The Gardener of Versailles by Alain Baraton is a delightful book whether you are interested in gardening or Versailles. Baraton has been the Gardener in Chief at Versailles since 1982. Don’t you just love that title? He was the youngest ever installed in the position. He began working at Versailles in the 1970s with no intent on becoming a gardener. As a teen all he wanted was to have enough money to afford his scooter and the hobby of photography he decided to take up. He mowed lawns and weeded for cash. He had no real aspirations for anything so his parents enrolled him in horticulture school. Afterwards, he got a job at Versailles selling tickets at the gate and after a little while there was an opening for a novice gardener and he was given the job which he only took because the chief gardener at the time told him he would be able to live free in the gardens in one of the employee apartments.
As a young man who didn’t believe himself to be very attractive to women, he found that being a gardener at Versailles and living on the grounds had its perks. He was able to provide private tours to willing young women who suddenly found him very attractive. Heh. Years later he met his wife at Versailles. She was visiting the gardens alone and got caught in a downpour and he invited her into his house to dry off and warm up.
The Gardener of Versailles is an enjoyable mix of memoir, history, and personal opinion from an experienced gardener. I fell in love with Baraton at the start when he talks about the trees of Versailles:
I’m not an overly sentimental or nostalgic person; I don’t wring my hands in pity over a broken vase, and I don’t play Mozart for my hydrangeas. But a tree is a living thing. After living alongside my trees for more than thirty years, I’ve acquired more than simple know-how. I feel something like botanical sympathy; I can tell whether a tree needs attention, whether it is suffering or flourishing.
There was a severe and devastating storm that hit Versailles in 1999. The garden lost more than 18,000 trees that were either uprooted by the storm or were so damaged they had to be cut down. Baraton was heartbroken over the losses and it still haunts him all these years later. Throughout the book he keeps returning to the storm again and again; there was the garden before and the garden after and the garden after is just not the same.
Of course with any top position one finds that one no longer gets to spend as much time doing the things one loves most. Baraton discovered that as Gardener in Chief he spends most of his time worrying about budgets and filling out paperwork. Nonetheless, he still makes it out into the gardens and does he ever have some good stories!
You might think his greatest enemy would be drought or flood or pests but it turns out it is busloads of senior citizens. The elderly women are, more often than not, plant thieves, sometimes uprooting entire plants and stashing them in bags to take home!
On the other end of the spectrum are the young couples who think they will have an exciting and romantic time having sex in a secluded part of the garden. Only many times they only think they are out of the way and have been discovered by tour groups, almost run over by a lawn mower or suffered other indignities. Baraton feels for them though and offers some helpful suggestions for would-be lovers:
dress appropriately. Versailles is infested with mosquitoes, and I’ve seen more than one romantic idyll ruined by the impromptu arrival of a swarm of hostile insects. The destination should be the broad, green allées in the depths of the domain — the air is purer and the landscape will lend a charming country atmosphere to your lovemaking. There are also fewer passersby, and with luck, you might even see some wild animals…Above all else these distant destinations allow you the occasion for a long walk — the distance will allow you to get to know one another better, and as the case may be, fan the flames of your companion’s desires or reassure your companions of your good intentions.
Versailles is used to people making love. The various Louiss (Louis’s? Louisies? Louises?), especially the XIVth, had mistresses galore. The statues even tell tales. Louis XIV had a statue of himself as Eloquence made for the garden. His statue was placed so it looked directly at a statue of the nude huntress Diana, made in the likeness of his favorite mistress. When the statues were revealed the affair was made public. Louis’s wife was incensed and had a couple of yews planted to keep the two statues from looking at each other.
And mixed in with all of that is a dose of gardening advice:
But a good gardener should never lose sight of the fact that gardening is a perpetual balancing act of pleasure and necessity. The healthiest plants are obtained by those who know and respect the laws of nature.
What makes a good gardener? The essential ingredient can be reduced to a single word: joy. Our work may be tiring but it is also extremely gratifying.
Baraton may not have started out wanting to be a gardener but he has grown to love the work and the garden he works in. His love for both shines throughout the book making me want to visit Versailles just to meet him and maybe if I am lucky he would show me some of his favorite trees and tell me their stories.