On My Watch: Christine Dufour, Gardener at the Potager du Roi
You could say Christine Dufour was born to make things grow. Her childhood was spent near Lyon, France, renowned for its exquisite roses and horticultural traditions. It was there that Dufour began gardening with her father when he assigned her a plot of land and encouraged her to plant “anything I liked.” Dufour couldn’t recall the moment she knew she wanted to become a gardener. “I don’t ever remember wanting to do anything else.”
Today, Christine Dufour leads crop production at the Potager du Roi, the historic kitchen garden of the Palace of Versailles in France. For more than 300 years, the creation of King Louis XIV has been introducing new microclimates and methods for producing fruits and vegetables in and out of season. It was included on the 2018 World Monuments Watch to bring attention to needed repairs and help mobilize stakeholders to embrace a new vision for the site.
Dufour first came to the Potager du Roi in 1992 when her companion entered Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Paysage (ENSP), the organization that stewards the garden today. She recalled of her first encounter with the historic site, “I could see it through the gates, but I didn’t really know anything about it.” Soon after, Dufour was hired for seasonal work at the Potager du Roi and, two years later, became the lone gardener responsible for relaunching vegetable production. Over a period of ten days, Dufour received a crash course from former vegetable gardener Claude Chaux, furiously pencilling every detail into a notebook that she still owns today. “There wasn’t really anytime to think,” she said. “Things just had to get done.”
Dufour has maintained fruit and vegetable production at the iconic site ever since, always considering its rich and complex history in her approach. The Potager du Roi was created by expert gardener and agronomist Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie and architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart between 1678 and 1699, to fulfill King Louis XIV’s vision of building the most impressive palace in the world. The Potager is just over 23 acres with 28 small gardens on the periphery and a Grand Carré, made up of 16 square vegetable gardens surrounding a central fountain.
“Potager du Roi is an important place to preserve, but we also need to innovate to live up to our reputation,” she said. “As a gardener I try to maintain traditions and know-how, but I also try to adapt to what our society wants and needs.”
For Dufour, that innovation includes a commitment to education. For the past twenty years, one morning of every school week, a group of children with special needs spend time with Dufour at the Potager du Roi, sharing and experiencing the power of nature. “It is important for the autonomy and diversity of their daily experience as adolescents and young adults,” said Dufour.
Now, thanks to support from American Express, World Monuments Fund is partnering with the Potager du Roi to help further their vision: a model garden with a diversity of historical and modern varieties that can be a source of healthy produce for the surrounding communities and welcome and educate visitors. In February 2019, the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust announced additional support toward this project. Work will include priority physical repairs and the development of new educational materials for school groups of different ages.
“Gardens created links between people,” said Dufour. “I hope that the Potager du Roi will create even more links between the people who live in the neighborhood and those who come from far away to visit.”
Dufour, her husband, and three children reside just a five minute walk from the garden that she has been cultivating for over 24 years. She said they are bonded through the contact with plants and nature that they have shared at the Potager du Roi. “My son once took photographs [of the garden] while lying down,” said Dufour. “I had never looked at chives that way, huge plants with the city behind them.”
When asked why she thinks investment and preservation at the Potager du Roi is so important, Dufour’s answer was simple. “Three hundred and forty years of production and instruction are worthy reasons,” she said. “It is a space, a garden, that is about discovery, learning, and sharing.”