The Art of the Garden

Jardins de Villandry – 15 July 2014

garden overview

The gardens of Chateau du Villandry are enormous, elaborate and extensively documented. The Potager (Vegetable Garden) is a mecca for garden tourists—of which I am one, let’s face it, with my camera perpetually attached to my chest like a third arm. I was warned by others who have gone before me that I would be disappointed, but it was more of a sense of adequately fulfilled expectation—no more, no less. Except, that is, for the Water Garden.

I am not normally a proponent of water features beyond the functional swimming pool. They are typically contrived and ill-conceived, inserted haphazardly into landscapes to invoke a false sense of calm, interest or relationship to nature. (Fake ponds and waterfalls being the worst offenders.) They are expensive to construct and difficult to maintain and are often left to become putrid mosquito-breeding grounds. But the Water Garden at Villandry challenged my deeply-held, long-standing bias—not to the point of total conversion, but certainly to respectful exception.

As the source of the moat surrounding the Chateau and reservoir of irrigation for its gardens, the large central reflecting pool takes advantage of its functions with its form—sort of a square with an arced cap. Four circular fountains are symmetrically and geometrically arranged on either side of the pool. Panels of grass divided by gravel paths are punctuated by perfectly round boxwood in square planters. The entire picture is framed by perilously steep lawn plinths, topped with pleached lindens. The repetition of simple forms—squares and circles—and minimal palette of materials is intensely graphic and remarkably modern. With only a few deliberate strokes, this garden makes a dramatic statement that demands respect of even the most doubtful.

The Water Garden feeds the moat surrounding the castle.

The Water Garden feeds the moat surrounding the castle.

 

An (almost) overview of the Water Garden

An overview of the Water Garden

Tall, steep lawn plinths surround the Water Garden on three sides, allowing an elevated view and creating the sunken effect.

Tall, steep lawn plinths (glacis in French, I have learned) surround the Water Garden on three sides, allowing an elevated view and creating the sunken effect.

A shallower--but equally precise--slope defines the reflecting pool.

A shallower–but equally precise–slope defines the reflecting pool.

Circular fountains are aligned along either side of the reflecting pool.

Circular fountains are aligned along either side of the reflecting pool.

Round boxwoods in square pots anchor the corners while maintaining simplicity of form.

Round boxwoods in square pots anchor the corners while maintaining simplicity of form.

The circular fountains are plainly edged with brick.

The circular fountains are plainly edged with brick.

 

A minimal palette of color and material gives an "antique" garden a modern feel.

A minimal palette of color and material gives an “antique” garden a modern feel.

The lawn-gravel combination is highly graphic.

The lawn-gravel combination is highly graphic.




Chateau de Valmer – 13 July 2014

Even in France, where centuries of history are respectfully recorded and remarkable gardens are classified and subsidized by the government, Landscape Architects often go uncredited. Perhaps they are unknown, or the information is deemed unimportant by the brochure writers (unless it was a “biggie” like Le Notre or the Duchenes.) But to those who are looking and know the signs, the influence of a talented—if forgotten—LA are unmistakable: defined axial layouts, close ties to architecture, consideration of views, manipulation of slopes, proportion of spaces and harmonious details. Such spirit and intent is evident at Chateau de Valmer, where the landscape maintains its strength despite the passage of four hundred years and the loss of its anchoring structure.

Aerial view of the garden as found on the Chateau de Valmer website

Aerial view of the garden as found on the Chateau de Valmer website

Persisting since the 17th century, the gardens at Valmer are carved into a hill that overlooks a valley of Vouvray vines. Walls are masterfully imposed onto the site to create the underlying structure, and long axes emanate from the (existing or implied) architecture and reach out their arms to incorporate views of the surrounding rural landscape. Each space possesses a distinct character, with their function and level of formality defined by their proximity to the primary structure. Details—curves, in this case—are inspired by the architecture and repeated throughout the garden in various iterations, all of which conspire to create consistency. It is the signature of a focused mind and a true talent, even if his identity remains a mystery.

The service court, further from the house and therefore less formal, is simply defined by lawn and gravel paths.

The service court, further from the house and therefore less formal, is simply defined by lawn and gravel paths.

The north-south axis extends from the front door of the house through the Florentine and Service terraces and through the gate and an allee of Chestnuts that once marked the main entry.

The north-south axis extends from the front door of the house through the Florentine and Service terraces and through the gate and an allee of Chestnuts that once marked the main entry.

