Masterpiece Gardens

Axel Vervoordt has spent the last two decades creating one of the the great gardens of modern Europe at his 12th-century Belgian castle.

Early in the morning, as the sun begins its sweep over the wooded countryside northeast of Antwerp, Axel Vervoordt likes to spend an hour walking alone through his carefully landscaped gardens. His favorite route follows a stream shaded by massive gunnera leaves past a shimmering blue pond. Always in the distance the spired turrets of his moat-encircled castle soar, a lyrical note transported intact straight out of history. From the potager, Vervoordt's elegant kitchen garden, still wet with dew, white wisps of mist drift across the boxwood parterres as if the garden were taking its first breath of the day.

The parklands look as if they have been cultivated without interruption for the past 500 years, but not so long ago they were overgrown and tangled with brambles. In 1984, when Axel Vervoordt, one of Europe's most important dealers in art and antiques, and his wife, May, bought Kasteel van 's-Gravenwezel from the estate of Baron Gilles de Pelichy, the property had been sorely neglected. The couple's ambitious vision was to restore the Régence-style residence, whose turrets and foundations date back to the time of knights and crusades, as well as the grounds to their former grace and grandeur. They spent the next 15 years patiently nurturing a four-acre potager and private pleasure garden, and shaping each ancient oak, cobblestone path, and shaded allée on their 62 acres. "The gardens surrounding the castle had become a wilderness," recalls Axel Vervoordt, 54. "But we loved the grand old trees and imagined them flourishing once more."

Faced with the unkempt fields, the Vervoordts immediately began to plan a long-term garden renovation, using as their starting point the 18th-century ground plans of Jan-Pieter van Baurscheit. To help articulate their vision, they hired Flemish landscape architect Jacques Wirtz, 77, considered by many horticultural insiders to be the world's leading garden designer. It was the soft-spoken Wirtz who first defined the "genius of the place," emphasizing the history of the castle's gardens. In his head, Wirtz says, he imagined Breughel's depictions of country life and other Flemish paintings of sheltering oaks, beech hedges, and walled monastic gardens.

Vervoordt, too, was keenly attuned to the past. "From every part of the garden, you can see the castle," he says. "You are always aware that you are surrounded by almost a thousand years of history. This is not the place for a modern garden."

While Wirtz dreamed up designs for clipped hedges, sculpted rhododendrons, and beech borders, the Vervoordts scoured Europe for inspiration. After exploring the finest country gardens—including Versailles, Sissinghurst Castle, Hatfield House, Stourhead, and, right in Belgium, Hex Castle and the great Château de Beloeil—they returned with the conviction that theirs should be a Belgian-style garden: understated and natural. While the couple admired the regal arabesques and highly contrived designs of historic French and Italian gardens, they wanted their own grounds to have a pastoral feel. The challenge was to provide a structure that was artful but not rigid.

Today, the parklands have matured into a magnificent series of gardens, each nuanced down to the last espaliered rose and spray of lemon verbena. The castle itself, which serves as Vervoordt's company headquarters as well as the family home, has also been restored and each of its 50 rooms richly appointed with museum-quality antiques and works of art.

"The Vervoordts live the most gracious life and entertain with generosity," says top Paris antiques dealer Bernard Baruch Steinitz, recalling cocktails on the wisteria-draped terrace beside the herb garden. "Theirs is a garden of great refinement. It's grand but not at all pretentious."

As the gardens were being planned and shaped, Vervoordt was firmly establishing himself as a favorite antiques dealer of everyone from the European old guard to American tech moguls, with such high-profile clients as Bill Gates, Sting, the fashion designers Bill Blass and Dries van Noten, and San Francisco interior designer Paul Wiseman. Pianist duo Katia and Marielle Labèque furnished their Tuscan palazzo with Vervoordt treasures: gilded Venetian mirrors, a polychrome Piedmontese cabinet, antique Cambodian pots, a Thai bust of a warrior prince. Vervoordt even influenced their garden, which, at his suggestion, is a simple parterre of fragrant jasmine and camellias.

Vervoordt's wife and two gregarious sons are very much involved in his business. May, a textiles expert, runs the fabric studio at the new Axel Vervoordt art and antiques complexin Kanaal, Belgium. Boris, 28, who resembles his jocular father, runs the Kanaal exhibitions and directs acquisitions in contemporary art, his specialty. His 25-year-old brother, Dickie, a professional ice hockey player, also works in the company's real estate operations.

Engaging, scholarly, and articulate, Axel Vervoordt was one of the founders of the prestigious annual European Fine Arts Fair in Maastricht and for many years has been a vivid presence at both the New York International Fine Art and Antique Dealers show and the Paris Biennale des Antiquaires.

