Book Reviews, Gardens

Book Review: The Gardener of Versailles: My Life in the World’s Grandest Garden by Alain Baraton

July 11, 2014

gardner of versailles

For more than thirty years Alain Baraton has worked and lived at the Park of the Palace of Versailles, the world’s greatest garden. Here, amidst the venerated landscape designed by André Le Nôtre for King Louis XIV, he honed his horticultural skills, evolving from a seasonal ticket taker to gardener-in-chief. The Gardener of Versailles recounts his journey, serving as both a memoir and love-letter to the place that shaped his sensibilities and stirs his passion.

Baraton begins with the tragic storm that devastated Versailles in December 1992 when more than 10,000 trees, including some of the park’s most historic, were destroyed. In disbelief at the park’s damage, he was immediately called into action, tasked with overseeing the clean-up and restoration efforts. These activities empowered Baraton to write his story and acquire “a voice” to use in  the service of the gardens he loves. (More about the storm and its aftermath can be found on the website Chateau de Versailles).

The Gardener of Versailles is neither a sentimental or overly romanticized view of Baraton’s tenure at Versailles. Determined to show the public face of the park he regales the reader with tales of idiosyncratic encounters with colleagues, bureaucrats, tourists and the “regulars” who visit daily for any number of reasons, including a desire for solitude, the delusional belief that they are Marie Antoinette or to engage in romantic escapades.

Woven throughout is Baraton’s personal narrative which takes him from a directionless teen, haphazardly riding his motorbike throughout the French countryside, to a committed horticulturalist and gardener-in-chief with oversight for 80 gardeners and 350,000 trees. In this capacity, Baraton oversaw the restoration of the park to André Le Nôtre’s plan, employing historic techniques while experimenting with wildflowers and grasses in ancillary areas.

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Baraton in front of the Parterres du Grand Trianon (Toute les Nouvelles).

As for Le Nôtre, to whom he devotes a chapter, Baraton expresses ambivalence. “A good gardener, son and grandson of gardeners” who wished to be a painter, André Le Nôtre is described as deeply sad, a social climber who was more of an architect than a gardener with “good connections, means and a king who adored him” in whom Baraton finds no trace of genius. For inspiration, he looks instead to his trio of gardening greats: Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, founder of the King’s potager, botanist Claude Richard and Jacques Briot, head gardener at the Trianon.

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A bust of Le Nôtre at the entrance to Jardin des Tuileries.

Historical commentary aside, The Gardener of Versailles, provides a rare, personal and unprecedented view of one of the most iconic landscapes in the world and complements the existing canon of scholarly publications about the Palace, Gardens and Le Nôtre. Read it for fun or, as Baraton would suggest, joy, the essential ingredient that makes a good gardener.

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The Gardener of Versailles was published to popular acclaim in France in 2006 and has been translated into English by Christopher Brent Murray.

To learn more about the gardens visit: http://en.chateauversailles.fr/gardens-and-park-of-the-chateau-

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, July 2014.

Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply Of Gardens July 16, 2014 at 1:55 am

    Oh! So many wonderful gardening books, so limited time. Is The Gardener of Versailles a must?
    I am very interested to read that Baraton does not consider Le Notre a genius, but the other 3. Maybe I should read up on them?

    • Reply Patrice Todisco July 16, 2014 at 9:07 am

      That’s his opinion! The book is fun to read and offers a very different perspective on the inner life of a public space. Speaking of perspective, I am currently reading Le Notre in Perspective which is a series of essays compiled by the Chateau de Versailles to mark the 400th anniversary of his birth. Will have a review in the September Leaflet so stay tuned.

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