Andre Le Notre's Versailles Gardens

Andre le Notre: Four Hundred Years Strong

I’m taking sides with Andre le Notre.  Four hundred years ago he was practicing a type of landscape design that is still valid and revered today.  It’s handmade, skillfully practiced, and incredibly beautiful.  It is the antithesis of today’s trend towards natural gardens.  Many consider this type of garden to be unrealistic, unsustainable, and old-fashioned.  I disagree.

Andre Le Notre's Versailles Gardens

I’m tired of the so called ‘new’ perennial gardens with all of their blowsy grasses and prairie leanings.  I’m all for pollinators and habitat, but understand that there is more than one way to achieve healthy garden environments for all inhabitants. I wonder why it took the Dutch, visiting our vast waving plains, to show the world that a miniaturized, hyped up version of the same could be had at home.

The Lurie Garden in high summer

I have a profound reverence for the work of designers like Piet Ouldof and Gilles Clement, but as a designer, their naturalistic  ‘new’ style  old doesn’t make my heart sing.  I find that when I visit these gardens I love to look at them, but don’t really want to be ‘in’ them beyond a good ‘look’.  The style isn’t really all that new at all.  Ellen Biddle Shipman and Beatrice Farrand, as well as many others, were making intensive American perennial plantings throughout the last century–what’s different now is the mix of plants, the size and shape of the beds, and the tendency to want and believe it to be ‘maintenance’ free.  Is that because most of today’s gardeners don’t have the skill or time it takes for something else?  What will these gardens look like in 400 years?  Will they hold up like Le Notre’s?

Turf parterres at Versailles

Michael King argues in his recent post Never New Gardening that the so called ‘new’ has become not much more than a ‘look’.  To my eye, the ‘look’ of the turf parterres and the whimsical topiaries in the Orangerie at Versailles are contemporary…they’re just not wild.

Gardens are made things. It’s not outdated to include planted elements that require a gardener’s hand beyond cutting them down once a year, dividing drifts of plants and pulling some weeds to maintain a design. I don’t support the use of small backpack, gasoline powered trimmers of any variety, but wonder why with the current movement for all things handmade and artisinal that gardeners haven’t taken up the cause with more hand driven pruning?  Is it lack of skill or interest?

Did lopers and hedge pruners and rakes get forgotten?  Is it because it takes time to learn the methods and when to put those into practice? Or is it because any intervention is seen as an affront to the sustainability of a garden?  Andre le Notre’s gardens are 400 years old this year, what’s more sustainable than that?

There will be those who read this post who think that it takes an army of gardeners to maintain immense gardens like le Notre designed. Gardens with structure take skill and time to maintain–just like any other.   In fact, they are simpler and less labor intensive to maintain than some of the new perennial gardens.  Do the math.  Versailles has approximately 2100 acres and 80 gardeners. That’s roughly 26 acres of care per gardener.  The 6.73 acre High Line in New York has 9 gardeners and hundreds of seasonal volunteers to help with cutting back and cleaning up each year.  Just counting those on the staff roster that’s  approximately 3/4 acre per gardener.  So which is actually more labor intensive? The numbers speak for themselves.  Both can be organic.

Then there is the argument of scale and cost. Dial back Versailles to the average suburban lot and these gardens become do-able with less.  The new perennial gardens really need space to work well.  Not every town will allow an entire front yard to be taken over by a meadow, and in the eastern hardwood forest where I live and work, that meadow would soon become a forest without constant vigilance to eradicate self seeded volunteer trees.  I’m not saying that the selection of plants is what’s at issue here, it’s a design and maintenance issue.  I like the evergreen bones of structure in gardens like Le Notre’s- especially in the winter.  In truth, in high summer I love a meadow, newly mowed and or fields of wheat or wildflowers and many of the new perennial gardens have elements of evergreen structure.  In my own work I blend the two.  Create structure as a sculptural and architectural elements and and plant lushly.

Le Notre was born in the Tuileries where his father was a gardener.  He was surrounded by generations of skilled practitioners and learned by doing.  Imagine the gardens we could have if we get up from our screens, get outside and really learn our craft.  Imagine the gardens we could have if we really trained those who we hire to maintain them instead of just giving them a backpack blower and some power trimmers?  An apprenticeship program is not a bad idea.  Work and get paid to learn from a master and then work to become the master.  Le Notre, born to a gardener, learned his craft and became someone who worked for kings and whose work has survived for 400 years.  Who of us can say the same?

