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I was lucky enough to visit the gardens of Chateau Villandry in the Loire region of France earlier this year.  On this trip, arranged and hosted by garden columnist Steve Whysall and his wife Loraine, we visited many beautiful gardens, and I’m often asked which one was my favorite.  Tough question, as different gardens evoked different responses.  My first view of Villandry, however, was almost like a religious experience.  It was early in the morning, and we were one of the first groups to enter the garden.

At the entrance, we entered a high sided stone corridor beside the château, and climbed up a fairly elevated walkway so when we first set sights on the garden, we were viewing it from above. On this bright, sunny, perfect morning, Villandry was truly awe-inspiring. The impressive precision of the topiaries, boxwood parterres and vegetable potages was surreal.

Everything was immaculately kept, and the initial perfection of the garden literally took my breath away.  Our group gathered up on the belvedere to view the landscape below.  On closer inspection it was obvious that the groundskeepers were already hard at work.  We had just missed the spring plantings, and the faded bulbs were being torn out of the parterres to ready them for summer flowers, and the boxwood topiaries and hedges were being meticulously groomed.  The elevated walkway was in the morning shade, so it was cool and fresh, yet the sun was shining gloriously on the garden below, shadows making everything look extra sharp, crisp and in focus.

The gardens of the Chateau de Villandry are one of France’s best known and most visited gardens. In the Renaissance style, they are full of romantic symbolism. They were completed in 1536, by Jean le Breton, a finance minister under King Francois 1st.  le Breton had also been an ambassador to Italy, where he spent his spare time studying the Italian Renaissance garden, and you can certainly recognize this influence at Villandry.  le Breton’s family maintained control over Villandry for over two centuries, until 1754, when it passed into the hands of the Marquis de Castellane, a powerful ambassador from the Provence region.  He built the outbuildings, and redesigned much of the interior of the château.  The traditional gardens were destroyed in the 19th century to create an English style park around the château.

In 1906, while slated for demolition, the château was taken over by the renowned Spanish scientist Dr. Joachim Carvallo, who is the great-grandfather of the present owners.  He devoted himself entirely to Villandry, and created the present day gardens which are in complete harmony with the Renaissance château.  He was one of the first to open this type of historic building and garden to the public.  Merci, Monsieur Carvallo!

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A large area of the garden consists of the Love Garden.  In one section, you can easily see the beautiful curving hearts that represent Tender Love.  But what better experts on love than the French?  Not content with Tender Love, they also give us Passionate Love, Fickle Love and, mais oui, Tragic Love.  As we travel through each quadrant of the garden, the shapes change from the romantic hearts, which are usually planted inside with red blooms, to maze-like sections evoking the dance of Passionate love, fans and horns with yellow plantings representing Jilted Love, and finally, Tragic Love, where the disarray of jagged shapes representing the swords and daggers used by rivalrous lovers are planted with red flowers to symbolize blood spilled.  In addition to the Love Garden, there are parterres filled with different styles of crosses, representing the different regions of France.

Another large section of the garden is the potager, which is the vegetable or kitchen garden.  In Medieval times, the potagers were tended by monks and nuns to provide food for the residents of the abbeys and flowers for the altars.  The gardens are now planted in a rotation of over 40 types of vegetables, and arranged according to colour and form, using organic and companion planting rules.

An avowed flower gardener, the beauty of this kitchen garden is almost enough to tempt me into growing vegetables, but I could never bring myself to pick just one head of lettuce and ruin the perfection of the whole design.

In addition to the medieval origins of the potager, Italian influence is prominent thoughout the garden.  Elevated walkways, flower beds, bowers, stone sculptures and fountains are used throughout, to great effect.

This gorgeous statuary, overflowing with fruits and vegetables, represents the bounty of the garden, and the stone fence surrounding the garden is made up of various panels, each with a unique design.

In addition to the Love Garden and the potager, there is also the Water Garden. The Florentine influence can be readily felt here, and the beautifully kept lawn and calm expanse of water is quite a change from the geometric shapes of the other sections of the garden.

Some of the other areas of the garden include the Sun Garden, the Herb Garden, the Children’s Garden and a maze.

On a trip filled with tours of amazing gardens, Villandry was certainly a standout. While the controlled, close-clipped parterres, geometric potagers and angular water gardens are not everyone’s favorite style, there was something about this garden and man’s attempt to make sense out of the chaos of nature that appealed to me on a profound level. I will always remember it as a perfect morning in an soul-stirring garden.

