Alain Baraton: "The garden, the most beautiful space to meditate"

Alain Baraton: “The garden, the most beautiful space to meditate”

What is so special about this rose that you want to write a whole book about it?

While working at Versailles, I had time to observe the behavior of visitors in the gardens. As soon as they see a rose, they approach it to smell it. It’s instinctive! Beyond the perfume, this flower has so many things to tell us: about botany, but also about literature and the history of civilisations. It gives rise to various expressions, it conveys myths, it translates feelings.

Speaking of feeling, the rose evokes love above all…

A rustic bouquet of daisies is charming. But for a declaration of love, the red rose is essential. Whatever its colors, it represents a constantly renewed miracle. Realize that one day, a small seed gave birth to a shrub with stems, thorns, leaves and then in the end flowers appear, all with the complicity of man!

A miracle that you have witnessed for more than forty years at Versailles. At 65, would you have imagined such a career?

No way! School didn’t interest me. I have often been told: “What are we going to do with you?” I wanted to become a photographer to discover the world, and also to find an excuse to approach girls, because I was very shy. By doing gardening work with the neighbors, I was able to buy the equipment to develop my pictures in the basement of the family pavilion, in La Celle-Saint-Cloud (Yvelines). Worried about my future, my parents found me a place in a private horticulture school in Tremblay-sur-Mauldre. I stayed there for three years, in boarding school. A painful period for the freedom-loving young man that I was…

Why is this handover essential?

To develop our profession, it is certainly necessary to demonstrate creativity and innovation by using the technologies made available to us, but also to draw inspiration from the practices of our predecessors. The elders taught me the fragility of nature, which we could sometimes accompany, but not always. Today, I know with certainty that we need nature much more than nature needs us. In fact, there are two natures: the one that we see and that we maintain, and another, hidden, which only requires a little time to express itself, without needing the hand of the man. Nature turns out to be much more independent than it seems. The proof, during confinement. At Versailles, we stopped mowing the lawns. I didn’t suspect for a moment that there could be so many seeds in the ground to give birth to such pretty flowers!

Four centuries later, how do you relate to the legacy of André Le Nôtre?

I must admit that our man left us some masterpieces: Versailles, of course, but also Chantilly (Oise), Fontainebleau, Vaux-le-Vicomte (Seine-et-Marne), Saint-Cloud (Hauts-de- -Seine) and many others. But I resent him for having left very few documents, no books, and for not having trained apprentices. Le Nôtre designed gardens that served as instruments of the power of Louis XIV, where nature had to obey the owner of the place. Me, I prefer the landscaped garden, a space of freedom and wandering. Today, I see many cities and countries opting for the French garden model. I see it as a bad sign, making me fear the return of a form of dictatorship.

Le Nôtre designed gardens that served as instruments of the power of Louis XIV, where nature had to obey the owner of the place. Me, I prefer the landscaped garden, a space of freedom and wandering.

Your father thought of Heaven as an eternal garden, why?

Because he was a practicing Catholic. For my part, from the age of 18, I played truant, which pained him a lot. I am anxious to reach heaven and find myself face to face with Saint Peter exclaiming: “We were waiting for you because there is work!”

Do you conceive that the garden can be a spiritual place?

Of course! There is no better place to meditate, take stock of your life, listen to a person in distress or confide. Regardless of their religion, I am sure that a believer will find their prayer space more easily in a garden than in the middle of concrete.

And what about the gardener’s place?

In his time, Voltaire saw gardening as the most noble of professions. I claim it! The stereotype sometimes used of the young person in school failure directed by default in the green spaces saddens me. I am a gardener, not a landscaper! André Le Nôtre was one of them, he created a green space from scratch. The gardener can be recognized by his hands, by his way of talking about trees and plants. However, as everyone can garden, we think that it is a profession within the reach of anyone.

Isn’t that true?

It is a work in its own right that follows the rhythm of the seasons, which requires knowledge of flowering periods, pruning techniques, the ability to harmonize plants with each other, to design perspectives. A gardener is also a person who transmits happiness, will always have an anecdote to tell the passerby, who guides visitors in a park…

Faced with the drought, the gardens suffer. In Versailles too?

Unquestionably. The mortality of certain trees is high, such as beeches, certain conifers also die, not to mention the difficulty of recovering the trees that we plant.

Should we water our gardens?

Above all, waste should be avoided by collecting rainwater. That we water gardens with drinking water is beyond me! At Versailles, we use raw water from the networks that supply the fire hydrants. Why don’t we generalize this device? Isn’t it better to allow vegetables to be watered in your garden than to have to buy them from the local supermarket, brought in by truck from Spain? Faced with the complex situation caused by the drought, I do not have a ready-made answer. I only know that putting water in the ground helps sustain life there.

In the absence of a solution, you have been distilling for twenty years in La main verte, on the antenna of France Inter, your advice and your knowledge…

I am, in fact, one of the few columnists not to give myself a summer break. On the air, as in my books, I am driven by the desire to transmit, but also to entertain as many people as possible. And to tell the truth, you see me amazed at the interest that people have had in me for all these years!


September 10, 1957 Born in La Celle-Saint-Cloud (Yvelines). Fifth of a family of seven children.

1973 Enters the private horticultural high school in Tremblay-sur-Mauldre (Yvelines).

1976 First job as a cashier, in Versailles.

nineteen eighty one Received in the head gardener competition.

1999 Prohibits the use of pesticides in the gardens of Versailles

2003 Starts La main verte, a weekend chronicle on France Inter, from 7:45 a.m. to 8 a.m.

2014 Knight of the Legion of Honour.

2022 Commander of the Order of Agricultural Merit.

2023 Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

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