Friday, February 26, 2010

The Tomato Prince, France

After the hidden-away potager at the grand Chenonceau castle, it was off to a much smaller castle featuring the potager as the main attraction. The destination was none other than the castle and garden of the Tomato Prince. This garden has been on my list since I saw it featured on an episode of Recreating Eden (which, by the way, is the best garden show ever made and I’m still anxiously waiting for seasons 4 and 5 to be released on DVD – are you listening Merit Motion Pictures???)

The Tomato Prince has earned international renown for his unbridled passion for the tomato. In the walled garden of his Château de la Bourdaisière (which incidentally also has the dubious claim to fame of being the castle used in the TV show Joe Millionaire), the Prince grows no less than 500 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

The garden itself is not much to speak of – hundreds of tomato plants intermixed with a few flowers enclosed by a centuries old wall pretty much describes it. However, we lost ourselves for a few hours wandering through the rows and marveling at the variety of strange shapes and colours. It’s pretty amazing that from a single wild species, Solanum lycopersicum, we now have bred varieties from tiny, sweet cherry tomatoes to melon-like beasts that can barely hang on to the plant, and everything imaginable in between. The tomato must have inspired passion in many plants people over the centuries to result in such rich diversity.

The highlight of the year at the Tomato Prince’s is the Tomato Festival. This attracts quite a few international tomato fans, and features the Prince himself expounding his passion, as well as exhibitions, sales and tomato tastings (in the lovely shop shown below which is a renovated stable). Since we were too early for the festival by a week, a covert, self-guided, taste test was very tempting. However, I’m proud to report that we held out and not a single tomato was harmed during our visit.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Château de Chenonceau, France

Château de Chenonceau is one of the most picturesque castles in the Loire Valley (unfortunately not captured at its best in our photo, which I'm blaming on the construction), and the second most popular château in France after Versailles. Its most distinguishing feature is the arched bridge which spans the river Cher and forms part of the castle.

The castle is flanked by two main gardens on either side, which are described as “magnificent” and “exquisite” in guides. I’m afraid I didn’t find the first-hand experience to be quite so impressive.The gardens are formal in the strictest sense. Both gardens are more or less similar in design, consisting of sharply geometrical patterns defined by hedges and divided around central fountains. Although the castle boasts about the tens of thousands of bedding plants that are planted out with the seasons, I found the gardens were in a little bit of rough shape at the end of August. They were neither impressive enough to offer grandeur, or complex enough to be interesting. One garden was very exposed and the pale palette of pastel annuals and dried lawn seemed sad and faded in the sun. The other garden was somewhat more enjoyable, but in retrospect I think it was because it was smaller and shaded by some impressive old tree specimens on the perimeter.

Before I sound too negative about the Chenanceau gardens, there is one garden attraction here which I don’t think is to be missed (although we almost did). It is the lowly potager, or kitchen garden, which is hidden off to the side of the castle park. This area is bordered by quaint old farmhouses on one side, and alternating hedges and open countryside on the other. It’s the perfect setting for this garden, and a great antidote to the rigidity of the formal gardens. Huge vegetables were bursting with health (I guess the gardener must spend all his time in this garden) and were combined with densely planted rows of flowers. Old fashioned dahlias and zinnias in rich colour combinations of velvety purple and bright orange just glowed in the perfect lighting provided by the setting sun.

Oh, and there was one more feature of Chenanceau which is worthwhile – the entrance allée. Nothing beats a really impressive allée, and this must be one of the best.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Plessis Sasnières, France

One of the highlights of my garden wanderings from last summer was a trip to the Loire Valley. Up until the French Revolution, the Loire Valley was where the French nobility came to play, away from the hustle and bustle of Paris. As a result, this beautiful, lush valley is littered with an incredibly high concentration of magnificent châteaux, enough to spread around a few small countries. For a gardener, the castle gardens are of course the main point. These are often as much of an attraction, or even more so, than the castles themselves, and have become a highlight of the region. Best of all, I was happy to discover that not all gardens are traditional French formal style – there is enough variety, as well as plenty of new additions and developments, to keep things fresh and interesting.

The first garden we visited was at Plessis Sasnières. The best word to describe the entire property at Plessis Sasnières is comfortable. Everything from the residence (which is not so much castle as country mansion) to the English park-style gardens convey comfort and relaxation, with a French country-style touch. Taking up residence here would be so easy – you can just picture yourself having breakfast croissants on the gravel terrace overlooking the small lake, followed by a leisurely stroll around the walled flower garden and then maybe a peek in the potager to pick fresh berries for lunch. And don’t forget a little row around the lake at dusk. Ahh, to be born into a royal lineage…

I chose the garden because of the alluring tagline on the website, calling visitors to share in a “passion for the art of gardens” (more or less). The current owner, who inherited the property from her grandfather, does indeed seem to be passionate about gardening – we spotted her outside, pruning a gigantic door through a hedge. Since taking over, she has worked to restore and develop the garden, recently attaining the “Jardin Remarquable” designation. Her passion is especially evident in the walled garden, which is filled to the brim with perennials styled in the Gertrude Jekyll tradition. Around the lake, the landscape is less flower-heavy, mainly defined by lawns, a small stream surrounded by bog plants, and some more formal elements, including rolling clipped hedges.

This is a garden where you feel you could linger all day. It’s nothing overly dramatic or imposing – it just sits comfortably in its setting, and invites one to pause and enjoy the gentle beauty of nature.