For another post on Villandry, please visit my travelling buddy Sue’s blog at:

http://designmuse.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/france-finest-formal-garden-villandry/

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When I originally started to blog, my intention was to take notice of things in my own garden, and to occasionally feature gardens I had toured.  I’ve since found out that it’s more fun to write about gardens I’ve been lucky enough to visit.  That way I can ignore the fact that my garden has gotten away on me again.  You see, my garden is fairly new and when I planted it, I made the mistake of wanting it to look established right away.  I’m not the most patient person.  So I filled it up and didn’t leave much space for things to spread out.  I also planted trees. Granted, they were small trees.  They had to fit into my van (or once, into my friend Sue’s husband Lionel’s big pick up truck).  I had to be able to lift them myself, or be able to coerce my husband or teenaged sons to help lift them from the vehicle to the wheelbarrow, and then to place them into holes that my husband would kindly dig for me.  Now, I know that trees get bigger, but really, it’s supposed to take a while. I figured by the time they got big enough to be a problem, I would be eighty years old and living in a mini storage unit, where apparently my son Ben is putting me when I’m ready for an old folk’s home.  Anyway, all that’s a story for another day.

Today I want to tell you about my favorite thing in my garden.  Lavender.  You see, we have a sliding door right near our kitchen table, and we sit up at the table in the morning and we can look out into the garden.  And it’s right here that there is the most beautiful patch of lavender.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember which type of lavender it is, but it’s not like the other lavender I have in my garden.  This lavender grows very tall and the flower is long and elegant and a pretty mid-purple tone.  There are times when it is so loaded with the big fat honey bees that I love that you can hear buzzing from the kitchen table if the door’s open.  When a breeze blows or the sprinkler or rain falls on it, the scent steals into the kitchen.  I love this stuff.  My eyes zoom in on this little vignette, and I feel at peace.

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In search of more lavender, last summer I went on a road trip with my aforementioned friend Sue.  We often zip down to Seattle, but on this occasion we deked a little further west and made for the Dungeness Valley, which is located on the northwest coast of Washington State. It’s a very scenic drive from Vancouver, B.C. There’s even a little ferry ride from Coupeville to Port Townsend.

It’s here in this valley that you can find the little town of Sequim (pronounced Skwim), which just so happens to be the lavender capital of North America. Sequim is in the rain shadow of the majestic Olympic Mountains, and averages less than 15 inches of rain a year.  (When you consider that everyone else in the Pacific Northwest has webbed toes, this is amazing!) Lavender loves this dry climate, but beware! Sometimes fogs and cool breezes blow in from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We discovered this on our return ferry ride, where, when we left the dock it was sunny and warm, and when we got out on the water we suddenly couldn’t see a damn thing.  We could only hear that haunting fog horn and see the mist creep around us. Eerie.

Sequim hosts a lavender festival every July, but even though we made the trip in August, the farms were open to visit, and the lavender still looked great. I guess the weather can affect the timing of the crops. Most farms have gift shops where you can buy all things lavender.  I personally recommend the lavender lemonade, although the lavender ice cream was tempting too!

As you might imagine, where they grow lavender, they can also grow sunflowers. A few of the farms had some fields of these beauties as well.  Every year I plan to try some in my garden, but I haven’t actually managed it yet.  Next year!

In addition to the farms, there a lot of other fun things to see and do in this neck of the woods.  There’s golf, kayaking, hiking and of course, shopping! Although we didn’t stop there on this trip, the town of Port Townsend looked intriguing with all the historic homes and interesting businesses.  Further south from Sequim is Port Angeles, where we spent a lovely afternoon exploring antique stores and checking out quaint shops and restaurants.

The downturn in the economy has certainly affected these areas, but there’s still more than enough to do to make a trip worthwhile.  Fiddleheads on 1st Street in Port Angeles was a particularly good find.

We visited The Three Crabs in Sequim, where you feel like you’ve gone back in time into a diner that hasn’t changed much in 40 years.  The food was okay, but the ambiance and the sunset on the beach more than made up for any lack of pretension inside.

I started this post quite some time ago, but on one of my haunts of garden nurseries this past weekend, I found a big pot of the kind of lavender that’s in my backyard.  Now I know what type it is. It’s “Provence”. But you don’t need to go nearly that far to experience the loveliness of lavender.