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How to be a master gardener

The Château de Versailles and Marqueyssac, the most visited garden in Périgord, are among 2,300 public and private gardens all over France to open on June 2, 3 and 4 for the annual Rendez-vous aux Jardins. Jane Hanks spoke to their head gardeners

Alain Baraton has been Gardener-in-Chief at Versailles since 1982 and he has worked there since 1976. It is possibly the most famous garden in the world and is vast, covering 2,100 acres of land with 350,000 trees, almost 50kms of walkways and thousands and thousands of plants.

There are not only the formal gardens and the Trianon estate where Marie Antoinette had her “farm” but also the surrounding wood and park land.
Mr Baraton has around 80 gardeners and other employees working for him and says his job is not unlike running a small company, where there are always decisions to make about new projects and tasks to delegate.

He feels his duty is to ensure that the park remains presentable and he also wishes to make it a garden where people can enjoy their time and come for some fresh air, jogging or just for a walk as much as for the history.

Mr Baraton has one of the most prestigious posts in horticulture imaginable and lives in grand surroundings in a house on the estate that used to belong to Molière. But he is a man who is very approachable and who is keen to share his love of gardening with a wide audience. He has a weekly radio show, La Main Verte on France Inter and has published several books, one of which has been translated into English. In it, he explains that he came to work at Versailles by chance without any real ambition to become a gardener.

He was the fifth child in a family of seven and felt he wasn’t good at anything in particular and went to horticultural college because he had to get some kind of qualification.
Having left college he needed work and as he lived near Versailles he went to ask for a job and was hired as a ticket seller. From those humble beginnings he was hired as a gardener and learnt all that there was to know about the park, a training he feels served him better than a string of diplomas.

He talked to Connexion about his views on gardening today and the differences between the English and the French style which is epitomised by the gardens of Versailles, designed by Le Nôtre in the 17th century:
“A jardin à la française is the kind
of garden that is created for you to admire from afar, usually from your house. It is created with precision and authority and is all about man demonstrating his power over nature. An English garden is full of poetry and invites you to enjoy its beauty by being in the garden. A French garden is mostly green. An English garden is full of colour.”

So which style does the head gardener of one of the most famous French style gardens in the world prefer? “The English style. Both can be found at Versailles and I prefer the English garden where you live with the rhythm of the seasons.”

On his gardening show he says he wants to get the message across that listeners should love their garden: “I like to explain how to maintain a garden and keep plants healthy and above all that gardeners must learn to work with nature and not try to control it.”

He obviously likes the natural way and is saddened at the intrusion of noisy tools with a particular hatred of the mechanised leaf blower and tractors even though they makes life easier at Versailles. “I don’t like machines, they are too noisy and cause pollution.”

He mourns the passing of many of the traditional tools and skills, saying it was much more interesting to learn how to prune a tree than to learn how to use a machine.
However he does think things are changing for the better: “I am very optimistic. Gardening trends are moving in the right direction and in the last 20 years I have seen a big difference in the mentality of the French. The English and the Dutch were always way ahead but now the French are catching up in their appreciation of gardens and gardening.”

He says that the essential ingredient to being a good gardener is joy. The work may be tiring but it is gratifying and the surroundings are beautiful. It must be, he concludes, far more agreeable to pick a tomato when it is fully ripe and you have grown it yourself than to give a PowerPoint presentation in front of a dozen executives in suits and ties.
There will be special themed tours for Rendez-vous aux Jardins to discover Marie-Antoinette’s gardens at the Trianon. The visits are free but entry to the Domaine de Trianon costs from €12. Reservation is necessary on 01 30 83 78 00. Entry to the main gardens is free.

