Discovering new Loire Valley gardens

Prieuré D’Orsan

Prieuré D’Orsan, which kindly opened its doors for us.

Readers of the Garden Design Academy blog will have read that in a previous life I worked as a Royal Gardener at Windsor Palace.

For the last two weeks however, I have been teaching and touring with an active Royal Gardener: the Director of the Royal Gardens of Oman.

Staying at the Academy for a residential course on garden design and CAD, he spent time with us both in the classroom and outside in the French countryside, studying the widest possible assortment of garden styles in the Loire Valley.

Mag.Betty

Magnolias were flowering in every garden we visited – Magnolia ashei ‘Betty’

The list of gardens we viewed this trip covered five out of the six departments (counties) of the Central region of France: Apremont and the Priory of Orsan in the Cher, Bouges in our home department of the Indre. To our north in the Indre-et-Loire we visited Chenonceau, Chatonnière and Villandry then Chaumont-sur-Loire, Cheverny and Plessis Sasnières in the Loire-et-Cher. Finally we travelled up to the Loiret to the gardens of Grandes Bruyères and La Source at Orléans.

Several gardens that opened their doors to us were closed to the public and despite a very late session we were exposed to wonderful displays of Magnolias, Cherries and other flowering plants. The variety of plants grown and the extraordinary skill of the garden creators were inspiring and we did not miss the opportunity to talk with garden owners and their staff whenever possible. We discussed and debated the designs we saw, considered imperfections and design solutions, looking at depth at the thinking behind the landscapes we walked through.

Apremont

The Chinese bridge at Apremont

Of the eleven gardens we visited this trip, three were new to me and all proudly declaring their English inspiration recommended to us by the association of parks and gardens for the region.

The chocolate-box village of Apremont is officially one of the prettiest in France and reminds me of some I have seen in the English Cotswolds. The gardens in the grounds of the chateau of the Duchess of Brissac, was the work of Gilles de Brissac in the 1970’s and is very much in the English style. A series of follies animate the scene – a Chinese bridge, a belvedere, a Turkish pavilion – in a garden inspired by Sheffield Park, Biddulph Grange, Sissinghurst and the English cottage garden. Attractive planting complements impressive landscape features resulting in a very pleasing scene. We were fortunate with the weather, which was bright and warm.

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères

The gardens of Grandes Bruyères host an important collection of Magnolias which were just starting to flower amongst the last blooms of the winter flowering heathers. It was, regrettably, a little early for their other notable collection – flowering Cornus. We were guided around the woodland garden by the owner, Brigitte de La Rochefoucauld who, like her husband Bernard, speaks English beautifully. Theirs is a garden full of rarities and a wonderfully relaxing place to wander on a sunny day. Yet again, English landscapes come to mind easily here, perhaps Surrey this time, although a more French feature of clipped Box and Rose-laden pergolas is sited near the entrance and the house. The garden which today looks so peaceful and natural was carved out of the forest by the owners, who were assisted on occasions (as at Apremont) by some notable personalities of the golden age of landscaping: Russel Page and Tobie Loup de Viane.

Plessis Sasnières

Plessis Sasnières

The final recommendation was for Plessis Sasnières, which was hosting a visit by a coach load of garden designers from Russia when we arrived. The late season did not contribute to the visit but it was still a pleasure to stroll around the garden in the company of the family Labrador, who insisted I should throw a stick for him to chase all morning. I have seen pictures of the rich English herbaceous borders but we had to content ourselves with the Magnolias and the uncluttered design of this attractive landscape. Rooted in the French countryside it is nevertheless very English in tone and has been open to the public since 1996.

Malus Royalty

Malus Royalty in the ornamental kitchen garden at Chenonceau

This was the last of the gardens in our program and at the end of the visit we drove back to Vierzon for the train to Paris and for my guest his flight back to Oman. After two weeks of study and touring we were sorry to see him go but pleased to have some time to recover before the next students arrive.

The first garden show of the year and other excitements

As spring takes hold of central France the season is confirmed by a flurry of garden and plant shows, not to mention all the local spring fairs and Easter events coming up at the end of the week. Of course I have chosen now, just when life is getting busy, to go down with a flu-like bug of some sort, which has put me to bed for one whole day and ruined my sense of humour for more than a week.

A carpet of Daffodils at La Source, Orleans.

A carpet of Daffodils at La Source, Orleans.

