When we locals look to get away from it all, many of us head to a garden property known as Dumbarton Oaks. And this May, I had the pleasure of taking a private tour of the estate. It was an opportune time, not only for appreciating the spectacular flowers from behind the scenes, so to speak, but also for the magnificent spring weather . Continue reading →
High on a hilltop in Orange, Virginia, there’s a garden property that will leave you speechless. Known as Mount Sharon, it occupies the second highest point in the county. The magnificent estate is seldom open to the public. So recently, when my garden club received an invitation to tour the gardens, I could hardly wait to go. Continue reading →
Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles
What if you could walk down the street and, next to shrubs and other flowers, fruits and vegetables were growing? That’s the hope of Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at the Palace of Versailles. I spent an afternoon with Jacobsohn recently when he came to DC’s Alliance Française to speak about his role in managing this famous French garden.
About Antoine Jacobsohn
So who is Antoine Jacobsohn? Few would guess from his perfect French accent that he actually hails from New Jersey. An avid Francophile, Jacobsohn moved to France in his early 20s after graduating from Cornell University’s College of Agriculture. After pursuing a series of gardening-related jobs, he eventually landed at Versailles. And in 2008 he became director of the palace’s vegetable and fruit gardens commonly known as the King’s Kitchen Garden (Le Potager du Roi in French.)
The Potager is not part of the ornamental gardens at Versailles; rather, it is located on a 24-acre plot smack dab in the middle of the city. As Jacobsohn puts it, the garden is surrounded by an “urban desert”. He finds this worrisome for the future. As city dwellers have increasingly less access to food, he believes we should rethink how we shape our gardens. And that means incorporating fruits and vegetables into the design.
“People can recognize spinach on a shelf, but not in the ground,” he said.
In the future that Jacobsohn envisions, fresh produce would not only taste great, but it would be easily accessible to the public. Towards this end, he and his team of gardeners are experimenting, all while respecting the techniques honed over centuries in the Versailles gardens. He hopes to revolutionize the way people interact with their food while putting the world more in sync with its environment.
About the King’s Kitchen Garden
The Versailles fruit and vegetable garden (known in French as Le Potager du Roi) was created in the 17th century to provide fresh fruit and vegetables for Louis XIV and his court. The King appointed Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, an accomplished vegetable and fruit gardener, as director of the project.
Jean Baptiste de La Quintinie
Quintinie’s first task was to take a swamp and turn it into a working garden. To accomplish this, he drained the swamp and brought in tons of soil, which he enriched with manure from the King’s stables. Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Versailles’ architect, designed the layout for the garden. The original plan called for 29 terraced garden squares grouped around a central fountain.
Original plan for le Potager du Roi
La Quintinie’s genius lay in his deep understanding of plants and his ability to make things grow. To Mansart’s plan, he added tall walls and terraces designed to trap sun and heat with the goal of encouraging microclimates to develop.
In addition to providing sheltered areas where fruits and vegetable could thrive, the towering walls also served as supports for fruit trees. Today they showcase La Quintinie’s grand artistry in producing sculpted and espaliered trees. Some of these fruit tree shapes (click link for great photos of some of these amazing shapes) are so complicated that they take up to 15 years to develop.
The Sun King so loved La Quintinie’s garden that he ordered a parapet walk to be created so he and his entourage could study his gardeners at work.
Today’s garden is rooted in discovery
‘A good gardener must have passion for new discoveries’ – Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie (Instruction pour les jardins fruitiers et potagers 1690)
From its earliest days, the King’s Kitchen Garden was focused on problem solving and innovation. The ready availability of fresh horse manure and experimentation with different kinds of glass and bell shelters helped La Quintinie develop elaborate techniques for producing fruit out of season. And the array of produce the kitchen garden was able to grow was staggering. According to records, there were 50 different varieties of pears, 20 varieties of apples and 16 types of lettuce, to name just a few.
Today the Potager is run by the Ecole Nationale Supérieure du Paysage (National School of Landscape Architecture) whose logo is a stylized version of the central square of the kitchen garden. Jacobsohn believes this logo is important because it represents the central question posed by today’s gardens. That is, how do you transition from garden to landscape and back again?