The reverse-view of the north-south axis, looking back towards the house. Yew hedges represent the first floor and windows of the house, which was destroyed by fire in 1948.

The reverse-view of the north-south axis, looking back towards the house. Yew hedges represent the first floor and windows of the house, which was destroyed by fire in 1948.

The arcs of the balustrade inspire the curves present throughout the garden.

The arcs of the balustrade inspire the curves present throughout the garden.

The moat separating the service court from the house area is now filled with garden plantings of shade-tolerant hydrangeas and yew buttresses.

The moat separating the service court from the house area is now filled with garden plantings of shade-tolerant hydrangeas and yew buttresses.

The Florentine terrace, oriented along the north-south axis anchored by two Italian fountains, is closer to the house and more formal. (French gardens of this time frequently referenced Italian Renaissance gardens, as the Italians were the creators of the concept of formal landscape design.)

The Florentine terrace, oriented along the north-south axis anchored by two Italian fountains, is closer to the house and more formal. (French gardens of this time frequently referenced Italian Renaissance gardens, as the Italians were the creators of the concept of formal landscape design.)

The centerline of the east-west axis is drawn from the chapel, a relic from 1524.

The centerline of the east-west axis is drawn from the chapel, a relic from 1524.

The east-west axis continues along the upper terrace adjacent to the "house," through the Terrace of Leda and the Potager.

The east-west axis continues along the upper terrace adjacent to the “house,” through the Terrace of Leda and the Potager.

The curving detail is repeated even in the stairs down from the main house.

The curving detail is repeated even in the stairs down from the main house.

The Terrace of Leda is oriented along the east-west axis and is the transitional garden between the house and the Potager.

The Terrace of Leda is oriented along the east-west axis and is the transitional garden between the house and the Potager.

The circular theme continues in the center of the Terrace of Leda.

The circular theme continues in the center of the Terrace of Leda.

The Potager along the east-west axis, anchored by a fountain that repeats the circular theme.

The Potager along the east-west axis, anchored by a fountain that repeats the circular theme.

A literal definition of "Landscape Architecture"--buttresses formed of yew

A literal definition of “Landscape Architecture”–buttresses formed of yew

View through the Potager looking back towards the house, illustrating the stairs and walls that structure the landscape.

View through the Potager looking back towards the house, illustrating the stairs and walls that structure the landscape.

The gate at the end of the Potager leads to a walk across the more modern road into the naturalistic landscape, defined by walls from the designed garden spaces.

The gate at the end of the Potager leads to a walk across the more modern road into the naturalistic landscape, defined by walls from the designed garden spaces.

Escargot... Time for lunch.

Escargot… Time for lunch.

 

 

Les Jardins du Prieure d’Orsan – 11 July 2014

sunflowers

I have made two new friends in my travels: Sabine, my French-speaking GPS, who patiently and reliably directs me along barely-paved roads through fields of sunflowers to the most remote locations; and Serendipity, who is apparently the one actually organizing this trip, while I am merely financing it. Between the three of our contributions, it is assured that I not only show up to each garden but also take from them a series of compounded lessons based upon some divine order of experience. Chateaus Hautefort and Losse were the first test of my appreciation for Serendipity’s intervention. And now the disappointment of Manoir d’Eyrignac has been transformed by my visit to Prieure d’Orsan, clarifying my (previously snarky) criticism of the former and solidifying my respect for the latter.

Considering only their representations of form and requirements of maintenance, Orsan and Eyrignac are superficially similar. But Orsan possesses the elusive quality of appropriateness—the sense that the garden belongs to and enhances its setting, inextricably linking them so that one cannot be imagined without the other. The bits and pieces that comprise the variously themed rooms of Eyrignac seem to have been plucked from time, imagination and geographical region and reconfigured into well-organized, impressively detailed but ultimately unrelated gardens. Even the somewhat modest Manor House seems out of place with the grandeur surrounding it. All of the elements combine and compete, resulting in a cacophony of visual noise. Orsan, on the other hand, sings like a well-conducted choir.

The gardens of Prieure d’Orsan are set within the u-shaped frame of a 12th century monastery (now a hotel.) The elaborate geometry of the courtyard simplifies as it becomes orchards and then frames of trees around fields, transitioning gently into the farmland surrounding it.  The gardens were designed and cared for by the monks who lived there, to nourish both their bodies and spirits. There is symbolic purpose to every element—from the overall arrangement of spaces to the individual plants that compose them. The extravagant levels of maintenance required to keep the hedges pruned, espaliers trained and trees pleached were performed gladly and respectfully in an effort to strengthen their relationship with God. The garden is both modest and grand, transforming simple materials into impressively intricate structures and employing scale and repetition to inspire a sense of quiet awe and deep serenity. It is form that follows function, in one of its oldest iterations and highest aspirations.

