Gardening Advice

The lime trees in the Villandry gardens

The virtues of the lime tree have been known since the Middle Ages. They are planted near hospitals, purify the air and have a calming effect when taken as a herbal infusion. The lime is a vigorous, robust tree that can live for an average of 400 years. It can resist severe pruning and adapts well to our climate and soil types. It can be found across Europe, from the tip of Brittany to Ukraine. All these reasons doubtless led our great gardeners of the seventeenth century to use them to create the famous French formal gardens. This was the period of grand symmetries and highly structured gardens. Limes were used to emphasise pathways and create curtains of greenery or living cloisters. Pruning symbolised man’s mastery over nature, which needed to be tamed to obtain distant views. It is easy in our garden to see the importance of these alignments, the harmony between spaces and the proportions of the limes in relation to the various terraces.

Tradition is still respected today: every winter our 1,016 lime trees are pruned, occupying four gardeners for eight weeks. We practice what is known as “cat’s head” pruning. This is a traditional pruning technique which contains the tree development and maintains a structured shape. A “cat’s head” is a growth at the end of a branch resulting from repeated pruning of shoots at the same place. The rings of scar tissue merge together, enlarging the head and gradually forming a complex ligneous mass. Trees regularly maintained with this type of pruning store a large proportion of their reserves of starch and sugar in the heads, providing extra longevity. The space between the heads should be no less than 40 cm, or there is a risk of inducing the decline of the tree. We clean the dead stems every year, selecting young replacement shoots.

Another method is used in parks such as Versailles and in towns, known as curtain pruning. Traditionally done with a scythe, this method has now been replaced by the use of cutting tools mounted on an articulated arm. This pruning is carried out in spring, which requires a more thorough operation every four to five years to bring the tree back to its initial volume.
At Villandry, we prune using pneumatic secateurs and we take advantage of the comfort and safety of a cherry picker. However, the tradition of the double wooden ladder is still respected in places machines cannot access.

Two varieties of lime trees are found in French formal gardens: tilia cordata, a variety with heart-shaped leaves, and tilia platyphyllos. Unfortunately, regular pruning prevents the tree from flowering, depriving us of its perfume, which also attracts bees. Despite their high level of resistance, our limes do come under attack from certain pests. Aphids are quickly controlled by the ladybirds found in large quantities in our gardens.

In 1995, Villandry’s 1,016 limes fell victim to repeated attacks by the two-spotted spider mite, a tiny mite which pierces the leaves and causes them to fall in the middle of the season. Chemical treatments against these pests were no longer effective and organic protection seemed the best solution – not just for the limes, but also for the gardeners and visitors! In 1997, Cetu Innophyt (an organisation applying university research) introduced mites that were predators of the two-spotted spider mite. These predators were in fact already present in the wild limes in the woods around the château. From 2002, the limes showed no more signs of attack. Better still, the introduced mites recolonised the trees and established a lasting presence.

Laurent Portuguez
head gardener 

The lime trees in the Villandry gardens

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