Gardening Advice

The yew topiary at Villandry

 

When the gardens at the Château de Villandry were created, Joachim Carvallo planted yews (taxus baccata) in order to form topiary according to the French tradition. 162 yews were distributed across three ornamental gardens on the same terrace: 72 in the Love Garden and the Garden of the Crosses, 63 in the Music Garden and 27 in the Herb Garden.

The yew, a conifer with small, persistent needles that originated in the northern hemisphere, is well suited to topiary formation as it tolerates repeated pruning. Its resistance to both heat and shade makes it a perfect plant for giving structure to any garden. The yew is able to regrow from old wood, and thus easily tolerates severe pruning, though regrowth is very slow. It prefers well-drained soil, as excess humidity can lead to root rot.

The original shape of the Villandry topiary doubtless comes from the Spanish influence of its owner – the yews are formed into a cube topped with three crowns and a dome. The dome was originally more pointed, but over time it has become more rounded, forming a bell shape in harmony with the elements beneath.

Our yews are hand-pruned with shears once a year, with no template, a process that takes between 20 minutes and two hours per tree. Some original trees are over 100 years old, and have become deformed in the periods in which the gardens were abandoned, which is why some specimens have four crowns and others five. The 72 topiary trees in the Love Garden and the Garden of the Crosses are pruned in June and, to spread out the work over the year, the yews in the Music Garden and the Herb Garden are pruned in September. Pruning only once a year requires a methodical approach to avoid making mistakes. First, we perform a rough pruning to remove new yew growth. Then, often with the shears reversed, we move round the crowns to return to the previous year’s cutting. We finish with the dome, the most delicate area, where new growth is most vigorous and the wood hardest. The summit has to be pruned energetically to restore the rounded shape.

A special order was placed with the German nursery Bruns Pflanzen in 1994. Sixty yews were to be produced with the Villandry shape to replace ageing specimens. The order scheduled 25 yews for 1 November 1996, 25 more for November 1997 and a stock of ten further replacement trees. Before being shaped, yews with a single trunk, perfectly uniform and free of diseases and deficiencies, were selected in the nursery. They were pruned according to the template and regularly transplanted.

Several diseases can affect Taxus baccata. Phytophthora – root rot – establishes itself in the soil and leads to wasting in part of the tree. The branches die one by one until the whole yew is dead. A product based on fosetyl-aluminium, with the commercial name of Aliette Express (a chemical product not used at Villandry), can be used preventively but has little curative effect. In organic horticulture, only copper is allowed; it is sprayed preventively in the form of copper hydroxide or copper oxychloride. No yews can be planted near the contaminated area, and ground drainage is promoted by incorporating pebbles of several sizes when planting.
Excess populations of red spider mites can damage the leaves. Affected areas are sprayed with white oils or rapeseed oil.

Laurent Portuguez
head gardener 

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