Published on March 17th, 2016 | by Isabelle Karamooz, Founder of FQM0
Interview with Alain Baraton, gardener-in-chief of the park at the Palace of Versailles and author of numerous books.
I was fortunate to have interviewed Alain Baraton at the historic Trianon Palace Versailles hotel, nestled on the edge of Louis XIV’s royal domain with views of the Chateau de Versailles. Many thanks to the Trianon Palace for generously hosting us in one of their small lounges. Mr Baraton is known for being a master gardener. Since 1982, he has been gardener-in-chief of the park at the Palace of Versailles. He is the author of numerous books on the themes of gardening, plants and Versailles and its castle, and speaks regularly on radio France Inter since 2003 and La Quotidienne on France 5 since 2013.
Isabelle Karamooz : Hello Alain Baraton.
Alain Baraton: Hello.
I.K. : What was your educational and professional background?
A.B.: My schooling I would call today as nondescript. As a child, I was not bad at anything, but who was not good at anything either. So, I was on the extreme, I was at… I do not know where I was actually (laughs). I was a dreamer, I wanted to be a photographer, and in the end, my studies did not interest me much. I was looking for freedom, contact with nature. I did not invest myself much, so much so that at the age of sixteen my parents, a little desperate, placed me in a horticultural school where I languished for three long years to finally find myself as a cashier in Versailles. I was collecting payment for the cars that entered the gardens. My schooling was relatively brief and essentially horticultural. Finally, it was after I started working that I really decided to be interested in culture and education, so I resumed schooling.
I.K.: You are now chief gardener at the Castle of Versailles. At what level did you start at Versailles? How old were you? How do you become the gardener of Versailles?
A.B.: I started in Versailles on July 1st, 1976, to be precise. I found a summer job to pay for my vacation as the cashier of the park. Cars could access the gardens (only part of course), and I was offered employment in the gardens in September of the same year. I really started as a trainee gardener in September 1978, so two years later, I then became gardener mosaic by competition, which would correspond to a highly specialized gardener. And then very quickly I realized that I was bored, that I needed initiatives, I needed to make decisions. I thought then about the garden’s Management, which did not suit me. I do not criticize what my predecessors did, but when you are twenty years old, necessarily, these are the things we do not like. I decided to put myself forward for the head gardener competition in 1981. I was twenty-four years old, everyone smiled at the idea that I could succeed in the competition. I was successful, I was fortunate to be first, so I could choose my assignment and that was Versailles.
I.K. : What is a working day in Versailles exactly? What is the role of a gardener today?
A.B. : It’s very complicated because my days are very hectic because I have different activities. I am on the radio, on TV, I write books, and of course, I run the team in charge of the park of Versailles. My day usually starts early at seven, seven-thirty in the morning. My main role is that of an orchestra conductor. Every gardener is a musician, I have a part to play, the score was written by others before me. My role is to coordinate the work of teams and synchronize with that of private companies, but my main job is to provide the best park possible and to transfer it to future generations in perfect condition. So, these are extremely complicated tasks and take more days because of the administrative and technical work. This is a role of representation and advice, so I have to go regularly to lectures throughout France and even abroad. A chief gardener at Versailles gets up early, finishes late, has little free time, works a lot, but is happy with what he does, so he does not feel that this work is a constraint but rather a joy.
I.K. : How many people are on your team ?
A.B.: It is always difficult to quantify the number of gardeners who work in the gardens because it is not just gardeners. Today, it is estimated that every day at Versailles in the gardens sixty to seventy gardeners hold the positions. They are reinforced by forty contractors, trainees, or apprentices and ten private companies. Simply saying, we can estimate over a year, on average, between 100 and 150 people work every day on the park. That is 850 hectares, which is not huge.
I.K. : Why is Le Nôtre the only world-famous gardener?
A.B. : Because I think it is difficult to shine near the Sun King. When we have Versailles with Louis XIV, Louis XV and Louis XVI, we then later add Napoleon and De Gaulle. When we know that great artists have all worked at Versailles, architects like Le Vau and Mansart, decorators and painters like Le Brun, and also artists – I think of La Fontaine, Molière – how would you like that a gardener can have posthumous fame? And it is true that André Le Nôtre may have a name that is still passed by word of mouth today. I just think that this is due to the undeniable talent of André Le Nôtre. Because even if I happen to scratch out the man, I see that his work is highly precise, and he was able to create gardens that were ultimately frozen in time. They are, I will say, immortal. When you design a garden in 1650, 1660, or 1700, and you are able today to see the garden in the same condition as when it was conceived, this engineering shows Le Nôtre was a great man. That is why he is the only one known.