"Axel is among the few truly cross-cultural antiquaires. He draws his antiques and garden ornaments from the far corners of the earth and several millennia," says Ed Hardy, a leading San Francisco antiques dealer, who fondly remembers cocktails in the Vervoordts' orangerie. "The garden is a surprise, too. Most new château owners would want imposing gardens, but Axel loves to confound expectations. He has the confidence to emphasize the rusticity of the setting. The potager, for instance, is a working garden: beautiful but not meant simply to impress."

Over the past two decades, Kasteel van 's-Gravenwezel has become an indispensable address for an international coterie of designers, art collectors, and antiques connoisseurs. The Vervoordts love to entertain; Boris recalls the Breughel-esque scene one winter when the moat around the castle froze over, and they served hot pancakes to friends who came to skate and sip steaming cider beneath the oak trees. But while many clients have toured the castle and glimpsed the parkland beyond the still, dark moat and the cobblestone courtyard, surrounded by handsomely restored 18th-century farm buildings, few enjoy the private pleasures of the Vervoordts' world.

With its tall arched windows draped in white wisteria (the elegant W. floribunda 'Longissima Alba'), an orangerie fashioned after a Palladian villa serves as a perfect entrance to the gardens. The light-filled room, with its tailored linen sofas, Louis XVI-style chairs, anddining table that seats 20, reflects the Vervoordts' singular style. White and pink camellias flourish in handsome wood planters, hydrangeas bloom in Italian terra-cotta pots, and fragrant stephanotis traces the windows.

Just beyond the orangerie's brick terrace is the potager, flanked by a hawthorn-hedged pasture for Maestoso Brezova, Axel's Lippizaner horse, and a flower garden. Once an empty field with a lone apple tree, the flower garden is now protected from the wind by a 12-foot-high brick wall. Its plan was inspired by a 1721 Dutch treatise on royal gardens from the Vervoordts' library. The parchment-bound volume includes plans for simple gardens in the tradition of those kept by monks and apothecaries in the Middle Ages. One scheme for rectangular, monochromatic flower beds, as graphic as a crossword puzzle, became the matrix of the new garden.

"Medieval gardeners planted large blocks of herbs—mint, parsley, thyme, sage, rosemary—for medicinal purposes," explains Vervoordt. "We applied the same straightforward concept here." Twelve-by-six-foot beds of red, purple, blue, pink, yellow, and apricot-colored flowers form Mondrian-esque color blocks near beds of aromatics and herbs for the kitchen.

Among the most intriguing selections of herbaceous perennials and mixed plantings in this mosaic are several beds all in green, from the acid-green flowering tobacco plant (Nicotiana x sanderae 'Lime Green') to silvery artemisias, pale angelica, and gray-green marjoram. All are arranged according to height, with frothy yellow-green lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis) as a low-growing border.

The variations of texture in the white beds would make Gertrude Jekyll proud. Sprays of colewort (Crambe cordifolia) flutter like a cloud of butterflies over feathery plumes of white astilbe. Panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata) sits in plump clusters beneath soaring spires of 'Ivory Towers' delphiniums. Under a magnolia tree, beads of dew shimmer in the silvery center of pale gray and blue Hosta sieboldiana leaves.

Herbs serve both practical and decorative purposes. In addition to their uses in the kitchen, chamomile and mint serve as ground cover. Sage, with its pungent gray and green leaves, sends out abundant mauve flowers all summer long. Fennel shoots up six feet, with lacy sulfur-yellow umbels that bloom in late summer.

Color is everywhere: Purple-tinged acanthus, a favorite since Roman times, offers both bold purple and white flowers and dramatic arched foliage while deftly filling in spaces along paths in the rose beds. Vigorous varieties of Heuchera, including 'Palace Purple,' have pink and white flowers set off by burgundy and green foliage. Stachys byzantina 'Silver Carpet' forms a white cloud around the rose gardens, sheltered beneath and trained along the brick walls. Fruit trees, strawberry plants, and raspberry canes attract birds, bringing life and sound into the garden. From the hundreds of varieties of heirloom vegetables, fruit trees, aromatic herbs, and flowers that Venezuelan-born Dutch gardener and author Elisabeth de Lestrieux originally helped the Vervoordts select for the gardens, the official list of plants on the property has since burgeoned to more than 800 varieties.

Three gardeners are employed to plant and harvest the potager, trim the hedges, shape the trees, and maintain the flower gardens. Some of their horticultural practices seem positively medieval. To train the branches of a young myrtle tree in a perfect downward curve, for instance, the gardeners tie rocks to the ends of budding branches with long, thin wire; after five or six months, the branches bend to a graceful arch and the rocks can be removed. Using another centuries-old method, pear and apple trees are espaliered—tied, trained, and pruned to grow flat against the brick walls.

