Gardens of the Loire Valley

The great river Loire traces a slow journey through France and along its banks some of the very finest gardens in Europe have been made. Come with us on a leisurely tour.

Words & Pictures: Dawn Isaac

Joachim Carvallo, Spanish-born doctor and medical researcher, was not enamoured by the garden he saw at Villandry in 1908. He sniffily described it as ”landscaped in the English style” - which we can safely assume was not intended as a compliment.

Medicine was all but forgotten as Joachim spent the rest of his life restoring the chateau and recreating its Renaissance kitchen gardens with old plans, written descriptions and archaeological clues as his guides. Thankfully, he had the good sense to marry an American heiress - an invaluable asset for any early 20th century Grand Designs project.

As far as edible gardening goes, the beds and borders of Villandry you can see today are as far from a ‘make-do-and-mend’ allotment space as it’s possible to imagine. And the high standards are not just aesthetic. In 2009 Henri Carvallo, Joachim’s grandson and the current owner, took the anything-but-small decision
to become organic. Combine the ‘no chemicals’ rule with miles of gravel paths and you will have an inkling of the dedication shown by the gardening team. This is not veg growing for the faint-hearted.

Beyond the veg

Château de Villandry

Although world renowned for it’s ornamental potager, Villandry is much more than just a mecca for edibles. Climb up the belvedere or the chateau’s tower and you will get the best view of the intricately clipped, hedge-lined parterres. These use box and yew to create two different ‘salons’ - one celebrates music, whilst the other showcases crosses and represents four types of love: from the passionate to the downright flighty.

Villandry also harbours an impressive water garden: a sunken space carved out of the landscape with an enormous pool fashioned after a Louis XV mirror. This and the other connecting ponds also serve as a reservoir for irrigating the rest of the gardens.

And, perhaps mindful of the need to replant the entire vegetable garden twice a year, Henri has shown an understandable interest in bringing more perennial and shrub planting to Villandry. The colour themed mixed borders in the Sun and Cloud Chambers mean a visit to this garden adds up to far more than some coiffured fennel and regimented rhubarb.

A garden of terraces

Chateau de Valmer

Alix de Saint Venant the current Countess of Valmer is a biologist and garden designer, a fact that explains her hands on approach to developing and tending the extensive grounds.

The layout of the gardens is dictated by its eight different levels of terraces which make the most of the hillside terrain. You arrive at the Terrace of the Devants - the forecourt - and then pass into the Florentine Terrace where the original chateau once stood. Destroyed by fire in 1948, its position is now marked by yew hedges in a poignant merging of architecture and landscape. What you see behind is ‘Petit Valmer’ - a smaller chateau build in the mid 17th century.

Ascend from here and you reach the Upper Terrace which is devoted to a clipped hornbeam labyrinth and offers the best opportunity to see the full layout of the gardens as well as the surrounding vineyards. Walk downwards instead and you enter the Terrace of Léda (pictured) which has been restored to its 17th century design. The borders are planted to withstand the dry and challenging soil conditions at Valmer with gaura and lavender nestling in front of the grapevine-covered walls.

Green architecture

Chateau de Valmer

With steep drops between terraces, Valmer could easily become dominated by its towering walls. Instead these are broken up by yew buttresses which manage to give both shape and softness to the backbone of stone.

On the Terrace of Anduzian Vases (pictured) the clipped yews are interspersed with the subtle pink of fan trained Lagerstroemia indica ‘Soir d’Eté’ (crepe myrtles) with santolina and rosemary bushes at their base.

The buttresses appear again in the dry moat which is reached via a 15th century spiral staircase romantically hidden beneath a clipped yew tree on the Terrace of Léda. Here they punctuate the 15 metre tall walls and also tie together the two sides which are otherwise divided by their opposing aspects - one in full shade, the other bathed in sun.

Alix has used this to her advantage, making the shaded wall home to her collection of plants from the hydrangea family including climbing Schizophragma hydrangeoides, Pileostegia viburnoides and Decumaria sinensis and bush species such as Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’, Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ and Hydrangea aspera subsp. sargentiana.

Not just any kitchen garden

Chateau de Valmer

The walled vegetable garden, restored in 2000, covers a hectare of ground. Set out following a 15th century classical design, it divides the space into four squares with a circular pool at their centre. The main path wraps around this central feature before leading onto a vast 17th century gate which opens out to the valley beyond.

