Day in the Life: RG gardener

 - Sarah Edworthy

Laurent Villalonga invites us on a morning tour of a venue dedicated to green space.

Gardens at Roland-Garros© Christophe Guibbaud / FFT

The lines of white geraniums which edge the spectator stands on the show courts of Roland-Garros are one of a myriad appealing horticultural touches.

If you have ever feared for the white flower clusters – big-serving players threatening a spell of savage, unplanned pruning and all that – you will be comforted to know that the geraniums are top of a daily checklist for head gardener Laurent Villalonga, who has tended the trees, plant walls, hedges, vegetation and parterres here since 1994.

“Every morning we shake the geraniums because sometimes there is a ball lodged in the foliage,” he says, pushing a trolley on his 6am round of the venue laden with spare geraniums, and armed with gloves, watering can, secateurs, thin piping and spare 9V batteries for the automatic sprinkler system.

After a quick interruption while he slips through a gap in bamboo to turn off a hose, Villalonga invites to join him on his morning maintenance round. We are primed to dead-head flowers, trim broken stalks and administer TLC to any form of vegetation in need of attention.

Busy as the bees

Roland-Garros has always had lush green walkways, terraces, floral balcony arrangements and a good line in topiary, but the symbolic opening of the semi-sunken Court Simonne-Mathieu, enclosed between four greenhouses in the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, has put nature and biodiversity top of the agenda in 2019. Fruit plantations and 21 bee hives dotted around the site make Roland-Garros the only Grand Slam which can boast its own honey production.

Court Simonne-Mathieu greenhouses© Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

Villalonga points to the elevated balconnière arrangements around No.1 Court as a source of pride: khniphofia (red hot pokers) and roses add a striking decorative touch. “These give me pleasure to see because this is the last year before the historic court is demolished as part of the new development plan,” he says.

Chariots de fleurs

The main challenge each year is to have the entire gardening scheme picture-perfect for the start of the tournament. Extra staff are brought in to help the permanent team of four gardeners, operating from a subterranean lock-up with lawn mowers, mini tractors and a gazillion different sprinkler attachments.

Thousands of pots containing a variety of trees are installed to embellish the permanent landscape. Turf is laid, flower beds tended, detailed weeding and watering schemes adhered to. Annuals are planted, perennials nurtured; a huge variety of plant life is cultivated to flower and look its best for the duration of the tournament.

From his desk underneath Court Suzanne-Lenglen, Villalonga can monitor the automatic sprinkler system and water a particular flowerbed or terrasse parterre at the touch of a button.

Wheelbarrows at large

Weaving between wheelbarrow traffic – the court maintenance team are also out and about at this early hour, sprinkling extra terre battue over the court surfaces – we head towards Le Club de Loge, a VIP hospitality area which is approached via a chic walkway planted with white-blossoming plants such as Annabelle hydrangea and Siam tulips. “There is an emphasis on white because it is a synonym for elegance,” says Villalonga, as he surveys his domain with an expert eye.

The VIP and players’ facilities are notable for their “semi-interieur” designs that combine indoor/outdoor flow with a semi-sunken garden planted with palms, ferns, bamboo, hostas, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, trailing ivy and Siam tulips.

On top of the neighbouring Le Village hospitality area, the roof terraces are beautifully verdant with trees and raised beds of perennial shrubbery. The side that overlooks the Bois de Boulogne features a herb bed of basil, aromatic fennel, coriander, Aztec sweet grass and “the grass of immortality”; the panoramic view over the stadium reveals green pockets of vegetation in every direction.

Who knew there was a private, mature and manicured garden walkway for players and VIPs on the north side of Court Suzanne-Lenglen?

The day unfolds ...

Just as the All England Clubhouse at Wimbledon is famous for its Boston ivy-clad walls and purple petunias, Roland-Garros also has its unique horticultural features. “The jasmine étoilé on the walls of all the walkways,” says Villalonga. “And roses in white, orange and yellow.”

At about 7pm, after a long day of perfectionist green-fingering, it is time for Villalonga to write a list of things to remember to attend to first thing in the morning and head home via walkways headily scented with jasmine and rose.