Versailles - Potager du Roi

The King's garden

The gardens of the Versailles, near Paris, are magnificent: there are classically designed basins and fountains, lawns and flower beds, wooded groves, and even a canal. But nearby is another royal garden which some people think is even more impressive. This is the King's kitchen garden - the Potager du Roi - which for centuries was only accessible to a privileged few. It was created by Louis XIV and it has been maintained since the 17th century either as a royal garden or as a teaching establishment. In 1991 it opened to the public. It used to supply the King with an amazing selection of out of season fruit and vegetables; including melons, apples, peaches, nectarines, and coffee.

Louis's original kitchen garden at the Chateau became too small. A plot of fertile land miles away was proposed, but Louis chose 23 acres of swamp a couple of miles from the chateau. It was eventually turned into a garden capable of feeding a thousand people. The person who achieved this was La Quintinie, who had trained as a lawyer. He went to Italy, where the gardens he saw inspired him to change jobs. He was unusually talented, and the King heard about him in 1661.

Work on the new kitchen garden began in 1678. La Q had canals dug for drainage and top soil was imported to fill the swamp. The royal architect Mansart built walls, terraces, and a central pool and fountain. The garden is mainly situated below ground level; it is effectively in an enormous shallow pit about 12 feet lower than the surrounding city. With careful pruning and maximum care, fruit ripens very well on this site; it's sheltered and gets good sun exposure. The gardens used to produce lettuce and asparagus in December, and strawberries and melons in March. They became famous for extending the season for produce. There is also a garden where fig trees used to be grown. At one time there were 700 fig trees which supplied the King for half the year.

You can visit the garden on your own. But if you understand French, it is worth going around with one of the guides, some of wich are very well-informed. I learned a little from a young lady who was involved with the pruning and training of apple trees. I also learned that the King would only eat vegetables which had grown in the sun, which ruled out root vegetables. At that time, the French did not eat potato anyway, but the King would not eat carrots or other root vegetables either. His favourites were globe artichokes, asparagus cooked in cream, and peas, which were considered a delicacy for eating after dessert.

The King's garden is a national monument and part of the National landscaping school. It produces 50 tons of fruit and 20 tons of vegetables each year. There is a wide variety of produce, but for me the most interesting were the hundreds of varieties of apples, many of them quite rare, and all of them trained into immaculate forms - we saw stepover trees, inverted doubled U trees, all sorts of espalier, and even two goblet trees.

Versailles is about 40 minutes outside Paris on the train. If like me you are interested in training fruit trees, you will remember a a visit here for the rest of your life.

Nigel Deacon, Diversity website

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