Even taking into account its sizeable proportions, Valmer’s kitchen garden grows a staggering variety of crops - including many heirloom varieties. An impressive 1000 different species are sown each year and over 3000 are freeze-preserved as seeds by the estate.

As well as vegetables, Valmer grows a wide range of fruit. The heat of the surrounding walls help ripen peaches, nectarines, figs, Japanese pears and apples whilst space is also given over for varieties of blackcurrants, redcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries. And behind lines of pleached hornbeams there are beds of nectar-rich flowers which draw in beneficial insects.

If you are visiting the chateau in late summer or autumn you should also venture to the neighboring terrace where you will find the 100 metre long chestnut and bamboo pergola draped in gourds.

Chateau de Chenonceau

Chenonceau has had more than its fair share of excitement. It has been owned by a King, a Cuban millionaire and Georges Sands’ grandmother, played host to Voltaire, Rousseau and other leaders of the Enlightenment and even provided an escape route to free France from Nazi occupied areas in the Second World War. But it is Chenonceau’s role in an historic female power struggle that has most influenced its gardens.

The chateau was gifted by Henry II to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers in 1547 in a romantic gesture which underlined an absolute monarch’s superior present-buying powers. Diane lavished attention on Chenonceau adding flower and vegetable gardens set out in a pattern of eight triangles to the right of the chateau. But when Henry died in 1559 his widow and regent Catherine de’ Medici had other ideas and forced Diane to undertake a historic house swap, exchanging Chenonceau for her inferior Chateau Chamont. To add salt to the wound, she then developed her own gardens, this time to the left of the chateau and generally outdid and outspent Diane as only a woman scorned could.

The rivalry is still played out today, with the two gardens purposefully planted in contrasting colour themes.

Cutting gardens extraordinaire

Chateau de Chenonceau

As the second most visited Chateau in France after Versailles, Chenonceau has a certain standard to maintain. Part of this involves each of its many rooms being decorated twice weekly with fresh flower arrangements. Thankfully, the in house florists have access to one of the most impressive cutting gardens you will ever see.

Where once vegetables were the order of the day, now 10,000 square metres is dedicated to flower growing. From eye searing celosias to elegant lilies, towering delphiniums and impressive amaranthus, there is an embarrassment of floral riches all exquisitely labelled on hanging slate signs.

You may even chance upon a florist creating a new centrepiece in their workshop which you’ll find in the 16th century farm’s courtyard. Here the walls are lined with jars and baskets of artistic embellishments

Rivau and the wonderful Potager de Gargantua

Chateau de Rivau

There is something just a little bit Disney about Chateau de Rivau. Not only do the Medieval white tufa towers speak of impossibly long plaits and spinning wheels but unlike many of the region’s gardens, the grounds at Rivau are geared to family visits.

Children can dress as knights and princesses for the day before exploring the 14 gardens, all based on fairy tales and literature.

The first of these is the Gargantua vegetable garden (pictured) in the outer courtyard of the Chateau. Once the stomping ground of royal war horses, some even used by Joan of Arc, this is now home to a series of enormous raised chestnut edged beds and, more incongruously, a giant tunnelling mole.

A late summer visit sees the potager at its peak, with the beds crammed full of richly coloured dahlias, colossal cabbages, architectural artichokes and, most noticeably, squash. Swan necked gourds dangle from the octagonal stone drinking trough, miniature pumpkins decorate the tops of walls, baskets of gourds nestle in nooks and squash-based animal sculptures stalk through the beds. You will even find welcome messages and smiling faces carved into the still-growing pumpkins.

Rivau - through the looking glass

Chateau de Rivau

Patricia Laigneau is the woman behind the gardens at Du Rivau. Since she and her husband Eric bought the chateau two decades ago she has used her passion for contemporary art to help populate the grounds with sculptures.

Many pieces reflect the themes of the individual gardens such as a looking glass (pictured) through which Alice might venture to enormous boots or a colossal red flower pot that only a giant could use. Whilst many would make Brian Sewell weep in despair, they are all perfect for enchanting and engaging children which will make them a hit with any parent.

Patricia has not stinted on plants either, many of which are planted in huge drifts or enormous blocks to add impact. Arrive in May and you will see more than 6000 irises in bloom as well as vast swathes of alliums and peonies. In June the collection of 450 old rose varieties fill the Cassinina and Love Potion gardens with incredible scent whilst in the late summer the dahlias and ornamental grasses come into their own.