"I like to refer to the historical context of this garden and maintain a sense of the traditions," says Vervoordt. "In the shadow of a 12th-century turret, it is not appropriate to have plastic flowerpots or orange hoses. I like a sense of decorum."

Year-round, even on the grayest of winter days, May Vervoordt takes her secateurs and a large basket outside to clip armfuls of branches or blossoms for the castle's rooms. Sprigs of blue campanulas are placed in Chinese export vases in the blue and white dining room. Perfumed pink 'Maiden's Blush' roses are arranged in silver goblets on a Rococo table in the hall. Wild branches of mauve rhododendrons arch over a cream linen sofa in the Oriental room.

Nearly every day in spring and summer, the family takes drinks, lunch, or dinner out on the terrace to enjoy a succession of roses, wisteria, and sunflowers at their best. "We often invite friends to come and stay at the castle for the weekend so that we have an excuse to have dinner in the garden, or set up a lunch near the wisteria when its blooming," says May.

For a luncheon on the terrace last spring, the chef harvested herbs, fruits, and vegetables from the potager. A light salad of young lettuces and arugula was followed by poached trout on a bed of dill, and asparagus tips and new potatoes with tarragon and lemon verbena. As the warm afternoon sun lulled guests into meditations on the perfect symmetry of the clipped box hedges, the chef brought forth his grand finale: a plate festooned with fresh raspberries, red currants, figs, and mint, with honey from the Vervoordts' own hives. Here in this green world of rampant roses, voluptuous peonies, and tangled clematis, everyone feasted upon the bounty of the garden.

Visits to Kasteel van 's-Gravenwezel are by appointment only, for clients interested in Axel Vervoordt's art and antiques: 32-3-658-1470. His large-scale antiques, antiquities, and contemporary art exhibits are on display (Thursday to Saturday or by appointment) at the new Axel Vervoordt Kanaal: Stokerijstraat 19, Wijnegem, Belgium; 32-3-355-3300.

Plant the Blues

Because it is the rarest horticultural hue, blue has always held a special mystique for gardeners. The Vervoordts took it as a particular challenge to create a garden "room" where they could explore a range of cerulean, aqua, and lavender flowers. Their combinations are thoughtful, and the whole look comes together beautifully.

In a large, square bed, blocks of pale-blue CATMINT (Nepeta x faassenii) frame late-flowering HIBISCUS SYRIACUS 'Blue Bird' and the graceful plumes of hardy, silver-leaved RUSSIAN SAGE (Perovskia atriplicifolia 'Blue Spire'), which sends out its violet flowers for most of the summer. Pale SCABIOSA (S. caucasica 'Clive Greaves') is the perfect companion to delicate FORGET-ME-NOTS (Myosotis alpestris 'Blue Express').

An adjacent bed features IRISES, AGAPANTHUS, and bands of LAVENDER surrounding spires of DELPHINIUMS (D. x cultorum 'Moody Blues') and CAMPANULAS. Here, mossy garden paths edged with CHAMOMILE and CHIVES have the velvety softness and pale patterns of antique verdure tapestries.

As a backdrop to the blue and white borders, the Vervoordts chose classic spring-flowering European LILAC. Cerulean tones fade to white along an allée of fragrant MOCK ORANGE (Philadelphus 'Innocence') and star-flowered CHINESE DOGWOOD (Cornus kousa chinensis), whose leaves turn bronze and crimson in autumn.

A Rosy Outlook

The Vervoordts' classic rose garden is a masterpiece of color and fragrance. Varieties are selected for their hardiness, subtle hues, and distinctive scents: Sprawling over arbors and arches are clear pink 'FELICITE PARMENTIER,' blush 'FANTIN LATOUR,' coppery, perfumed 'ALBERTINE,' clove-scented 'BELLE POITEVINE,' and the lovely peach 'OPHELIA,' with its exquisite scrolled petal formation. Rambling roses are set off to one side of the garden in a tangle of honeysuckle.

The hybrid musk rose 'FELICIA,' selected for its floribunda-like clusters of blooms, and the hardy shell-pink rambler 'NEW DAWN' flower for months on end and more than make up for the brief display of some of the other Rosaceae. Nearby, to add movement and contrast to the rose beds, are the feathery white spikes of BLACK COHOSH, which does well in shady conditions, and VIBURNUM, which offers its red berries in the fall, just as most of the roses have faded.

Diane Dorrans Saeks wrote about designer Rose Tarlow in the November/December 2001 Departures.