‘Le jardinage est écrit sur la terre’ is Jean-Luc Danneyrolles’ battle cry. For 32 years, this anarchist poet-gardener has been carefully tending the same small piece of earth in Vaucluse, nurturing and guarding the rare strains of ancient and rare vegetables to which he has devoted his life.
When I ask him what tomatoes he has, Jean-Luc Danneyrolles’ reply comes in a rich French timbre, his vocal cords seasoned with years of country living, red wine and tobacco. He has a kaleidoscope of colours in his garden in La Molière, Saignon (in the Luberon national park), and that does not include the zebra striped or the remarkable cream sausage-shaped ones. Not only does this potager curieux have a rainbow of tomatoes, he also has them for every possible use: salads, drying, sauces… He has the classic cœur de bœuf, tiny tomates and even wild ones - something I have never seen. Within his garden, Jean-Luc has a very fine collection of beautiful beans with over 30 varieties, many edible flowers, an impressive range of multi-coloured and multi-flavoured salad leaves, and a broad collection of medicinal herbs. All together he has over 300 species. For anyone who wants to try growing some interesting edibles to impress the neighbours or amuse children, his catalogue is a must-see.
For Jean-Luc, gardening is not just something he does, it’s a passion and a way of life. He is a writer and artist, and can definitely be described as a passionate believer. As he says, ‘each seed is a poem’ and he desperately cares about the state of the earth. Sharing this passion with others is very much a part of what he does: “I am very political, this is a way of life. I am not running a garden centre here.”
When I flatter him and say he had real foresight to build up this invaluable collection of heritage vegetables - especially as many are creating new trends in gastronomy - he does not like to be described as ahead of the curve. He is extraordinarily modest and Jean-Luc is clear that he does not think it was really his idea. “I am not a precursor. There were people in this role before me, protecting and collecting rare species.”
Organic gardening and forming collections is nothing new, it follows human tradition and, despite his modesty, Jean-Luc happens to have a particularly exciting collection. He has built his catalogue slowly and carefully, searching all over the world for peculiar examples. Jean-Luc is also in touch with a huge global network to bring new seeds into the collection and expand the range of his holding. “I found the zucchini in America,” he says. “I have contacts all over the world.”
His particular garden does not produce vegetables for sale, but is more of a seed farm and he sells the seeds all over the globe. Jean-Luc has discovered a love of sharing in his passion and enjoys making a ‘contribution to biodiversity’. His message is very clear: “We must garden without chemicals and in harmony with Mother Nature.”
Such is his belief that last year, he did something somewhat old fashioned and actually gave his garden a rest for a year.
Jean-Luc trained to be a gardener in his home town of Lyon where there was a grand tradition of vegetable growing. During this time, he became very aware of the importance of raising vegetables without using artificial chemicals and working towards permaculture. As a passionate activist, he sees his work as his vocation and not only does he write extensively about raising vegetables, he also teaches market gardeners how to grow without chemicals from his garden in Saignon. This is the serious side to his work.
Having worked in this garden for the last three decades, he has been able to observe the change directly. He has very strong views on global warming and he describes the earth as a ‘sick old lady’. We discuss this at length and as he explains what he has seen happening, Jean-Luc is in such despair that he pours himself another glass of wine. Sadly, his prognosis is that all is not good. “It’s really happening,” he says, “Food production is going to be in crisis. Permaculture really is the best solution.” I ask him if there is any hope and try and lift him out of this negative moment, he smiles, gives me a Gallic shrug and states, with the faith of one who passionately believes, “Of course, I am enchanted with the earth. Let’s hope so.”