A short walk from the Palace of Versailles you’ll find the “King’s Vegetable Garden” – the Potager du Roi.
It was built between 1678 and 1683 by French gardening genius Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie, at the request of Louis XIV. Open to the public, gardeners will love its beautiful paths, raised beds, statues and fabulous planting…
The history of the King’s Vegetable Garden
Louis XIV commissioned Jean-Baptiste La Quintinie (1624-1688) to build a vegetable garden on the site of a swamp which was known at the time as the ‘stinking pond’. It was a horribly marshy area but close enough to the palace to get fresh supplies easily delivered to the royal kitchens.
La Quintinie trained as a lawyer in Paris but gave it up to devote himself to gardening. In 1670 he was appointed director of the Kings’ gardens and vegetable gardens. In 1678 he designed the vegetable garden. By then Versailles was already making a name for itself as one of the most splendid palaces in the world, the garden simply added to the wonderment.
The construction lasted for 5 years and La Quintinie invented innovative ways to turn the damp space into a productive garden. He had the marshes drained, dug out by the King’s Swiss guard and to this day the basin of water in the garden is known as the Lake of the Swiss Guard. He created an underground aqueduct and underground wood burners to heat the ground, elevating gardening to a scientific art.
How Louis XVI’s garden provided food for court
The soil was bad but luckily, there were plenty of horses in the King’s stables to provide tons of manure. The open land didn’t provide enough protection to heat loving fruit and vegetables. So, La Quintinie designed the garden as a series of large rooms. He dug down, improved the soil and separated areas with high stone walls and terraces to trap the sun and keep the heat in. It was innovative and exciting gardening and enabled him to grow plants that usually only thrive in the far south.
It was said he could provide up to 4000 figs and 150 melons a day. Lettuces were grown in January. Strawberries were ripe in March. Coffee beans and bananas were grown, as by 1685 glass making techniques meant greenhouse conditions could be created. The underground heating kept roots healthy even in the dead of winter. Louis would show off the area to foreign visitors, it became one of the most famous gardens of its time.
The King’s Vegetable Garden today
Today there are more ordinary flowers and vegetables growing here though the artichokes in March were already growing ahead of schedule when I visited in March.
Despite the passing of hundreds of year, the layout remains true to the plans created by La Quintinie. The garden is a classified historic monument and absolutely remarkable. It’s where you’ll find one of the only original golden gates to survive the French Revolution. It leads to a park and onto the chateau. When you look through it, remember that the other side of this gate is where the palace laundry ladies would put washing out to dry. They would lay it on the grass or in the trees. Apparently Louis XVI’s aunties liked to have their things hung here, away from prying eyes.
Don’t forget to visit the shop when you visit. They have some lovely souvenirs and sell the vegetables, flowers and fruit from the gardens.
Visit Versailles, the Chateau, gardens and the Potager du Roi with The Cultural Travel Company. Their tours take place in France and Europe and you’ll be accompanied by the best guides and receive an indepth tour of the most iconic sites and monuments.