When a digger nearly fell over the high retaining wall overlooking the overgrown dell just down from the main front garden, the new owners of Chateau Colbert realised there could be more to the long, unkempt site on the western side of the estate.
Mickael Vincent, head gardener at the Potager Colbert, who is taking me around the garden on a bright morning in late August, says earlier plans showed there had been a kitchen garden here, but that before that incident in 2012, there were few signs left of its former glory.
Careful clearance of the site followed, which revealed a gently sloping sunken area surrounded by high walls on two sides, a steep bank to the west, and an open aspect to the south.
It also uncovered a double staircase, filled in the 19thcentury, connecting the chateau level to the old potager on the lower level.
Vincent was initially brought in on secondment from the Potager du Roi in Versailles, before moving here full time a few years ago.
Assisted by just one or two apprentices and a small group of volunteers, Vincent’s efforts to return the potager to its earlier splendour were rewarded in 2016 with a much-coveted first prize from the French horticultural society. He has retained it every year since.
And last year, the garden was awarded the ‘Jardin Remarquable’ label, joining an elite group of exceptional gardens such as Vaux-le-Vicomte, Versailles, Monet’s garden in Giverny, and the nearby gardens at Villandry and Chaumont-sur-Loire.
Rewind a few decades, however, and the future appeared less promising.
The first chateau was built in 1679 for the Comte de Maulévrier, Edouard-Francois Colbert, brother of Louis XIV’s minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert. It is likely that a kitchen garden was created at the time, but it’s not until 1768 that a potager is recorded on a plan.
Burnt almost to the ground during the revolution, the chateau is rebuilt in 1816 by Edouard-Victurnien de Colbert in the more restrained Restauration style. The potager is also brought back to life over the next two decades.
Following the death of the last Colbert in 1893, the chateau and grounds are bought by local textile industrialist Eugene Bergere, who commissions architect Alexandre Marcel to remodel the interiors of the chateau in neo-classical style. Marcel, who later marries Bergere’s daughter, also redesigns the park and creates a Japanese-style garden in the lower part, as was fashionable at the time.
The potager is thriving. Postcards from the 1920s show an orderly, well-tended and productive site. Standing prominently on the western edge of the garden is a large, newly built greenhouse with a central tower, two wings and a heated palm house at the back. The Second World War however marks the beginning of a slow decline.
After years of neglect during which most of the greenhouse is sold for scrap, the local authority buys up the estate in the late 1970s. Their primary objective is to save the Japanese gardens.
The chateau is sold separately and becomes a restaurant in 1977. In 2001, it is acquired by entrepreneurs Jean-Louis and Dominique Popihn, who have since turned it into a boutique hotel and gourmet destination.
The resurrection of Potager Colbert is a rare modern tale of private funding coming to the rescue of a lost garden, but the story is not just one of aesthetics and historical rebirth.
A landscape architect, Gwenael Tanguy, was brought in. He based the new design on the 1815 plan, adding a central rill running down the length of the garden to collect rain and spring water.
Up above the main retaining wall on the east side, an avenue of tulip trees (liriodendron tulipifera) was planted, while down from the restored staircase, two wisteria-clad pergolas divide the potager in two parts, with six main areas either side, edged with double rows of box. The surviving wing of the original greenhouse has also been renovated.
Returning the potager to productive glory has not been pain-free. Compacted by the heavy machinery used to reshape the site, the soil had to be systematically dug over and tonnes of manure where brought in to improve texture. But just a few years later, in June 2014, the potager opened to the public.
These days, the modern 8,000 sqm potager is a cheerful site where vegetables rub leaves with flowers – edible, for the restaurant, or ornamental, for the hotel.
There is a playful feel to it too, with ‘objets trouvés’ springing up around the parterres: a coffee pot on a stove, an old metal bed, old posts turned into crayons. And Vincent designs each bed anew every year, so that unlike its 20th century predecessor, with its rectilinear production lines, the potager has a more artistic flavour. It may not be immediately obvious but look closely and you will notice patterns, creative planting lines, and unexpected shapes.
This year 70 weathervanes by artist Daniel Couturier have also been dotted around the borders, adding to the garden’s joyful vibe.
The garden yields about two tonnes of produce every year, organically grown, which account for about a third of the overall amount of fruit and vegetables served in the restaurant. Vincent, who works closely with the head chef, mostly grows produce that cannot be readily sourced from suppliers.
To illustrate his point he hands me a small egg-shaped aubergine, one of a range of plants being trialled this season for the restaurant. Snipping off a few violas and Cosmos flowers, he adds: “These get used in salads, or on the side of a dish. They don’t keep fresh for long and they get damaged if they have to travel. Here, everything is picked before 9am, and I might do another round later on if necessary.”
One exception is potatoes. Every week except at the deepest time of winter, Vincent and his small team plant tubers of the quick-growing Amanda variety, so the chef can have new potatoes almost year round. At the chef’s request, he’s also started growing Agria, for mash.
This year, production has been hampered by yet another rainless summer. The length and aspect of the site result in different climate zones. The temperature difference between the lower, more exposed end of the garden is two degrees colder than the more sheltered upper end.
Normally, this allows Vincent to grow vegetables in succession and extend the season. This summer’s near-drought conditions have made it more challenging. Vincent says he stopped growing anything in the lower parterres, which – surprisingly – are not covered by the irrigation system.
Vincent, who was born in a family of seed growers and merchants, talks passionately about his project. I could easily continue walking around the potager with him, picking out weeds here and there and listening to his accounts of seed trials.
But it’s mid morning already, and as the sun comes over the edge of the infamous high wall, it’s perhaps time to let him have a moment of peace before visitors start coming in. And I can tell from the repeated buzzing of my phone that up in the main garden, Dr K is perhaps getting a little impatient.
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