There is no time to be ill so I have done my best to ignore it and last Friday attended a seminar with three dozen other gardeners and chateau owners at La Source, the marvellous public garden in the university district of Orleans. The subject of the day was colour theory and how it relates to the design of herbaceous and bedding plant displays. A couple of good speakers, one from parks and education and the other a plant producer, simplified a subject which is not always straightforward to explain and left the delegates eager to get to work producing new schemes for their respective towns and gardens. At La Source itself the Cherries were just starting to flower and there were huge areas of dwarf daffodils to admire.

march

A corner of the Cheverny plant fair

After another half day in bed to recover from my outing, we went to the chateau at Cheverny on Sunday for the first of the year’s plant fairs. The show is an annual charity event and well supported by both the public and the trade. As usual we bought a few plants, but not as many as I expected to. The tree surgeon we employed to care for our ancient Sequoias was on site demonstrating his skill with a chain saw, producing sculptures from huge pieces of wood, the waste from his previous weeks work maintaining trees in the park of the chateau.

Chain saw art

Chain saw art

Next weekend is Easter, with events all over the region. We have been invited to more vineyard open days than we can possibly take in and the plant fair at chateau de la Bourdaisiere. Then there is the unmissable annual Poulain Donkey Fair and a host of other events all conspiring to keep me from working in the garden, where there is so much to do!

Great gardens of France – the final day

The kitchen garden at Cheverny

There are two ways to end a concert, a play, a novel or a garden tour: with a grand, spectacular display of colour, virtuosity or pyrotechnics, or gently, softly, pulling together all the elements and laying them out for quiet review. Dare I say it? I think we achieved a bit of both on our final day of touring the gardens of the Loire Valley.

Our first port of call was Cheverny and its famous château which, unusually for such a grand French palace, is available to visit inside and full of fine furniture and art. We did the tour after visiting the gardens, starting with the potager which, for some reason, I had never seen before. This section was a marvel, a beautiful example of kitchen garden mixing traditional and modern design, with rows of vegetables and flowers artfully arranged into the prettiest garden imaginable.

Photo opportunities at the Apprentices’ Garden, Cheverny

From here we moved on to the recently constructed Apprentices’ Garden which links the château to the orangery. Again, traditional and modern design mix to make a very satisfying whole. Around the château itself was a formal garden of the most strict design imaginable, but the final and largest area was the park in the English style, featuring many fine specimen trees, a place to explore and linger – but we had to push on, with lunch time beckoning.

Chambord

The journey was definitely part of the trip today. On the way to Cheverny we drove up the old driveway, miles of perfectly straight road aimed directly at the gates and doors of the château and lined with wonderful old trees. On the way to lunch we indulged in a detour to pass the Château de Chambord, a royal palace in the centre of a vast forest, the extravagant hunting lodge and pleasure park of the kings and queens of France. Lunch was in an old inn, now serving food of great quality, in the centre of the Sologne region of forests and lakes. Here we did linger, a little too long if truth be told, but the meal was rather good!

Iris germanica hybrids at La Source

Our last garden was quite different, the gardens of La Source, on the outskirts of Orleans amid the campus of the university. The river Loiret emerges in this park after a subterranean journey from, it is thought, the River Loire some way upstream, below a fine chateau and surrounded these days by a municipal park of the highest quality. Wonderful displays and trials of Iris, roses and bedding plants are a feature of the park, which is well used by locals in addition to garden visitors from all over France and around the world. Given our late arrival we rather galloped through the gardens, which deserved more time and consideration, but enjoyed the visit nevertheless. There is hardly a formal French garden feature to be found here; we found a very large, relaxed space dotted with horticultural interest and allowing us to reflect on the huge diversity of gardens we had experienced during the week.

The rose gardens and the chateau at Orleans La Source

Marie-Chantal had arranged an informal meal for our final evening, with local wines, cheeses and other products summing up the gastronomic life of the region in which we are pleased to live. Tomorrow our gusts would need ferrying to railway stations and the clean-up would begin. The tour had been a great success, we all agreed, and we counted our blessings in having had such a great group to spend our week with, exploring some of Europes great gardens.

First cuckoo, first plant fair, first day of spring

Spring arrives officially tomorrow but here in central France the gardens and streets have been full of colour for a week or more and during our Friday (18th March) morning walk we heard our first cuckoo. Last year it was 24th while In 2009 we had to wait until 27th March. I make no comment about global warming, disasters in Japan or anything else: it is delightful to hear his call.

We have been visited by a potential student of garden design who made the long journey from Switzerland to come and see us, arriving yesterday, staying the night and leaving mid day today. A pleasant time was had by all and I hope we will be working together shortly. As well as discussing garden design courses we were pleased to show off the new classroom, our progress in the garden and the great Sauvignon Blanc wine the region produces.

Cheverny is one of the great chateaux of central France (made additionally famous for featuring in a Tintin story) and this year it is hosting the Fete des Plantes normally hosted by Chateaux de Beauregard. As the first show of the season we are looking forward to the trip, one of several we have planned for the next few months.