Good Garden Reads

“I sleep like a log, which is fitting for a gardener,” clearly defines Alain Baraton, author of “The Gardener of Versailles,” as a man who loves his work.  

Published May 16, 2014 5:00 AM
6 min read


Great-Dixter-th“I sleep like a log, which is fitting for a gardener,” clearly defines Alain Baraton, author of “The Gardener of Versailles,” as a man who loves his work.



The-Gardener-of-VersaillesThe Romance of Gardening

“I sleep like a log, which is fitting for a gardener,” clearly defines Alain Baraton, author of “The Gardener of Versailles,” as a man who loves his work. His all-consuming love is the gardens of Versailles. He is the head gardener overseeing what could be considered The Mount Olympus of gardens.

His memoir captures the essence of the connection between gardeners and the earth they tend, no matter how humble or grand.

Baraton weaves his own path as a gardener with the life of the Versailles grounds, and his role overseeing its team of eighty gardeners tending to 350,000 trees and 30 miles of walkways on 2,100 acres. He richly evokes this legendary place and the history it has witnessed but also its quieter side that he feels privileged to know.

The same gardens that hosted the lavish lawn parties of Louis XIV remain enchanting, private places where visitors try to get themselves locked in at night, lovers go looking for secluded hideaways, and elegant grandmothers have no problem stealing plants! “The Gardener of Versailles” gives an unprecedentedly intimate view of one of the grandest places on earth.

The soul of the garden is its majestic and mature trees. The book opens with the devastating hurricane of 1999. An unprecedented storm swept across Europe leaving devastation wherever it went. The winds whipped through Versailles at over 100 mph, uprooting ancient trees, decapitating many others, wiping out box hedges, and damaging almost every planting.

His first thought following the storm was, “The Park I had long loved, the park to which I owed my identity, was now dead.” Standing in the wasteland that was once a paradise, he contemplated the magnitude of the task before him — restoration of Versailles. This gardener’s heart was broken. His love affair with the garden of his dreams was crushed by one powerful storm.

Like a phoenix rising from ashes, Baraton stiffened his resolve and coordinated the restoration and improvement of the grounds. Out of this tragedy came some long sought improvements. He reinstituted plant varieties that were original to the gardens. He added jardinières that had been absent from grounds and filled with period plants. He was aghast that anyone would plant a rose without scent and replaced all new ones with old fragrant varieties.

Baraton believes romance is key to any successful garden. “Gardens lend themselves to romance, and after more than thirty years as a gardener, I’m convinced that a garden’s capacity for inspiring romance should be a criterion for evaluation in terms of its horticultural excellence. A garden capable of attracting lovers is a success.”

 Gardens reach into your soul, writes the author, whether you plant them, harvest them or simply enjoy them. The author philosophizes about the ability of gardens to provide space for deep reflection, and he writes poetically about the beautiful power of the grounds he tends. He also provides some practical advice the best places for a lovers’ tryst.

As a true gardener he admits the line is blurred between his job and his life. That is the curse of passion. Curse or not, passion is what motivates. Lost in desire, ignoring time, consumed by what excites and stimulates, what could be more exhilarating. That is the main point of this book, find your passion and pursue it with the same romantic abandon you pursue that magical mate.


Trending out of Traditional

Great-Dixter,-Long-BorderTim Richardson is Britain’s leading garden writer, contributing to every garden journal of note. His latest book, “The New English Garden,” is large format, which lends itself well to lush photographs. Unlike most coffee table books, once you finish flipping from one great garden photograph to another, it is well worth reading his thoughtful insights on planting and design.

The past 15 years has been an exceptionally rich period in English garden design. This book features 25 gardens that have gone through an intense phase of creativity and innovation during this time span.

Breaking from a rich garden tradition can be difficult as the traditional look is so sumptuous. Traditional gardens, even though as stylish and well-appointed as any powdered-up duchess, may appear stale. Richardson has chosen gardens that feel alive even in the most historic surroundings. A new garden can be born of an old one, retaining part of an older identity while developing a new character.

Richardson feels the result of creative endeavors in artistic and design disciplines tend to be object-based. Buildings stand more or less done. A picture or sculpture sits in a gallery where it can be approached and circled. It is static and frozen in time. These objects of cultural production have a tangible value and can in most cases be bought and sold.

Gardens are different. They operate on another plane, with human intervention always subject to modification. Unlike other art and design forms which stand as undiluted statements of the artists’ imaginations. The fascination and ephemeral nature of crafting a garden is that over time it is guaranteed to change. Garden- making is all about process, not product.

The newness of English Gardens is the trend over time toward a more naturalistic approach to garden making with a simpler approach to horticulture. German and Dutch public parks were the test plots for this new style: Karl Foerster of Germany (a grass is named after him), and Piet Oudolf, the Dutch landscape visionary behind The Highline plantings in New York City, both began using a new palette of repeated grasses and large drifts of perennials.

Trentham is a fine example of the new transforming the old. It is a Capability Brown landscape imaginatively reworked for the 20th century. The classic garden layout has been preserved while the plant palette has been radically transformed.

Great Dixter, which dates to 1460, was in disrepair when Nathaniel Lloyd saved it in 1910. He hired Edwin Lutyens to renovate the collection of farm buildings and gardens. His son, Christopher Lloyd, inherited an estate defined by yew-hedge enclosures. Opinionated, argumentative, and gloriously eccentric, he changed the face of English gardening.

Great Dixter was Lloyds’ lifelong passion. He planned gardens to appear at their best in every month of the year. Steeped in tradition and framed by yews, he pioneered new plant combinations. Dixter is a premier horticultural destination.

Any plant without a long blooming season would not do for him. Before he died in 2006, he maintained an Edwardian intensity of gardening, which is possible only because of a crack staff of gardeners. He said, “The basis of good gardening must always be a love of plants, and this love, when found, shines out for what it is and communicates with other plant lovers style of plant combinations.”

Scampton Hall is a bold, ambitious, and original horticultural move. Pier Oudolf’s predominantly used ornamental grasses and perennials within the framework of the walled garden. Basically a garden of grasses with some perennials pushed to the sides. A style that is unsettling for traditionalists. For others it challenges them to think outside the walled garden tradition and consider what can be possible within.

How can a garden be described as new? It would appear that gardens made or re-made which have a bright vision or which feel alive even in the most historic (polite for staid) surroundings. Many dramatic garden designs are illustrated and described in “The New English Garden.” Anyone thinking about a new garden or changing one will find this book inspirational. 

— Reviewed by Chris Cohan

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