned out to be an area representing Afganistan with the sandy track being the sort of road laced with IUDS that soldiers have to deal with every day.  The arch, rouigh one side and smooth  the other, represented the poverty of Afganistan against the richness of the west.  The pillars descending unevenly in height represented the number of soldiers killed in 10 successive years since the beginning of the war.  I know all this but what has it got to do with gardens?  Strange that  serious issues like this should be given space at what is essentailly a festival of plants – you know, those amazing things which grow from seeds into trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals.  Anyway the fragility of the eco system was the theme at Chaumont this year and there were some very original ways of illustrating it. There are always things to enjoy at Chaumont –  a vine growing through a dining table, or the use of painted mesh sculptures among the plants. 

Lovely ideas to fill in those bits of garden where nothing will grow or using 
artefacts like these  to highlight the form and texture of the planting

By now it was 3.30pm and pouring very chubby rain so I ducked under a large umbrella and found myself talking to a French horticultural student about vegetables.  A delightful unplanned ten minutes out of time. The rain eased and I pondered on going another thirty miles to see the biggest potager in france -Villandry -which I had seen a couple of times before.  It was late in the afternoon and I worried that it might be closed, but in the end I decided to go for it.  This is what I was in France for after all, so an hour later and still damp, I found a parking space, grabbed a coffee and walked through the familiar stone entrance.  This was the first time I had been to Villandry alone and  whether it was this or just that I was so much more interested and knowledgeable on potagers I cant say, but suddenly I saw it.  Photographs can’t do it justice.

It is an exercise in colour form and texture using box hedging, vegetables, annuals and immaculate pruning.  The garden is divided into at 7 areas.  First there is the main potager - the Renaissance kitchen garden.  This is composed of nine large squares each with different geometric patterns inside them.  These are planted with multicoloured vegetables –red cabbages, blue leeks, lime green carrot tops - and  rows of standard roses, representing the monks who used to work in those gardens.  Up a level is a love garden where the green topiary and red and pink annuals illustrate love in all its forms – tender love, passionate love, fickle love and tragic love.. although it has to be said that you have to really study these shapes to work out which is which.  Alongside that is another ‘room’ which  ‘evokes the symbolism of music.’ 

The Love and Music garden

Above that is a wood  and a water garden with a large pond surrounded by lime trees.  Walk under the wooden pergola covered with roses and vines, and you come to the ‘Sun’ garden full of exuberant perennials, and shrubs. 

There is also an apothecary garden with aromatic, culinary and medicinal herbs and all thankfully labelled. Finally, a maze completes the experience.

The Sun Garden

There are so many vegetables, it is to be hoped they get eaten at some point –I like to think the gardeners can take the less than perfect ones home for supper.

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