The entrance to the garden, with a tower and fence of hornbeam

The entrance to the Prieure d’Orsan, marked by a tower and fence of hornbeam

The heart of the garden is a fountain flanked by benches formed of willows. Water is, of course, central to Christianity's tenets of baptism and purification.

Representing the importance of water to Christianity as a symbol of baptism and purification, the heart of the garden is a fountain flanked by benches formed of branches.

The four planted quadrants surrounding the fountain are planted with chenin blanc grape vines, the wine from which the monks used in Communion. The grape vines are aligned with the hornbeam-arched walk surrounding the space, reflecting the importance of order even in the smallest details.

The four planted quadrants surrounding the fountain are planted with chenin blanc grape vines, the wine from which the monks used in Communion. The grape vines are aligned with the hornbeam-arched walk surrounding the space, reflecting the importance of order even in the smallest details.

The arches of the grapevines are repeated in the arches of the hornbeams

The arches of the grapevines are repeated in the arches of the hornbeams.

Pew-like forms are carved into the sides of the hornbeam arches

Pew-like forms are carved into the sides of the hornbeam arches.

The hornbeam-arched paths around La Coeur evoke their architectural equivalent as found in churches

The hornbeam-arched paths around the fountain and grapevines within evoke their architectural equivalent as found in cloisters.

The beds of the Parterre are cross-shaped.

Outside the Cloister, the beds of the Parterre are cross-shaped.

More hornbeam artistry, as they are formed into windows at one end of the Parterre.

More hornbeam artistry, as they are formed into windows at one end of the Parterre.

A triangular doorway is carved into a hornbeam hedge and reflected in the rustic roof overhead.

A triangular doorway is carved into a hornbeam hedge and reflected in the rustic roof overhead.

Benches are nestled within the hedges to provide opportunities for repose.

Benches are nestled within the hedges to provide opportunities for repose.

Through another arched opening, a church is constructed out of the same branches and signifies the entrance to the rose garden, which is a tribute to the Virgin Mary.

Through another arched opening, a church is constructed out of the same branches and signifies the entrance to the rose garden, which is a tribute to the Virgin Mary.

The paving of the rooms of the rose church is formed of hefty wood beams in the shape of a cross.

The paving of the rooms of the rose church is formed of hefty wood beams in the shape of a cross.

Roses are trained onto arch-shaped windows.

Roses are trained onto arch-shaped windows.

Another intricately carved arch of hornbeam leads to the berry garden (L'Allee des Petis Fruits).

Another intricately carved arch of hornbeam leads to the berry garden (L’Allee des Petis Fruits).

Raspberries, blackberries and blueberries grown for corporeal nourishment

Raspberries, blackberries and blueberries grown for corporeal nourishment…

As are the products of the Potager.

As are the products of the Potager.

Labyrinths were a typical element of medieval Christianity, symbolizing discovery and encouraging meditation. This one is formed with wood-beam paths lined with various forms of trained apples.

Labyrinths were a typical element of medieval Christianity, symbolizing discovery and encouraging meditation. This one is formed with wood-beam paths lined with various forms of trained apples.

At each of the four corners of the labyrinth is a domed structure formed of hornbeams--a literal representation of internal reflection.

At each of the four corners of the labyrinth is a domed structure formed of hornbeams–a literal representation of internal reflection.

At the center of the labyrinth is an apple tree whose canopy is formed into a ceiling.

At the center of the labyrinth is an apple tree whose canopy is formed into a ceiling.

The transition to farmland begins with the circular formation of pears, opposite the Labyrinth. Still graphic, it is a much less elaborate space than those preceding it.

The transition to farmland begins with the circular formation of pears, opposite the Labyrinth. Still graphic, it is a much less elaborate space than those preceding it.

A gate formed from the same twigs marks the entrance to the next orchard.

A gate formed from the same twigs marks the entrance to the next orchard.

Four pleached lindens mark the end of the courtyard and the beginning of the farmland.

Four pleached lindens mark the end of the formal courtyard and the beginning of the farmland.

Looking at the ground beneath the lindens, I noticed a circular break in the shadows...

