Over 100,000 plants grown from seed at Villandry
Laurent Portuguez leads a team of 10 full-time gardeners at the 100% organic Château de Villandry. He talks to Jane Hanks about the scale of his job
One of the most famous gardens in France is at the Château de Villandry, near Tours in the Loire Valley. It is known above all for its formal gardens bordered by box hedging which creates symmetrical patterns and are filled with a vast range of plants and vegetables. The head gardener since 2007 is Laurent Portuguez.
How would you describe the gardens at Villandry?
They are gardens of opulence. It is an area with a strong concentration of plants. There are the plants which make up the structure of the garden and we mainly associate that with box at Villandry, but there are other elements including 500 roses and hundreds of fruit trees.
Growing within these structural elements are more than 10,000 plants including both flowers and vegetables. We have to have a great deal of knowledge over a very broad range of plants, so it is very complete gardening.
How did you become head gardener?
I studied horticulture and then set up my own business looking after gardens in second homes. Above all, I love plants and have gathered a great deal of knowledge about them.
In 2007 the job was advertised, I applied and was successful. There are very few openings like this and it is a real privilege to be here.
What is a typical day for you?
We always start with the morning briefing when I tell the gardeners their jobs for the day. We have 10 full-time gardeners but also many students from all over the world who come here to do their internships. There is a huge amount of work to do so we are always busy.
Weeding and pruning are all done by hand, there is no other way and there is a lot of pruning. We have 1,000 lime trees which have to be cut back each winter. There are three box gardens and we prune them once a year but it takes a month for each garden.
I supervise the gardeners, and I also do the forward planning. Everything has to be anticipated in advance so I have to order the tulips in June to plant in October, for example. I must imagine what it will look like in six months and plan what we have to do to achieve that.
I must also look at what is happening in the garden now to see what improvements we can make for next year and we are always looking at new ways of doing things and new plants to introduce.
In 2009 you decided to garden organically at Villandry? What did you have to change?
It was, above all, technically difficult because we had to learn to recognise all the different insects in the garden and know which are the good ones and which are the bad ones. It is something we never learnt during our studies, so I had to spend a great deal of time reading up on this.
Our gardeners had to learn as well and they have to be very observant and bring me insects they spot so we can identify them. It depends a great deal on observation and memory. We have to know what we did in a certain situation, whether it worked, whether we should do the same thing again or whether we should do things differently.
Is gardening more difficult now with the introduction of pests like the box caterpillar and the changing weather patterns?
Not really because gardening is always about learning to deal with the existing conditions and it makes it fascinating to rise to the new challenges. It is all about observation.
Which is your favourite garden?
It has to be the Jardin du Soleil, which is a contemporary garden I planted when I first arrived. The owner Henri Carvallo wanted to recreate the garden that his great-grandfather had planned at the beginning of the 20th century in the only part of the park which did not yet have a garden. The central part of the garden, which has a pool in the shape of a sun, has borders full of perennials, which are the plants I love best.
We cannot allow the gardens to become too personal to us, though, because they are part of a long history with a future in front of them. We work in them so that they will last for generations ahead of us and we leave just a small trace of our participation in them.
It is real gardening, where we grow from seed and see the plant through to maturity. The amounts of vegetables that we produce is staggering, kilos of peppers, aubergines, tomatoes and celery.
In September, we have a day when we meet the visitors and they can take vegetables home. (Journées du Potager, September 29 and 30).
On the Château de Villandry website (www.chateauvillandry.fr) you give tips to home gardeners. What can we learn from the way you garden?
Looking after a garden like Villandry is not really comparable to home gardening. There is a lot of technical knowledge we have to apply and we do things in a way an amateur gardener cannot because it is on a completely different scale.
We have to go fast to get everything done. If you watched me prune roses you would see just how quickly I do it.
With experience I know exactly how the rose will grow, where it needs cutting to promote growth and so I can work quickly. It is a combination of knowledge and experience.
But a lot of our tips are relevant. How to prevent box from being attacked by the caterpillar, for example.
What satisfaction do you get from working at Villandry?
It is very varied and the time goes by very quickly. We are lucky because we get thanked and praised for our work all the time, because people appreciate the garden. We work in good conditions and Mr Carvallo is interested in innovation and providing us with the best equipment and he is happy with our work.
How would you advise a visitor to get the best out of the gardens?
First, they should stand at the top and look down to see the overall view, and the symmetry below. Then they should go down and look at the detail.
It is best to take your time and enjoy being in the gardens. They say that of all the chateaux in the Loire, people spend most time in the Château de Villandry gardens.