Gardens: Glory and grandeur
In a long tradition of horticulture that continues to this day, French gardens are remarkable in their poise, vivacity and originality
Château du Rivau in the Loire Valley
The very first time that I saw a French garden in the flesh was as the teenage guest of a large and friendly Parisian family. Surrounding their home – a tall, elegantly crumbling townhouse in the suburb of Viroflay – was a romantic semi-wilderness filled with blood-red peonies, perfumed roses and a greengage tree or Reine Claude, from which a hammock lazily swung. Gardened with a very light hand, it was enchanting.
That same summer I visited the Gardens of Versailles, whose intricately manicured parterres, lawns, flowerbeds, formal fountains and vistas were the Sun King Louis XIV’s royal riposte to the magnificence of Château de Vaux-le Vicomte – the one-time home and gardens of his unwisely ambitious and eventually imprisoned minister of finance, Nicolas Fouquet. This one I loved for its theatricality, its grandeur of scale and its history.
In the years to come I’ve since had the chance to visit other remarkable French gardens, or “jardins remarquables” as they are classified by the French ministry of culture, although never anything like as many as I’d wish. All share the same elusive qualities that make them so quintessentially French – a poise, vivacity, originality and ever-so-slightly louche elegance that seems somehow effortless.
But then the French have always been great gardeners. It was French horticulture that gave us the world-famous Vilmorin nursery, that horticultural dynasty that began in the late 18th-century as chief seed supplier and adviser to Louis XV and endured for 200 years, during which time it introduced hundreds of different plants into modern cultivation. French horticulture also gave us Victor Lemoine’s lovely lilacs as well as hybrid roses, a process begun in the early 19th century by French horticulturist André Dupont. He was under the employment of Empress Joséphine, one of the first great rose collectors, creator of the famous gardens of Malmaison and patron of the celebrated 18th-century botanist and botanical illustrator – “the Raphael of flowers” – Pierre-Joseph Redoute.
That long tradition of horticulture continues. The recent interest in vertical gardens? Put it down to the work of the innovative Parisian botanist and ecological engineer, Patrick Blanc and his gravity-defying “green walls”.
Experimental garden design? The French took the lead decades ago with the International Garden Festival at Chaumont, now in its 22nd year. The resurgence of interest in kitchen gardens that are both beautiful and productive, and in organic, homegrown, fresh produce? It surely has a lot to do with those wonderful potager gardens and what the English food writer Elizabeth David admiringly described as “the French attitude of mind towards food”.