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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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"Nowadays, we vary the species of trees -- beech, hawthorn, poplar, chestnut -- to prevent major losses in case of a disease affecting one type of tree," he said.

And he downright frowns on some of the practices of various bygone Versailles royals.

In times past, palace residents sent ships around the world to collect exotic plants and trees for the estate. One king even imported coffee bean plants for growing and grinding his own brew.

Baraton recommends sticking to native flora. He lashes out at gardeners who would buy a century-old olive tree -- such as those for sale in upscale Parisian flower shops -- as pillaging natural resources.

As a youngster, Baraton's love of gardening earned him an unpleasant nickname from his siblings -- the French word for cow dung. But in 30 years, he rose from a teenager collecting parking fees from Versailles visitors to the chief of the entire gardening operation with its 100-member staff.

"It's difficult to be 18 and say you're a gardener," Baraton said of his status change in the eyes of his brothers and sisters. "It's easier when you live at Versailles."

Now, even business moguls with mansions of their own show a little jealousy when he mentions that he makes his home amid the iconic gardens. "It's a nice feeling to have a billionaire envy you," he said, leading a visitor down the back lanes of the massive estate, where he paused to say "bonjour" to a speckled hen at the roadside and a complaining white swan in a pond.

Sometimes the notoriety can get a little annoying.

"At parties, very elegant women sit next to me and ask why their plants have stains and why their trees are dying," Baraton said, rolling his eyes skyward.

What most worries the chief gardener of Versailles?

His recurring nightmare is that the planting of 50,000 flowers he oversees each year "won't be beautiful."

"If it doesn't work, you realize it only after the flowers start blooming."


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