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.

Bank holiday gardening in the Loire Valley

Our Japanese Maple is enjoying the damp weather

The Bank holiday weekend has been wet, continuing the sort of weather we have been experiencing for some while now. After delighting in this much needed rain, we are all beginning to think enough is enough.

Undeterred, we decided to brave the elements and nip over to Azay- le-Rideau to check the route and the restaurants prior to our next Loire Valley Gardens Tour. Our first stop was the Chateau de La Chatonnière, tucked in a fold of countryside above the river Indre. It’s a lovely spot and a great garden; we took the opportunity on this quiet day to chat to Ahmed Azeroual, the famous head gardener of La Chatonnière who, since 1992, has been in charge of the creation and maintenance of this masterpiece. Ahmed came to La Chatonnière from Villandry, recommended by proprietor Robert Carvallo.. You don’t get a better reference than that!

La Chatonnière viewed from the countryside

Back on the road, we drove to nearby Azay to compare restaurants and then, having made our choice for our lunch stop later in the month, continued to Villandry to see if we could arrange for the Head Gardener to speak with our visitors – tricky, but not impossible, I was told. We collected guide books and other details but turned down a free visit in the pouring rain. The return drive home passes through one of the less salubrious districts of the city of Tours and a large amount of road works. An alternative route will need to be found but wow, what a great day we are going to have!

Our Magnolia Daphne is at its peak and also enjoying the rain. Probably the best yellow magnolia so far ceated was raised by a Belgian breeder (and wealthy brewer) Philippe de Spoelberch. It is a cross between ´Miss Honeybee´ and ´Gold Crown´

The following day the sun came out and I was delighted to be able to do some gardening again. I have been planting bedding and vegetables, weeding and clearing up after the swimming pool construction gangs. Revisiting the garden after an enforced break has been a real joy, with new flowers and foliage to admire at every direction. There are treats, as plants thought not to have survived the winter are clearly recovering, but also disappointments in discovering that some of them will not be with us this year. Such is life.

Choisya Aztec Pearl has proved to be much tougher than C. ternata. Shown here flowering in our garden with Euphorbia griffithii Fireglow

Delights are everywhere and it is all so exciting that I flit from one side of the garden to another, doing a little tidying here, some weeding there and planting up a patch of ground vacated by the loss of something else. In my travels I discover that one of our Magnolias is struggling, ravaged by Vine Weevil. After finding an adult on a leaf and a grub in the ground, both killed and gloated at, drastic action was called for. Fortunately I have the answer in a packet of Nemasys nemotodes in the drawer of the fridge, next to the yoghurts.

A creamy gunge of live beast killers is mixed with water and watered over the plants: I concentrated on Rhododendrons, Camellias, Azaleas and Magnolias all of which are particularly susceptible to Vine Weavil. I understand it takes around three weeks to be effective and then the nematodes, which are naturally in the soil in small numbers, fall back to normal population levels. Having had limited success with chemical controls last year I am eagerly awaiting the results of this intervention. May next target is Chafer Grubs, for which I have another Nemasys product.