12 thoughts on “Andre le Notre: Four Hundred Years Strong

  1. Le Notre’s Vaux Le Vicomte is a formal garden unlike any other that I’ve experienced. Its large scale magic separates it from the deafeningly dull static setting which characterizes most formal gardens. Pictures of this garden, just south of Paris, don’t even hint at the refined aesthetic spatial experience that occurs as you promenade and proceed to stroll where yesteryear’s carriages rolled before you.

  2. I haven’t ever been to Vaux le Vicomte. It’s on my list for my next visit. I admire the scale and drama of these gardens but can envision their ideas on a much smaller scale.

  3. Good post. I like that you made the effort to get the data on the maintainance requirements of both gardens.

    A design criteria for gardens should be that they could be abandoned for a few years and not become spoiled. After those years, pruning should be enough to recover most of the gardens beauty.

  4. Well put, well said! It is, I suppose, human nature that opinions swing like a pendulum and tend to one extreme or the other. Oh, if only we could all seek the center where compromise and common sense reside. Perhaps the horticultural xenophobia so prevalent in the industry will also swing back towards the center. After all, not all non-natives are evil. Just take a look at the dinner table!

  5. I really enjoyed your essay, both in its scope and its fresh thinking about the formal landscape. Le Notre’s gardens were appropriate to their time and place, and genuinely and passionately imagined. Though the gardens are large, and feature elaborate elements, they seem rigorously edited to my eye. They are visually and spatially exciting. I agree with your observation that the native/prairie style perennial planting gardens are much more to be observed than be a part of. Natural and maintenance free they are not. But what I find the most oppressive about them is the implication that this style of landscape design is environmentally and morally superior to any other form of expression. And, if I would just come to my senses, I would garden the same way. I appreciate you broaching this topic in such a thoughtful way.

  6. Thank you for taking the time to comment Deborah. I too have felt that others think I need to ‘come to my senses.’ Too bad there’s not room for all in some people’s books.

  7. This is very interesting, but, of course, there really isn’t any taking sides. It’s clear that good naturalistic gardens need structure. And highly structured gardens (unless, perhaps, at actual 17th c. palaces) benefit from the contrast of some unclipped forms. I think most garden designers will visit both Versailles and the High Line and admire them both (I have) and take ideas from both to use in smaller, personal spaces. As you point out, training, experience, and thoughtfulness on the part of designers and gardeners result in meaningful places.

    I was also thinking that much of the work of Le Notre, Ouldorf, and Clement, on which some people form sides, are gardens for the public with their own political or intellectual purposes. While they may have intimate spots, they aren’t really meant to be “in” in a personal sense. I wonder what le Notre’s private garden looked like; did he have one? And I imagine Ouldorf’s is a very nice place to spend time.

  8. Well said. Gardens have trends and fashions, just as everything else does. As a designer who works primarily in small spaces, I find that the prairie style is difficult to incorporate, although the actual plants are easy to employ. And environmentally responsible gardening is not limited to a style; the practices can be put into use just as easily in a clipped parterre as in a blowzy, naturalistic border.

  9. OK, I’ll bring the blowback 😉

    I don’t give two hoots about garden design, per se.

    What interests me is gardens that are full of life – bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, beneficial insects (ladybugs, green lacewings), etc.

    I like seeing color and movement – both in the flora and the fauna.

    I’m not a die-hard nativist, but I like lots of native grasses and perennials because they seem able to get by with little human help (water, fertilizer, pruning, etc.) They are well-suited to their place. But I’m perfectly happy to use exotics, as long as I feel they’re unlikely to get out of control and become invasive in my garden or nearby natural areas.

    Monsieur Le Notre’s designs not only strike me as dull (the only colors I can see in the third photo are beige and green), but they also strike me as exemplifying the idea of gardening as control over nature, which strikes me as (a) futile and (b) destructive.

    Furthermore, though you say “there is more than one way to achieve healthy garden environments for all inhabitants”, I find it hard to imagine what sort of ecosystem the Le Notre garden could support. (Maybe flocks of grackles pecking the lawn areas?)

    I do agree that Le Notre’s designs may be easier to maintain in some sense — it doesn’t take much time to mow grass or trim a topiary, especially using power tools. In the past, when everything was done by hand, those tasks probably would have required more manpower. But I do agree that a varied landscape of perennials, shrubs and trees might theoretically take more upkeep (if only for weeding among the perennials — particularly if one eschews non-organic herbicides).

    Still, I respect your opinion, even though I must diagree with it.

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