I.K. : Is the king’s garden still active? And what are its functions today?
A.B.: There are two gardens. There is the king’s garden that is independent of Versailles, which is an independent entity under the Ministry of Agriculture. The land belongs to Versailles, but the teams on site do not depend on the park. But three years ago now we created a vegetable garden, the Garden of the Queen which is near the Petit Trianon, and its main function is to produce healthy vegetables, quality vegetables. We also have (I was going to say a client, even if the term is not very appropriate) a partner called Alain Ducasse. I am very happy that today, in the hamlet of the queen, the vegetable garden that provides vegetables may have allowed Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée to get his third (Michelin) star. Our vegetable garden has also just been accepted into the culinary college of France. I am relatively pleased with this appointment. So there are two gardens, one that works and provides a three-star restaurant, and the king’s garden that is independent of the park of Versailles.
I.K. : Have they always been in the same location?
A.B.: Both gardens have always existed. The king’s vegetable garden exists since its creation by La Quintinie, gardener extraordinaire. He does not have the glory of Le Nôtre, and it is unfair, as he deserved, how do we say, to have more praise after his death. I even believe that Quintinie exceeds Le Nôtre in the art of gardening. The Garden of the Queen is now located at the site of Louis XV’s nurseries, so it continues to thrive in a place where we always used to produce plants.
I.K. : Are there many women in your team?
A.B.: There are more and more, I was the first to recruit women into the gardens in 1981, and I am pleased that the numbers are growing. They increasingly acquire responsibility [in their positions]. I am very happy because I have always thought, I am not kidding, that woman is superior to man, superior in subtlety, finesse, reflection. There are more and more women in the gardens. I am very happy, I was the first to recruit women into the gardens, at a time when the corporation saw it with suspicion. Women were considered too sensitive, too fragile, unable to carry out work that requires energy, strength. I find that women are stronger than men. They bring also this little touch of sensitivity, this reflection that sometimes calms male teams that are a little rowdy. And finally, today, women are more numerous. They are also increasingly responsible for the sectors and teams. I note that the service of the gardens has changed considerably thanks to the women. For 30 or 40 years, garden services consisted exclusively of boys who were a little gruff and looked more like men. I would say, it was an “agricultural community” rather than the society in general. Today, a service like this garden of Versailles is French society as it really is. There are young and old, beautiful and less beautiful, intelligent and less intelligent, there are smiling, there are cranky people, there are very qualified people, others are not so qualified. I think today there is the strong image of society. Women have contributed greatly to change the garden service that can be extracted from the image it once had, which was not very positive.
I.K. : It was 200 years ago, were the working techniques the same as today?
A.B. : The techniques have ultimately not really changed. The method of application has indeed evolved. We always use the secateurs or shears for trimming hedges. We always do plantations with small staffs. It’s just that today we have the most modern devices. We no longer use wood in greenhouses to heat, we use gas. We have almost forgotten the cord that ensures the hedges are perfectly cut – we employ the latest technology, so the laser guide came to our rescue, but we still have the ancestral gestures. The gardener is able to demonstrate modernism using new techniques without denying those who had built the craft.
I.K.: How did they do so to cut such trees?
A.B.: So, gardeners have always been resourceful. After all, they invented the pruner. The pruner is mounted on a pole that allows cutting a branch high up while remaining on the ground. At Versailles, some hedges reach 13, 14, 15 meters high. Today, they are aerial work platforms that allow us to reach those heights. Formerly gigantic stairs on wheels with ladders that allowed agents to be high, it was an extremely dangerous job, extremely dangerous, and required much labor because you had a man on top of a ladder or a giant stepladder with a sickle attached to a flexible sleeve and two, three agents at the base to push up this facility on wheels. Fortunately, the techniques have changed a bit. Today, security and modern technologies are used, but the act, finally, is true – it does not change.
I.K. : Do you use organic products? Are the lime trees in the park of the castle of Versailles are edible? Why don’t you sell the limes?
