There is nothing in England like La Maison Rustique. Sadly, there isn’t in France, either, since last summer. The unique bookshop/publisher of the rue Jacob in St Germain des Prés, memorable for its dark green façade, has gone out of business. The owners mysteriously turned down a good offer from a highly suitable buyer. The green doors familiar to every literate French gardener for 180-odd years have shut.
It started with an almanack called Le Bon Jardinier, published in 1755, the year after Philip Miller of the Chelsea Physick Garden published his Gardeners Dictionary. Both became the standard works in their respective countries for a century or more. In Paris the publisher of Le Bon Jardinier, under the name La Maison Rustique, went on to publish book after book of practical knowledge for country people. On everything from forestry to veterinary
medicine, horsemanship to wine-making, to the pruning of orchards and the keeping of bees, La Maison Rustique was the source of reliable information. They gradually built up a picture of a timeless model estate, a château, or more likely a modest gentilhommière, with its ordered allées, its stables and beehives, cellars and hen-runs, and the book-filled salons of its philosophical master and mistress. How sad to break such a splendid tradition.
Last summer we were bowled over by a series of striking, original, beautifully-ordered gardens in the French countryside. There is another side to French gardening, though, which has to be faced. Last week I went to the hugely popular Park Monceau, in the 8th Paris arrondissement not far from the Gare St Lazare, the Normandy station. There are fine trees there, and one or two handsome monuments. But someone here clearly thinks that public gardens are for entertainment or education, or preferably both at once. The lawns are constantly interrupted by patches of outrageous planting intended (so their relentless descriptive notices say) to represent Aztec design or Maori tattoos. Little clumps of something agricultural pop up everywhere. The sense of repose, of nature going about its natural business, of succour from the city streets proper to a city park is at the bottom of the agenda, if it is on it at all.