Shooting The Breeze With The Head Of Versailles’ Kitchen Garden

Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles

What if you could walk down the street and, next to the 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.

Our whirlwind day began with a private tour of Georgetown’s lovely Dumbarton Oaks where we received a behind-the-scenes tour of the gardens. Back at the Alliance, I joined a standing-room-only crowd as Jacobsohn gave a spirited talk on how he balances working in an historic garden with modern-day challenges. Finally, we capped off the evening at DC’s Bistro du Coin where we were joined by a lively group to feast on local French fare and indulge in more discussion about everything garden.

About Antoine Jacobsohn

So who is Antoine Jacobsohn? Few would guess from his perfect French accent that Jacobsohn actually hails from the United States, from New Jersey, to be exact. An avid Francophile, he 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 ended up at Versailles where in 2008 he became director of the vegetable and fruit gardens at the palace.

Jacobsohn is quick to point out that the 24-acre garden he now manages is located smack dab in the middle of a city. Noting the “urban desert” that surrounds him, he worries about access to food as the world becomes increasingly urbanized. He believes we need to rethink how we shape our gardens by putting more emphasis on incorporating food 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 focusing on innovation and experimentation, all while respecting the time-honored 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. His task? To take a swamp on the property and turn it into a working garden.

Jean Baptiste de La Quintinie

To accomplish this, Quintinie drained the swamp and brought in tons of soil, which he then enriched with horse manure from the King’s stables. Versailles’ architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart created the layout for the garden. The formal plan called for 29 terraced garden squares arranged 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 and 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 Potager 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.

 

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