Looking at the ground beneath the lindens, I noticed a circular break in the shadows…

A window to the Heavens above.

A window to the Heavens above.

 

 

Les Jardins du Manoir d’Eyrignac – 8 July 2014

Refining personal aesthetic often depends upon defining “dislikes” as much as “likes,” and even more importantly darkening the sometimes-thin line between the two. The gardens of Manoir D’Eryngiac check all my boxes–beautifully organized, strictly formal, primarily green, impressively sculptural and incredibly maintained. But I do not like it. And I feel terrible about it, as the intensity of my distaste is unqualified by real criticism and unwarranted by the quality of design or level of care. The best (or worst) I can say is that it is just too much. Too much pruning, too much detail, too much garden. My eyes and brain could not rest. One themed room after another. Allee over allee. Pattern upon pattern. Visual overload resulting in mental malfunction.

Entrance to the garden marked by Italian-inspired paving, an arch and columns of yew. (Are all three elements really necessary to understand the concept of "Enter Here?")

Entrance to the garden marked by Italian-inspired paving, a hornbeam arch and columns of yew. (Are all three elements really necessary to understand the concept of “Enter Here?”)

The Hornbeam Allee, formed by buttress-shaped hornbeams wrapping around columns of yew. They are pruned by hand using forms and plumb lines 4-5 times per year. (Impressive, for sure, but is the extra detail--and effort--required to carry the eye such a distance?)

The Hornbeam Allee, formed by buttress-shaped hornbeams wrapping around columns of yew. They are pruned by hand using forms and plumb lines 4-5 times per year. (Impressive, for sure, but is the extra detail–and effort–required to carry the eye for a distance?)

A detail view of the swoop of the hornbeams

A detail view of the swoop of the hornbeams

At the opposite end of the axis along the Hornbeam Allee is the Pagoda Garden, one of the few areas I almost-liked for its simplicity of materials.

At the opposite end of the axis along the Hornbeam Allee is the Pagoda Garden. (One of the few areas I almost-liked for its simplicity of materials–boxwood hedge, sand path, trees overhead.)

Bright red benches sit at the diagonal cross-arms of the Pagoda Garden. (A nicely selected and located detail, linking the design of the bench to that of the garden.)

Bright red benches sit at the diagonal cross-arms of the Pagoda Garden. (A nicely selected and located detail, linking the design of the bench to that of the garden.)

The Green Chamber of hornbeams with an arch that reflects the Entry arch opposite, intricate paving that reiterates the curve of the arches and topiary in pots flanking the path (because the path between the two arches is not enough to signify "this is the way to walk?")

The Green Chamber of hornbeams with an arch that reflects the Entry arch opposite, intricate paving that reiterates the curve of the arches and topiary in pots flanking the path. (Simply a path between the two arches is not enough to signify “this is the way to walk?”)

A window carved within the Green Chamber allows a view to the surrounding countryside.

A window carved within the Green Chamber allows a view to the surrounding countryside. (Whereas the hornbeam windows at Chateau de Losse were one detail that heightened the overall sense of intrigue, the impact here is less–the view outside not so interesting, and so many other elements within.)

More Italian-inspired paving within the Green Chamber with a petunia-filled planter in the center. (There is almost never a good reason to add petunias.)

More Italian-inspired paving within the Green Chamber with a petunia-filled planter in the center. (There is almost never a good reason to add petunias.)

The Vase Allee with yew hedges, cypress trees and yew topiaries in pots (again, are all three elements really necessary?)

The Vase Allee with yew hedges, cypress trees and yew topiaries in pots. (Again, are all three elements really necessary?)

The Manor House, with a raked-sand yard. (Ah, finally, only one color to absorb.)

The Manor House, with a raked-sand yard. (Ah, finally, only one color to absorb.)

Across from the Manor House is a fountain. And stairs. And topiary. And Dovecote. And Chapel. (So much for the eye resting.)

Across from the Manor House is a fountain. And stairs. And topiary. And Dovecote. And Chapel. (So much for the eye resting.)

The second floor of the Manor House looks onto the Jardin Francaise. (The typical boxwood pattern has been embellished with additional topiary, loops and scrolls, making it the Frenchest of the French gardens, I suppose.)

The second floor of the Manor House looks onto the Jardin Francaise. (The typical boxwood pattern has been embellished with additional topiary, loops and scrolls, making it the Frenchest of the French gardens, I suppose.)