To address this conundrum, students at the school follow a progression of studies. The first year, they learn about creating gardens. The second, they study garden spaces. Finally, the third year is devoted to working on large-scale infrastructure projects such as railroad tracks that crisscross the landscape and connect one landscape to another.
The golden Grille de Roi provided private entrance for the King to the garden
Jacobsohn sees a fundamental contradiction between the way historical gardens were managed and the way today’s landscape architecture schools view their craft: namely, students think of themselves more as conceptualizers or creators, and not necessarily as gardeners. To address this, the students at Versailles have the opportunity to work in the garden, to feel how the garden communicates with them and to learn about the soil.
“What’s most important to me,” said Jacobsohn, “are the gardeners. You can have a space without gardeners, but without gardeners, a garden doesn’t exist.”
Today’s Potager maintains its central fountain/Photo via Alliance Française
Jacobsohn and his team of gardeners (of which there are just nine) strive daily to balance historic gardening practices with contemporary understandings. The garden “collection” now includes 400 old and recent varieties of fruit and as many vegetables grown specifically for the public. Great taste, eco-friendly growth practices and historical value all take precedent, and each year, the King’s Kitchen Garden produces about 40 tons of fruit and 20 tons of vegetables all of which they sell at the King’s Kitchen Garden store.
Fresh produce from today’s King’s Kitchen Garden/Photo via Alliance Française
Down the line, Jacobsohn would like to see the garden increase its output, which raises the question: How does an historical garden adhere to old methods and still be great fruit producers given modern pests and diseases? Jacobsohn notes that if the garden is to continue producing in large quantities, these two things have to go hand in hand.
For example, although pear trees have been cultivated around the central fountain for centuries, they require herbicides and other invasive measures to remain productive. Jacobsohn, who strives to be as eco-friendly and chemical free as possible, raises the controversial idea of someday trading them out for less disease-prone plum trees.
“It is worth remembering,” said Jacobsohn, “that an historical space was created to be new, not old, and as such should inspire innovation.”
Opened to the public in 1991, the King’s Kitchen Garden now hosts many cultural events in addition to being home to 200 landscape architecture students and 350 continuing education students. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. For more information click here for the official website.
There are so many beautiful, themed gardens in Buenos Aires I’ve almost lost count. But, there’s one little gem that stands out from all the others. Located in the city’s Palermo neighborhood, it’s the zen-like Jardín Japonés. Think acres of green foliage, a shimmering lake spanned by lipstick red bridges and colorful schools of koi, and you’ve got the picture. Continue reading →
In Annapolis, Maryland there’s an impressive brick mansion that towers over the city’s historic district. Built in the 1760s, the home once belonged to William Paca, a signatory to the United States Declaration of Independence and third Governor of Maryland. In the 1960s, the property underwent a painstaking restoration. And today, the William Paca House and Garden is a faithful representation of what a Colonial-era residence used to be, offering visitors a quiet respite in the heart of this capital city.
RESTORATION OF THE GARDEN
Aided by two seemingly unrelated events, the restoration of the William Paca garden took an unusual course. Separated by almost two centuries, the events ended up providing important details about the original garden. The happy coincidence enabled historians and horticulturalists to recreate the original 18th-century landscape, complete with buildings and plants, with near-perfect precision.
The first event took place in 1772 when Charles Willson Peale (1741-1847) painted a full-length portrait of William Paca in front of his garden. The painting documented key architectural features of the landscape. These included a red brick wall, central pathway, two-story white summerhouse and a Chippendale-style bridge.
Portrait of William Paca by Charles Willson Peale
The second event took place over a century later during the early 1900s when the house functioned as a hotel for the U.S. Naval Academy. To make room for new dormitories, the Academy added fill dirt to a portion of the property. By happy accident, the soil acted as a cushion, preserving all of the brick foundations of Paca’s original garden and outbuildings.
According to Joseph Sherren, an intern with the curatorial department,
“It was one of those happy accidents that come about once in a lifetime.”