Gardening trends are moving in the right direction...I have seen a big difference in the mentality of the French. Alain Baraton, head gardener at Versailles

Marvel in Marqueyssac

The Marqueyssac gardens in the Dordogne are celebrating 20 years of being open to the public this year and Alain Baraton was guest of honour at the celebrations.
He says Les Jardins Suspendus de Marqueyssac are incontestably one of the most beautiful gardens in France and says a lot of that is down to the head gardener, Jean Lemoussu.
The gardens are unlike any other. Though the sculpted, 150,000 box plants are the main feature this is not a jardin à la française with planned perspectives but rather a work of art created out of the vegetation that was there when the gardens were bought by Kléber Rossillon, a man who owns many tourist sites in France.

“The original gardens date from the 19th century”, explains Mr Lemoussu. “It was a mad project even to think you could have a garden on a 15 acre site on a rocky spur with very little soil but the owner Julien de Cerval had travelled in Italy and loved the gardens there.

He bought thousands and thousands of box as well as Cyprus, parasol pines and cyclamen and planted them on this rocky site. He wanted it to be a place where you could walk and admire the dramatic views and to that end he created 6kms of walkways.

“Sadly there are no records to tell us where he managed to buy all the plants from but if you wanted to do the same thing today it would cost an absolute fortune and it would be unthinkable.”
By the time the property was bought twenty years ago all the hundred-year- old box had grown wild but it was an extraordinary opportunity to have such a quantity of this slow-growing plant available and which could be transformed into a living sculpture.

Mr Lemoussu wasn’t involved in the original pruning which he has been told was a monumental task but he has looked after it ever since.

“I have a team of five gardeners and we bring in other help when we need it. Our main pruning season is in May after the new shoots have grown and it takes a good month to get everything into shape. After that we trim back once or twice more during the year. We work as a team because it is difficult to get the curves right and we have to stand back and look at what we have done and ask others for their opinion. All is done by eye and by hand. Except for one small area we work to make roundness and curves our theme.”

Mr Lemoussu says the advantage with box is that it can withstand very hard pruning back to the wood: “If a plant has grown too tall we can prune hard in February. You can cut right back to make a new shape and within two to three years the foliage will have grown back to provide a good cover.”

He says that though the gardeners have in the main just one species to care for it takes a great deal of time and particularly so in the last couple of years since the appearance of the box tree moth or pyrale du buis: “It is extremely worrying. The moth arrived from Asia, probably with the import of plants in 2007 and it has spread incredibly quickly. I have heard that it has now reached Brittany which means that it is present everywhere in France. We had our first attack in 2015 and last year was very bad.”

It is the caterpillar which causes the real damage as it lives on box leaves. The garden’s philosophy is to use organic treatments whenever possible and their main weapon is a soil dwelling bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, which kills the caterpillar after it has ingested it.

“We have to be on the lookout for the very first signs of the caterpillar and treat straight away. There are usually three generations of moth in one season so you can’t relax once the first treatment has been carried out but must keep on checking.

“We have also discovered a species of micro wasp which lays its eggs in the caterpillar eggs and so destroys them and we are experimenting with this method. We have chemical pesticides on standby if absolutely necessary and had to resort to them once last year, but we believe it is much better to use organic methods both for the health of the visitors and plants and though it is far more time-consuming we have had good results with these methods.”

Previously box was relatively trouble free but as well as the moth there is now a disease which gardeners have to watch out for called Cylindrocladium boxwood blight. Mr Lemoussu again uses organic methods: “We aim to make our plants as strong as possible by spraying them with purin, a natural fertiliser made not just of nettles but of a variety of different plants. This too is extremely time-consuming as we must apply it once a month during the growing season, so six or seven times a year on all the box. However, we have no choice –it is vital in a garden like ours.”

It is a green garden with very few flowers, but Mr Lemoussu says this is a deliberate policy to keep within the original spirit of the garden which is to create somewhere to walk in rather than a flower garden.
His advice for anyone wanting to create their own mini-Marqueyssac? “You need to plant a lot of box very close together, have patience while they grow and then you can prune into
the shape you wish.”

Marqueyssac: Open every day, all year. Entry: €9 adult €4.50 child 10-17 yrs.
Rendez-vous des jardins: Sunday June 4, gardeners will demonstrate boxwood pruning and will be happy to answer questions.

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