Friday, April 2, 2010

La Chatonnière, France

We included the relatively new Chatonnière garden on our Loire Valley trip because it was conveniently on our route and because books and brochures described this supposed hidden jewel as a “novel garden with a rich range of designs” which “provokes awakenings of the soul”. Wow! What gardener could resist?

Unfortunately, the result of our visit was that I re-learned a valuable lesson: it’s much easier to proclaim beauty in writing than to actually pull it off in real life. To be blunt, the garden was a disappointment. It was sadder still because there was such potential in the site – a beautiful castle surrounded by gently sloped land, natural meadows and old forest, with gorgeous views to the countryside beyond.

The first failure of the garden is obvious as soon as you walk through the gates. The property is simply neglected, especially the first few spaces which greet the visitor. I’m all for a light hand and a little wilderness in the garden, which can lend charm and romance especially in older gardens, but in a young garden it just gives the unshakeable impression of misery. There’s no way around it – tiny plants struggling to survive and looking uncared for are just depressing to look at. It’s also doubly unfortunate that the most derelict garden spaces are the first ones you visit, burning a first impression of neglect in the mind which is hard to shake even in the nicer parts of the garden.
Maybe I’m being terribly harsh and unfair, since the gardens are still relatively new and some sympathy should be given to the awkward teenager stage of young gardens. However, even disregarding the state of the garden, I just wasn’t feeling the overall design. The garden is divided into an overwhelming number of small gardens (currently numbering 12), each with a different theme, ranging from silence, to intelligence, to improbability. Personally, I’m not a fan of gardens with imposed themes. That’s a whole different topic of discussion, but what the heck does an intelligence garden look like??? I’ve never been able to guess the supposed themes of such gardens without prior knowledge.

The overall concept of several small rooms, often divided by level changes and pathways enclosed by greenery, reminded me of Villandry. And indeed, I found out that the gardens were actually designed by the Villandry head gardener. You can see the good intentions, but it just doesn’t work here. There are too many gardens and therefore not enough space for each of them to develop their theme, to ensure the right proportions with the fairly impressive castle, and to make for good transitions between the spaces. Unlike Villandry, which featured far fewer gardens in a much larger space, these gardens try to do way too much in a too small a space. For example, the leaf-shaped “abundance” garden, which is the highlight of all brochure pictures, just feels like a strange fit in the landscape and doesn’t link to the other spaces. It might be cool viewed from a balloon, but on the ground it doesn’t do much for the visitor.

It’s not all bad news though. There are some really nice parts in this garden, which not surprisingly are the older, less manipulated areas not designed with a certain theme in mind. The old stone wall at the back of the castle with aged lavender and backed by a simple meadow was perfect.
The cyclamen drifts on the forest edge of the castle were also lovely (bulbs on the forest floor always look like spring to me, so it was a little odd encountering these at the end of August).

And the front entrance gardens, based on a simple, classic four square design, seemed to fit the castle and the space much more comfortably than any of the other new gardens, and were also much better maintained than the rest of the property.

If you do visit, don't expect the hidden jewel of the Loire Valley, but it's still not a bad way to spend an afternoon.


  1. My first impression, when I looked at the pictures of La Chatonniere, was that gardens looked quite nice. However, after reading your post and looking back at your photographs of Villandry, I uderstand your critism of the design. I am always facinated by what works and doesn't work in a garden. You supported and articulated your thoughts very well. Thanks.

  2. Thanks. It's not easy to find what works or doesn't work in a garden. That magic quality can certainly be elusive - la Chatonniere wasn't terrible, but I think anyone walking into that garden could tell that it just doesn't live up to the incredible potential of its site.