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In the Gardens of Versailles, A Horticultural Revolution

Alain Baraton, the keeper of the Gardens of Versailles, has encouraged French gardeners to use local plants through his books and radio and TV shows. He has also tried to turn climate change to his advantage.
Alain Baraton, the keeper of the Gardens of Versailles, has encouraged French gardeners to use local plants through his books and radio and TV shows. He has also tried to turn climate change to his advantage. (By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)
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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

VERSAILL ES, France -- Alain Baraton is an untraditional gardener in perhaps the most traditional garden on the planet.

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He is the keeper of the Gardens of Versailles -- with hundreds of acres of flower beds as meticulously manicured as a beauty queen's nails and trees so ancient they bore witness to the French Revolution.

Today, Baraton is leading another revolution on the 2,100-acre estate. Rather than fretting over the climate change that is robbing the chestnut trees of their fall colors and killing the pine trees of Louis XIV's reign, Baraton is seizing shifting weather patterns as a chance to transform gardening across France.

Take the bug problem. Over the last few years, French winters have become too warm to kill off the greedy insects that love to dine on Versailles' 18,500 carefully pruned chestnut trees. After several years of battling the bugs, Baraton stopped spraying them with insecticides.

Instead, he left them in the bark to grow fat and juicy.

"Now, in spring, more birds are coming back," declared Baraton, a soft-spoken man with eyebrows as bushy as the caterpillars that inhabit his flower beds. "It's helping the balance of the gardens."

Baraton is using his lofty perch as the most enviable gardener in France to preach the gospel of bio-gardening to a cultivation-crazed society. According to estimates by Promojardin, an association that promotes gardening as a hobby, 89 percent of all French people dabble with plants -- whether in a full-fledged garden patch or in windowsill flower pots.

On his radio program, his television show and in his ninth and newest gardening book, Baraton urges home gardeners to follow his lead from the lavish grounds of Versailles.

"For many children, aphids are fabulous monsters," writes Baraton, 50. "It would be a shame to destroy this extraordinary life by inconsiderate use of insecticide."

He is also changing the gardening style of centuries of French royalty.

"What's important is to keep the spirit and the visual aspects," Baraton said. " I look for plants that resemble older ones, or some that can be pruned like the ones from back then."

He's altered the practice of planting row upon clipped row of the same species of trees.


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