Well it seems vegetables are hot. And, if they are colourful and ornamental, well they’re even hotter. If you want to see vegetables used to ornamental perfection, then I recommend a quick trip to France. Failing that, enjoy some photographs instead.
I was lucky enough to travel through France last May leading a garden tour to Paris, the Loire Valley, Province and the Dordogne. It was springtime in Europe so we enjoyed tulips in bloom along with blossom trees, magnificent iris and the first peonies and roses.
Then we reached Blois in the Loire Valley and discovered vegetables. Not in the market, but in a garden that has influenced the way gardeners think about the look of a vegetable garden, even if they have never visited, or heard of, this particular garden.
We were at the garden of Villandry, a chateau that dates back to 1536. The garden is no modest affair – indeed, it is one of the grandest gardens in France. Villandry was one of the last of the great chateaux built on the banks of the Loire in the Renaissance period, but the site has a long history of occupation. A 12th century fortress was demolished to make way for the grand chateau we see today.
The garden we saw is a recreation of what was there in the 16th century. The restoration itself is now of heritage significance as it was carried out in 1906 following plans and drawings from the 16th century. The garden restoration was carried out by Dr Joachim Carvallo. His great grandson and family still live in the chateau.
The garden is laid out as a series of formal terraced spaces divided into themed areas by low yew and box hedges arranged in knots and patterns. Part of this formal space is humbly called the kitchen garden and is given over to vegetable growing. Not vegetables arranged in rectangular beds as most of us grow them, but a potager, a vegetable garden designed to be both productive and ornamental.
The potager at Villandry covers move than 12,500 square metres (no shrinking violet this garden!) and is composed of nine squares each with a different geometric design. Some 40 different types of vegetables are grown with two plantings carried out each year – one in spring and one in summer. Each planting is done with an artistic eye to create patterns with colours and shapes to delight the visitor – and I can tell you they are delightful.
The influence of this garden is felt around the world with many backyard vegie gardens planted as potagers, and vegetables planted as much for display as for harvesting. Although on a more down-to-earth scale, the potager at the Digger’s Club at Heronswood at Dromana in Victoria owes something to the splendour of the one we were seeing at Villandry in France.
If you want to grow your own small-scale potager, make the most of spring to plant. Cabbages, colourful lettuce, beetroot, kale and rainbow chard all lend themselves to colourful and decorative planting schemes, but anything can be used if it is planted in a repeating pattern.
A fragrant or edible flower will add to it (Villandry was a mass of orange wallflowers when we were there, but calendulas would also work). Use dwarf box (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruiticosa’) to edge your beds or aromatic edging of dwarf lavender or santolina. You can even mass plant chives, parsley or dwarf nasturtiums along the garden edge for an edible border.
Chateau de Villandry is in Villandry, France (www.chateauvillandry.com). Heronswood is closer to home at 105 Latrobe Parade, Dromana in Victoria (www.diggers.com.au).