In Marcoussis, 40 kilometres to the south of Paris, lies one of the biggest ‘Jardins de Cocagne’ – Gardens of Plenty. A vast agricultural site of eight hectares known as the Marcoussis Vegetable Garden.
Henry Patout, 54, comes here on his bike four times a week. Made redundant about twenty years ago, Henry had since then improvised his working life, preferring to take short term and interim employment. A long-term recipient of social and unemployment benefits, he applied for a job at the Marcoussis Vegetable Garden, and was selected from a large number of candidates. Employed on a fixed term contract, from then on he has been earning a guaranteed minimum salary. The team there welcomed him and he felt at home amongst the staff and 22 other gardeners. “We get on well, it’s like a family – we depend on each other”, he said, smiling.
In Marcoussis, six huge greenhouses form arcs in amongst the ploughed earth, and translucent covers protect the vegetable seedlings from the cold winter weather. Further away, in another plot, a vast nursery heated to 25°c serves to protect the most fragile plants from frost. Here, Henry takes part in the cultivation of organic vegetables labelled ‘AB’, sold every week to 350 buyers in the region. Supervised by two market gardeners, he looks after both the crops under the greenhouse and outside. As well as weeding, planting and harvesting vegetables, he makes up baskets and delivers them to their selling points. “The gardens allow people to get back on their feet, rather than staying on the street with nothing to do”, he explains. Doing nothing is impossible as soon as you start at the Gardens of Plenty in Marcoussis, a place of integration. Everyone is either busy in the greenhouses or taking part in professional training, run by a social worker. Henry is taking French and mathematics courses again, and classes where he can learn how to fill in job applications and write a curriculum vitae. He has found his feet.
“It’s about giving the gardeners that spark”, commented Guillaume Boutrois, a market gardener and supervisor at the gardens in Marcoussis. “It’s a way of helping them rediscover confidence in themselves”. Guillaume supervises organic production in the garden; he sets up many different cultivation plans, ensures things go smoothly at each stage of plant development and shares out the work amongst the gardeners. The Marcoussis Vegetable Garden gives hope for the trainee market gardeners to once again find their place on the employment ladder, “to escape the vicious cycle and enter a more virtuous one”, concludes Guillaume.