Another post in my series on some of the gardens I visited while in France, today we are talking about the famous gardens of Versailles. At one time the palace and grounds were the symbol of a nation: wealthy, powerful, and not to be trifled with. The gardens are dizzying in their scope and meticulously manicured. It is so large, in fact, we rented a golf cart on our visit and still barely covered a fraction of the grounds. While times and tastes have changed, many of the common horticultural practices of that by-gone era are still with us in modern times. But should they be?
A Famous Palace
Versailles palace started as a mere hunting lodge for Louis XIII in the early 1600s, but grew exponentially under his son, Louis XIV. The palace and gardens expanded and gained their grandeur under his reign. Known for his stylish flare and a love of luxury, he spared no expense. He hired famous landscape architects and kept a close eye on every detail. But why is a garden important to a king?
A Garden’s Purpose
More than just a pretty place to take a walk, the gardens were an expression of culture, national pride, and the absolute power of the king. Politically, it is savvy to have an impossibly huge and cushy estate to share with your courtiers, to ensure they can never dream of turning on you. And to have spacious and glittering gardens such as these might have been a jab at Italy, France’s direct competitor for all things culture and luxury. The gardens are not only designed with military symbolism, but also with real strategic overlooks. A large open plane with view from above is a strong position, metaphorically and literally. While on his land, nothing escapes the eye of the king!
Topiaries (700 in total!) shorn into unnatural geometric shapes. Hedges squared off at right angles. Lawns carved into patterns that look like a green tapestry from above. This style is very much about control. A show of man’s power over nature, and the ability to tame wilderness into our idea of aesthetically pleasing order. There is even an Orangerie at Versailles where hundreds of tropical trees (oranges, olive, palm, pomegranates, etc.) are housed, moved in or out depending upon conducive weather. And while this may seem like an overdone, classical style from the past, isn’t this what we are still doing today? Modern horticulture in neighborhoods and parks still priorities tidy, unnatural shapes, short cropped lawns, and a total replacement of the natural landscape. We continue to import exotic plants that take a painstaking amount of work to keep alive. It seems we still like the feeling of control.
Let’s Talk Lawn
Lawn was a relatively new fad of that time period. Short-cropped expanses of grass were showing up at all the fashionable chateaus and manor houses of northern Europe. Lawns of the period were maintained either with sheep, or a small army of servants and gardeners. To have a lawn meant you also had money and status. The lawns of Versailles are vast and stunning, but interestingly they were not weed free. Even now, the gardens of Versailles have clover, dandelions, and various other broadleaf intruders – so go easy on yourself! True monoculture is so unnatural and hard to achieve that even the most famous garden in the world can’t manage it.
What practical lessons can we learn from Versailles?
- Purpose. Are you trying to stave off a coup or intimidate a foreign diplomat? Not likely. But how about enhance curb appeal, deal with poor drainage, or create pollinator habitat? Identifying your purpose helps you make wise design choices.
- Relax. Our desire to control every leaf of every plant is a thing of the past and totally at odds with nature. But we know now how to design aesthetically pleasing landscapes that work with nature instead of against it, meaning less work and more enjoyment.
- Traditional ≠ Beautiful. Americans would do well to stop aiming for that impossible lawn standard set by aristocratic Europe (saving money and pollution along the way), and leave these outdated landscape principles behind as we move toward more sustainable practices.
All that said, of course the gardens of Versailles are a wonderful place to visit. The fountains, the mazes, the statues, it’s a feast for the eyes! And though I don’t think these horticultural principles should be emulated today, we can certainly enjoy their amazing historical restoration and learn from these innovative designs of the past.