Main view into the William Paca Garden
Using the details in the Peale portrait along with what was revealed in the excavated foundations, researchers and historians gradually reconstructed the bones of the original garden. They then consulted Colonial-era garden manuals and plant lists to determine what plants might have grown in the various spaces.
Today the garden is composed of a series of terraces enclosed by shrubbery and brick walls, a style characteristic of colonial gardens in the Chesapeake region. The third terrace slopes down toward a pond and the Wilderness Garden. And the property’s focal point, the two-story white summerhouse, presides on a small hill at the end of the garden, just like it does in Peale’s painting.
TOURING THE WILLIAM PACA HOUSE GARDEN
The tour begins on the uppermost terrace, which was designed to serve as a platform for entertaining and for viewing the garden. It is the first glimpse a visitor has of the garden.
The next two levels are laid out in parterres. The Rose Parterre (on the left) features many heirloom roses including alba roses, which were being grown as far back as the Middle Ages. There is also a broad assortment of companion annuals and perennials. During my afternoon visit, the flesh pink rose ‘Maiden’s Blush’, purple allium, verbena bonariensis, perennial foxglove and tropical-looking yellow canna lilies were all blooming.
Close-up of purple verbena bonariensis
The FlowerParterre, which lies directly opposite from the Rose Parterre, was designed to provide three seasons of colorful flowers. At the time of my visit, pink and apricot daylilies, soft pink echinacea and purple liatris were all in bloom. Spiky blue veronica, golden lantana and lavender-pink Stokes’ asters rounded out the mix.
The Kitchen Garden features a colonial-style shed and trellises and latticework crafted from branches and string. I observed lush crops of salad greens, snap peas and squash growing in raised beds, a tiny shelf stacked with herbs planted in terra cotta pots and many heirloom varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries and figs trained as espaliers. (Products made from the fruits, herbs and vegetables grown in the garden are sold in the gift shop.)
On the second terrace, the Holly and Boxwood Parterres provide year-round interest with their carefully maintained geometric designs.
The Summerhouse is the focal point of the garden. It lies in the wilderness area, which consists of a series of meandering paths through beds of mixed plantings. Reminiscent of the ‘picturesque’ style of gardening that was popular in Colonial America during Paca’s time, the miniature, thumb-shaped building is reached by crossing a Chinese-style latticework bridge that spans a fish-shaped pond.
The upper floor of the two-story building served as a viewing point for the garden during the summer while providing the Paca family with cool garden breezes from the Chesapeake Bay.
Tail-end (literally) of the fish-shaped pond
THE ART OF DRAINAGE
Paca was an innovator when it came to designing ways to channel the natural runoff across his property. He built a system of drains that diverted water into pleasing garden elements. At the lowest level of his garden, he constructed a brick canal to direct water into a spring house. It is a key architectural element in the lower terrace of the garden.
Today, the natural spring, which is still active in the spring house, feeds the pond. In Paca’s day, the water was also repurposed for household use.
One of Paca’s brick canals used to drain water from the garden
The State of Maryland and Historic Annapolis bought the Paca mansion in 1965 to save it from demolition. They spent the following decade restoring the house and garden. In 1971, the site was recognized as a National Historic Landmark. For more on the house and gardens, click here for the website.
The Kips Bay Decorator Show House, now in its 44th year, is one of New York City’s top springtime attractions. For eight weeks, some of the country’s leading designers and architects lend their energy and talent to creating an amazing array of indoor and outdoor spaces. This year’s show house, located at the newly-renovated Carlton House Townhouse on East 61st Street, features a veritable treasure trove of ideas from 21 top designers. I visited recently to see what was trending in the gardening world. Continue reading →
A few days ago I heard an interesting broadcast on BBC about Green Circle Growers, based in Oberlin, Ohio. The huge state-of-the-art company decided five years ago to shift a large part of their business to orchids. To make the change, they looked to Dutch experts for advice, adopting the “Dutch Method” to their facilities. The decision has paid off: Green Circle Growers is currently the biggest orchid grower in North America. Continue reading →