According to Jacques Boyceau in his 1638 publication, Traite du jardinage selon les raisons de la nature et de l’art, “The principal reason for the existence of a garden is the aesthetic pleasure which it gives to the spectator”. This raises an interesting question when you consider the popularity of the renaissance castle gardens at Villandry in France’s Loire Valley, whose principal and most popular attraction is its potager where spinach sits next to roses, and pear trees overlook aubergines.
Despite the potager being so appetising, Head Gardener Laurent Portuguez, agrees with Boyceau - his main concern is to satisfy visitors’ aesthetic demands. But this stance is not without its problems. Moving the humble vegetable from the edible, into the elevated realm of an aesthetic normally reserved for flowers, confuses some of his visitors. He notes, “Often visitors are offended that the vegetables are grown to been seen; and that they are thrown away like the flowers once they wilt. Food has become sacred. We do give produce to visitors, but still we get some confusion with regards to the vegetables”. Portuguez’s aesthetic concerns, as well as the need to satisfy growing visitor expectations, have lead to some interesting planting choices. The potager is mostly composed of fruits and vegetables; and the modest cabbage, which has become a big hit year on year, receives prominent garden space.
With several gardens spanning 9 hectares, and over 250,000 flowers and vegetables planted annually, Villandry is a complicated and challenging operation. Akin to a fashion show with “two collections each season, the garden planted once in the spring and re-arranged for the summer, before giving way to the dormant season”, Portuguez has introduced management systems in order to streamline workloads. Now the elaborate tasks of planning, watering, planting, and archiving of previous collections are all assisted by computer programming. Much of the work at Villandry is also done onsite. The vegetables are grown in the castle’s three greenhouses all the way from seed to plant.
A student of environmental protection and horticulture, one of Portuguez’s key reforms since starting at Villandry in 2009 has been to establish an organic garden. His motto, “Observe to anticipate and anticipate to avoid using chemical treatments” has resulted in the transformation of gardening practices, with his team using traditional weeding techniques, organic fertilisation and natural pesticides to maintain the beauty and integrity of Villandry.