A taste of the Continent

Patricia Cleveland-Peck reports on an innovative exchange scheme for gardeners
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I find it easiest to remember the names of plants you can eat. Elisa Hanrot, the latest participant in the National Trust's innovative Gardener's Exchange Scheme was explaining to me how, at her college in France, each student is given a small piece of land to cultivate throughout the four-year course. As the college is situated in the Potager du Roy, or King's Kitchen Garden, at Versailles, Elisa decided to fill her parcelle with edible plants.

At Upton House, the National Trust garden to which she has come on a three-week exchange, Elisa has found no lack of edible plants. Upton not only has a tradition of fruit production but, at the very heart of the dramatic pleasure gardens, one of the loveliest walled vegetable gardens in the country. Espaliered fruit trees cover the walls and rows of berries and vegetables form a magnificent tapestry. This one-acre kitchen garden produces enough fresh fruit and vegetables to sell to the visiting public.

The Potager du Roy, on the other hand, extends over 18 acres. It was created for Louis XIV by draining a marsh and establishing a micro-climate in which even exotic subjects like sago palms could survive. Figs, of which the King was inordinately fond, abounded. The layout of this garden remains the same today although it is now occupied by the Ecole Nationale Superieure du Paysage of which Elisa is a second-year student.

Most of the participants in the Gardener's Exchange Scheme are professional head gardeners, so as a landscape architecture student Elisa has not had as much hands-on experience as most of them. "I wanted to get experience of working in an English garden, to feel the daily rhythm," she said. "Here at Upton I also have the advantage of seeing how an old garden can be managed for the public."

During my visit, Elisa was helping to clear Upton's lower lake of mare's tail, a job that involved going out in a boat to scythe the weed below water level and then pull it in to the land. Wet and smelly it may have been, but the lake rang with laughter and good natured European co-operation which would have been the envy of Brussels.

This, of course, is the aim of the exchange scheme. It was the brainchild of Tim Wilson, managing agent of the National Trust's Severn Region, who felt such exchanges of information and expertise between gardeners who do not often have the chance to travel, would produce benefits all round.

The Scheme kicked off in 1994 with an exchange between Neil Cook from Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire and the head gardener of the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Two further exchanges took place last year in France. Peter Dennis from Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire visited Serre de la Madone in Menton, a garden of great interest to him as it was designed by Lawrence Johnston, the owner of Hidcote. Paul Delaney from Farnborough Hall in Oxfordshire, exchanged with Jean-Francois Breton who for 20 years has been in charge of the Orangerie at the Jardins du Luxembourg in Paris. Conditions vary but in most cases the fares and some of the living costs are funded by charitable trusts and the gardeners receive the same basic wage as their counterparts.

Encountering previously unknown tools and methods is part of the fun of the scheme. As for Continental reactions to British gardens: "I like the idea that you can buy a book and then go off and visit these National Trust Gardens and know that each will be different but all will be of a good standard," said Elisa. "In France visiting gardens is only beginning, but maybe one day we'll start an organisation like this."

Upton House gardens near Banbury, are open Sat-Wed (including Bank Holiday Monday), 2-6pm. Admission pounds 4.80