The Miroir--reflecting pool--outside the Manor House courtyard. (I count nine types of visual elements here. And various multiples of the nine types. I am not that good at math, but this is too much for one garden.)

The Miroir–reflecting pool–outside the Manor House courtyard. (I count nine types of visual elements here. And various multiples of the nine types. I am not that good at math, but this is too much for one garden.)

The Flower Garden is hidden from view. (Thank God.)

The Flower Garden is hidden from view. (Thank God.)

The Potager has two types of paths and dozens of different types of vegetables. (Hope somebody is hungry.)

The Potager has two types of paths and dozens of different types of vegetables. (Hope somebody is hungry.)

An allee of hanging spruces separates the Potager and the Flower Garden. (Because hedges would be too simple?)

An allee of hanging spruces separates the Potager and the Flower Garden. (Because hedges would be too simple?)

The Topiary Farm (Please, no more topiary.)

The Topiary Farm (Please, no more topiary.)

The White Garden consists of elaborate boxwood hedges; white roses, petunias and gaurs; five fountains; ivy swags; and an Asian-style pergola. (Speechless.)

The White Garden consists of elaborate boxwood hedges; white roses, petunias and gauras; five fountains; climbing rose swags; and two Asian-style pergolas. (Speechless.)

The final element of the tour is the Pavilion of Rest. (Apparently, I am not the only one who was tired.)

The final element of the tour is the Pavilion of Rest. (Apparently, I am not the only one who was tired after visiting this garden.)

 

Les Jardins Suspendus du Marqueyssac – 7 July 2014

The Jardins du Marqueyssac were much anticipated, not by me so much as several of my friends who are vicariously joining me on this adventure. The rolling-folding-squirming boxwood seemed just too weird for my straight-line-right-angle taste. But this garden is one of the most famous in landscape architecture, and I am easily charmed by eccentricity.

overview

What I did not expect was to be completely confounded. Why would anyone do something so strange? And to such an extent? And in such a forbidding environment? The garden is built upon a limestone plateau, with the boxwoods clinging to the crags of rock (thus the “suspendus” portion of the name.) The plants are nearly bonsai-like in their determination to grown in inches of soil. And the man who exerted his ambition to create endless pulsing congregations of boxwoods in such an environment could only be wealthy and crazy, in equal measures. So for at least an hour I explored, my mind struggling to find a reason for this madness (other than mental illness and deep pockets.) Suddenly, a small blond girl popped through a piece of hedge, squealing with delight and startling me into recognition—this is a garden for children! She, along with her brother and sister, were like characters in their own fairy tale. Squeezing through the wormy shapes, hiding from one another (and their parents), running full-speed down the long paths, splashing in the small pools—every detail of every element was envisioned and created specifically for their pleasure. And as the cloudy morning gave way to a sunny afternoon, more children arrived, and it became clear that this garden must be in every parent’s vacation guide to France. Trying not to be envious of their innocence, I watched them experience it the way all gardens should ideally be—wondrously and fully, with imagination and no expectation of perfection.

The view from inside a boxwood fold at 5'-3"...

The view from inside a boxwood fold at 5′-3″…

Very different at 3'.

Very different at 3′.

The boxwoods are planted into the cliffs, in only a few inches of soil and are miraculously thriving.

Like dwarves waiting to pop out of the cliffs, the boxwoods are planted in only a few inches of soil and are miraculously thriving.

The esplanade is one of the more "sophisticated" spaces, though it is easy to envision children running o the lawn dodging the box balls.

The esplanade is one of the more “sophisticated” spaces, though it is easy to envision children running on the lawn dodging the box balls.

Along with playgrounds, the treehouse is one of the more obvious gestures to appeal to children (and thus unused.)

Along with playgrounds, the treehouse is one of the more obvious gestures to appeal to children (and thus unused.)

Stone porcupine sleeping in the woods.

A stone porcupine sleeps in the woods.

A cluster of stone heads are having a meeting.

A cluster of stone heads are having a meeting.

Here they come...

Here they come…

...and there they go!

…and there they go!

Standing up straight in the adult-sized arching boxwood walk.

Standing up straight in the adult-sized arching boxwood walk…

On my knees in the child-sized arching boxwood walk

And crouching on my knees in the child-sized version.

Boxwood boxes (with boy peeping over the top)

Boxwood boxes (with boy peeping over the top)

Reassuring myself that being an adult is not all bad, I had ice cream for lunch.

Reassuring myself that being an adult is not all bad, I had ice cream for lunch.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 44 other followers

%d bloggers like this: