I’ve been reading about French gardens, but I spent the winter in Denmark. Spoiled by water. Reading water, listening to water, smelling the salty brine of water. French gardens are all about order and illusion, or they were once upon a time. Allés leading into the woods, fountains spouting jets of sparkly water. “A sense of infinite space.” Even in Versailles there wasn’t enough water for all the fountains to be on at once. The gardeners would signal each other with whistles when the king was touring the garden with friends like John Locke. So the silver water was like a dance.
In Reading the French Garden, Denise Le Dantec and Jean Pierre Le Dantec have all sorts of interesting things to say about the massive gardens that once surrounded castles and villas. Mark Laird in The Formal Garden illustrates the history of these gardens in his book. Three towns were emptied for one of the most famous, Vaux. Hundreds of men moved earth around to make the garden designed by Le Nôtre. Intricate knots of flowers bordered by boxwood. Bushes in tight formation spilling over onto crushed stone. Grottos where very rich people ate elaborate dinners all dressed up. It was magical even as the Wars of Religion tore the countryside apart.
One famous gardener, Olivier de Serres, came back home after years of fighting (with sword and pistol) in the late 1580s and made a fruitful series of gardens surrounding his home. Orchards, fields fallow some years, flowers and vegetables in straight lines in a series of rectangles. He had “apple and pear trees, vines, and cherry trees. One saw lavender there, and rosemary, peas, broad beans, long trellises, and beautiful bowers. And “a menagerie containing boars, parrots, and several lions, large and small, whose roars terrified the gardeners working nearby.”
He invented a mechanical seeder and cultivated silk worms, “established wide parallel canals, paved at the bottom, in which clear water ran continuously.”
I saw a garden in Denmark, beautiful in late winter, surrounding King Frederik’s castle. People called this place the Danish Versailles. Formal, perched on the edge of the lake that lapped up against the turreted building where the portraits of all the kings and queens of Denmark hang in a long hall. A series of steep slopes, slippery in the cold, terraces, bosquets, parterres, ramps. The lime trees very still and bare in March.
In Troense the gardens are snug against the half-timbered houses, miniature formal gardens in their plots of clipped boxwood. And in all the towns on all the streets, fists of hyacinths in little pots about to bloom. Fritillaria arching their speckled faces high over the rims of miniature pots. Chairs with a spectacle of spring bulbs. Sidewalks full of daffodils in the dim light of a northern winter.
Here it’s summer. I scoop up a very tiny slug, or is it a snail without a house? And it arches its antennae resting on my finger. “He’s been eating the dahlias,” I say to my neighbor, George, “but how can I kill him? I’ll just deport him here,” and I slip the tiny slug under a rash of chocolate mint, near the elm on the sidewalk. It’s morning and the cardinal is hollering in a tree somewhere. The pink lilies with yellow stripes just opening their mouths.