A.B.: Today, fashion is bio (organic), and we did not expect it to be the (fashion) to become environmentally friendly. Since 1999, we are no longer pouring even a drop of pesticide in gardens. The only chemicals we are still adding are herbicides because we have not found a way to properly maintain the walkways without putting chemicals there. Precision, the garden of the Queen that provides the produce for Alain Ducasse’s restaurant receives no drop of chemical products, not even weed killer. We also do not put any organic product or very little. Simply, we are introducing cultural practices which allow us to observe the plant cycle, the plants produced need nothing when cultivated intelligently.
Installing a tree, shrub or flower in a land that suits it, with perfect exposure, you do not abuse the earth, you respect the plant, you have no reason to treat. A plant is like a living being, if it eats healthily, if it is free, it is happy, it is generally healthy.
I.K. : And to the question of limes in the park of the castle?
A.B.: There are many plants in Versailles which could be exploited. We do not use the limes and especially the flowers to make teas, but many tourists know that our limes are edible, they do not deprive each year in the summer to come and collect the flowers.
I.K. : You let them reap some leave then?
A.B.: No, we do not reap flower harvest yet. We have enough crops, we are not into lime tea.
I.K. : The relationship with the French garden has evolved considerably over the years… Tell us about this pastime…
A.B.: It is a pastime that was once reserved for idle, retirees, those who had nothing else to do. It is heartbreaking because the art of gardening, the pleasure of gardening is a healthy activity that helps maintain the body and the mind, which can be distracted, and sometimes also allows one to relieve all the worries of society. When we garden, we feel good, we are elsewhere. It is also a hobby that allows the whole family to “communicate” together, to engage in a collective passion. In addition, it is a hobby that allows one to reduce the cost of life. When we sow our own vegetables, well, we reduce the bill when we shop. For 30 or 40 years, the amateur gardener was considered a “has-been.” Fortunately, all that is changing. Just see the craze in France now for garden media, garden shows on television or radio. And see the plant parties to realize that! Finally, gardening is considered a respectable activity. Besides, it makes one more and more envious. We have not yet reached the level of the British in their passion, but we are trying to get close, and that is good. Today, there is actually an effort for gardening. We see more and more kindergartens that have a small vegetable garden. We see more and more students who are interested in the life of a tree, its growth, multiplication. There is a new fad, I believe, which is due to the fact that the planet is ill and that we know it is by taking care of the trees at home, those we see, that we can begin to heal them all.
I.K. : What would be your advice for an individual who wants to garden in winter? What kind of plants grow in winter?
A.B.: To have fun and not to seek to compel nature. The garden must not become too complicated or an intellectual activity. I often say that in winter, you have to look at what thrives from home to do roughly the same. Plants in northern France, olive trees or palms, it is grotesque. There is the chance that the plant is not resistant, but we can sometimes have surprises. There are sea buckthorns living in Paris. I saw a foot mimosa living in the heart of Paris, which is beautiful. I think when you want to do gardening in winter, it does not get too upset. Winter nature sleeps, so you have to respect it. Finally, winter is on the eve of spring. It is better to enjoy it, as the garden does – rest, get some sleep, and wait for spring when we can do absolutely everything in the garden.
I.K. : In flowerbeds, are there more perennials than annuals? Did you plant the same trees from Louis XIV’s time?
A.B.: There are many more annuals than perennials. Generally, our beds are made of annuals, planted in the spring and torn in the fall when the frost has done some damage. There are some perennials, but they are spread over the entire park. As for the trees, no, it is not the same tree, not always the same tree as before. Under Louis XIV, the vast majority of trees were elms. A disease had decimated plant essence, and elms had to be replaced by lime trees in particular, but wherever possible, we plant elms as they were at the time. That is why, 10 years ago, it was the chestnut tree that was planted along the green carpet, since at the time of Louis XIV, it was chestnut. This is why the trees planted near the Petit Trianon are poplars – because at the time of Marie-Antoinette, they were poplars. We try to get as close to what existed at the time of the creation of the garden. There were, however, some changes especially with the disappearance of elm trees.
I.K. : After the revolution, the park of Versailles was dismantled. Farms, land and timber were sold. What is the area of the gardens of Versailles today? What is the extent of the park?
