Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
In Versailles, one might expect the King’s Kitchen Garden (le Potager du Roi) to be designed as a perfectly curated French garden. However, the historical garden that was created in 1683 by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie to produce fresh fruits and vegetables for Louis XIV and his court has retained its prime function: an innovative and experimental producing ground. Follow us off-the-beaten path, right by the Palace of Versailles and stroll this lesser-known and atmospheric gem…
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It is easy to understand why Louis XIV liked ambling the garden of La Quintinie. Bordering the geometrical and perfectly designed and maintained alleys of the park of the Palace of Versailles, the Potager du Roi has been bustling with an extremely diverse selection of plants. The King would sometimes give a royal hand to his 30 full-time gardeners, attending to some of the 5,000 fruit trees growing against the 17th century walls or giving a bit of his attention to some of the thousands of vegetables grown in enclosed squares.
More than just a kitchen garden, Le Potager du Roi became a real pride for the King who would visit it with ambassadors and heads of state, or send them his favourite pear variety. La Quintinie innovatively created micro-climates by playing with the solar exposition and various materials such as glass to shelter plants. He succeeded in producing strawberries in March, peas in April and figs in June. This was completely revolutionary at the time!
Similar to what is carried out today, La Quintinie enriched the soil thanks to the use of manure (a mixture of animal faeces and straw) finding out that they would have different nutritious properties depending on the animal. As we are walking the alleys with Antoine Jacobsohn, Deputy Director in charge of Le Potager du Roi, he explains that reduction of chemical herbicides began in 2006 (their use was entirely stopped in 2013), and there are no chemical treatments of any sort since 2015. This was a tough decision to make when taking care of old fruit trees, many of which are dating back to 1880 after a tough Winter killed most former trees. “Isn’t keeping them alive year after year thanks to many treatments just counter-productive?” Antoine questions. As he does so, we notice blue dots on the wall separating the next planting square: copper sulphate had been used since the 19th century as a fungicide. It was time to stop. “Of course, we are a historical garden but this is not why we should do only what was done under Louis XIV”, explains the passionate gardener and historian. All of La Quintinie’s successors understood it well too: under Louis XV, innovation continued. The garden specialised in rare and special fruits offered by heads of states or brought back by French explorers: coffee plants, pineapples, jasmine, bananas… Another revolution! Today, ancient fruit varieties are still cultivated such as the Api Apple or Lady Apple variety dating back to the 17th century (amongst about 160 other types of apples), or the Louise-Bonne d’Avranche (Louise-Bonne of Jersey) and the Bon Chrétien d’Hiver (Good Christian of Winter), Louis XIV’s favourite pears – along another 90 pear varieties.
It is striking to realise that the spirit of La Quintinie has remained: experimentation and innovation are still paramount to the Potager du Roi. Perfectly manicured French gardens exist such as the stunning Villandry in the Loire Valley or the inspiring garden of Vaux-le-Vicomte that preceded the gardens of Versailles, and the know-how is passed down. DNA databases for plants are the mission of other research institutions such as the National Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in South Africa dealing with totally different ecosystems. But gardens where ancient techniques are still researched and maintained in order to keep innovating for the future are rare.
Antoine refers to the writings of La Quintinie often. For instance, he was the first to differentiate flower buds vs. branch buds and hence opening a brand-new approach to tree pruning and multiplying possibilities. Just like we are today, the King probably marvelled at all the different shapes of trees, especially when walking amongst the fig trees, producing his favourite fruit while enjoying their unmistakable scents and picking up the delicate nuances of the many different varieties grown in Versailles. Beyond aesthetics, these pruning techniques allowed to even the production of fruits by ventilating the vegetation better, increasing solar radiation while maximizing the occupancy of the space.
When it comes to variety selection, La Quintinie wrote that he tried 100 varieties of melons to eventually cultivate only two: his goal was to bring the best savours to the King’s banquets regardless of the seasonality of the plants. The selection method has not changed much. Against the 17th century walls delimiting the squares, several varieties of a specific tree are grown in order to select the best adapted ones, which are then planted in lines in the square.
Antoine likes reminding it: after all, “today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems” and this is why education and discovery are central to the mission of Le Potager du Roi: beyond being a historical and remarkable garden, it is also a campus for École Nationale Supérieure de Paysage (ENSP), a prime French school for landscape architects. The best materials for walls in order to shelter trees while diffusing humidity, or working on productive fruit trees for the city of tomorrow are some of the experimentations being worked on at Le Potager du Roi.
While the Palace of Versailles and its grounds can be overwhelming and overcrowded, the neighbouring King’s Kitchen Garden is an atmospheric place that has retained its 17th century spirit focused around innovation. Today, Le Potager du Roi is an authentic farming land, a teaching ground and an experimental area as the school for the training of landscape architects where the lucky few in the know, like you, can stroll its alleys, enjoy the scents and taste its savours.
- Refer to the website of the King’s Kitchen Garden to plan your visit.
- Today, about 800 species are grown in the 9 hectares (25 acres) of Le Potager du Roi that produces about 15 tons of fruits and 25 tons of vegetables yearly. They can be bought at the store on site (as well as derived products).
- Le Potager du Roi is a mixed space where artists get produced. Check the program to attend some of the bi-monthly representations to experience the gardens differently from theatre to contemporary dancing or picnics at night.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.
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