A.B.: Under Louis XIV, the total surface area was 8,500 hectares which was colossal. It was, I believe, enclosed by a 43 km wall, a wall pierced by 22 monumental gates. Today, there are only – when I say that, it is still a very nice area – there are 850 hectares of land. Two-thirds are woods and groves. There is a French garden, a country garden, and an Anglo-Chinese garden, so this is a very broad area. For Paris, this is the area of the Bois de Boulogne. There are still very pretty parts remaining in this garden. Under Louis XIV, however, it was 10 times larger.
I.K. : In 1999, did the United States financially help the reforestation of the gardens of Versailles?
A.B.: There is now a kind of fantasy that would suggest that Americans are those who gave the most to the maintenance or restoration of the gardens. There were very large American patrons, I think of Rockefeller, which obviously allowed Versailles to be saved. If today Versailles is visited, we owe it to Rockefeller. Rockefeller also restored the Rheims Cathedral for example. Indeed, Americans have given a lot of money – they continue to do so, but there are also many patrons who are Swiss, I think of Mr. Hayek, and Breguet Watches allowed the restoration of the Petit Trianon. I think of the Vinci, a French company, to whom we owe the restoration of the Hall of Mirrors. So finally, today, I would say that all people in the world give to Versailles, and the Americans are not the only ones.
I.K. : What do you think of the films that have been shot at Versailles?
A.B. : I like that because I have a life quite extraordinary, I entered Versailles in 1976, and I have had lunch with Marie-Antoinette – Marie-Antoinette with the traits of Emmanuelle Béart or Jane Seymour. I met the Duchess de Polignac in the guise of Claudia Cardinale. I met people like Danton, who was played by Gérard Depardieu, so I like the idea that Versailles serves as a backdrop for filming precisely because it lends itself to the place, and it is still a way of magnifying our work. When looking at the Sofia Coppola film “Marie-Antoinette” and we see the scenes shot in the area of Marie-Antoinette, well, I think that this theater, this beautiful setting, we owe partly to gardeners today. I love film shoots. They contribute to the good reputation of the place. They help convey an image in the world, and I think it is the role of Versailles not only be a museum, a place, I would say, in history, but also a party place, a place of transmission, really a place of cultural activities.
I.K. : You are not just head gardener, but also a columnist in France Inter, and the author of several books. These include, most recently, Vice and Versailles, So I plant I am, Love at Versailles or even the True Story of the Garden of Versailles. Which one did you enjoy writing the most? Which one was the most popular? Have some of your books been translated into several languages?
A.B.: The one I had the most fun writing is the next. We always enjoy writing – I am writing a book that will talk about my mom’s Camellia for instance, the opportunity to talk about the history of Camellia and talk about my mom. The book for which I have the best memory is The Gardener of Versailles because this book was the first public (book) that I wrote. Books before The Gardener of Versailles were books only about gardening. This was the first book that required a minimum of literature and writing. I was surprised by the reception of the media, or actually, I was in all the media and I have only had rave reviews, so I was extremely appreciative. The book that has sold the most was Love at Versailles because the moment we speak a little bit of rascality, when we talk about sex, it immediately sells the most. In fact, I owe writing Love at Versailles to Philippe Bouvard because when I wrote The Gardener of Versailles, Philippe Bouvard had invited me to the “Grosses Têtes.” In the book, The Gardener of (Versailles), there are one or two naughty pages but no more. He had long wondered about these two pages, and he told me I should write a book about sex at Versailles because really, it should work. I found that in The Gardener of Versailles, all journalists spoke to me particularly about these two small pages, so I decided to do those pages in roguery, and I am very happy. Today, I am fortunate to be published in Italy, the United States and Japan. I am actually translated abroad.
I.K. : When the next book will be published?
A.B. : I hope it will come out in the spring. It is still necessary that I make it on time. I am working on it. I have a lot of paperwork projects, I have lots of activities and then with age, I begin to take my time also. That is to say, I do not want to withstand the stresses of publishers. They will wait if necessary because I do not want to rush things, I want to take time. Camelia my Mother is a small unpretentious and modest work that allows me to tell the story of a plant incredible journey. How many people are aware that it is still with leaves of Camellia that we make tea for example? I will tell this story. I like the idea now to take my time a little bit, and I want to enjoy life even more.
I.K. : Thank you Mr. Baraton, we wish you lots of future projects.
A.B.: Thank you, I hope that should not stop soon. I have many writing projects, until 2020, I think.
Credits of the interview
Editor of the interview: Isabelle Karamooz
Transcription and video: Pascale Nard