A seaside inspiration
Enter into the Atlantic garden at the end of a wide passageway beneath the buildings. Opened in 1994, this garden is perched 11 metres (12 yards) above the railway line and 18 metres (20 yards) above the level of the station plaza. Its name is inspired by the destination of the trains departing from Montparnasse station, heading west towards the ocean. The garden was designed by landscapers François Brun and Michel Pena, and is a feat of technical prowess. This 3.5-hectare (8.5 acre) garden is laid on a concrete slab supported by twelve piers. To limit its weight, the depth of soil is restricted to 30 cm (1 foot) under the central lawn, and 180 cm (6 feet) for the trees, the minimum depth required for them to grow. 130 openings (air shafts) provide ventilation for the train station and car park below. The colour palette is dominated by blue and mauve flowers and silvery foliage (lavender, ceanothus, perovskia, agapanthus, heather, common morning glory, cotton lavender, erigerons, clematis, wisteria etc.) which fit in with the garden’s theme: the blue sky and the ocean.
This garden is an innovative green space whose plants, features and architectural contours invite the imaginative walker to embark on a transatlantic voyage.
From one continent to another
Alternating trees native to the European continent and to the New World are planted along both sides of the central alley. Their names are engraved at their foot. Oriental planes, European nettle trees, Hungarian oaks and common walnuts are planted opposite their American counterparts: American sycamores, nettle trees, American red oaks and American walnuts. The cedar, which only exists on this side of the Atlantic, faces the sequoia, which is exclusively American.
The American walnut (Juglans nigra) was first introduced into Europe in 1629 and is prized for the quality of its wood and its rapid growth. It is also used as a rootstock for fruit varieties of the common walnut (Juglans regia). It differs from the latter in the shape of its leaves made up of many lanceolate leaflets with a serrated edge, whereas the common walnut has fewer and wider leaflets. When crushed they give off a strong, acrid scent produced by a substance secreted by the tree. This toxin is also secreted by its roots and restricts growth of other vegetation around the walnut tree. The walnuts of both species are edible but the shell of the American walnut is very thick, limiting its use. Nevertheless, the wood mouse (Apodiamus sylvaticus) has adapted to eating them. This solitary rodent comes out at night to feast on plants, seeds, berries and mushrooms as well as insects and worms, building up reserve stocks when possible. A good climber, the wood mouse can also get around in hops and bounds. Although the name suggests an inveterate forest-dweller, this little mammal is very common in the parks and gardens of Paris, where it can find food and shelter.
A dense labyrinth
On the eastern side of the garden you will come across a succession of small spaces, connected by alleyways and pontoons and sheltered by weeping willows and pine trees, whose dense foliage provides temporary respite from the imposing presence of the neighbouring buildings. The stone pines, which are not very common in Paris, are well adapted to summer heat and drought. Among the dense flowerbeds of rippling grasses and perennial plants grow cushion-like clumps of Liriope spicata or big blue lily turf, a perennial plant native to Asia.
In summer its long, bright green leaves are flecked with spikes of blue flowers from which bees, large bee-flies and butterflies collect pollen. The tall, dense tufts of green and yellow stripy Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus') provide a perfect hiding place for sparrows and dunnocks. In the hedges, insects feast on the nectar of the funnel-shaped fuchsia flowers through the summer into the autumn. During the same period, birds also feast on the seeds contained in the “bishops’ hats”, the fruit of the European spindle. Two shrubs commonly found in coastal gardens thanks to their tolerance to high salt levels in the soil have been planted in the hedges: the tree purslane (Atriplex halimus), a dense bush with silvery leaves native to Africa, and the groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia). This plant, native to the eastern part of the United States, was first introduced to France in the late 17th century and has adapted extremely well to the Atlantic coast, to the point of becoming an invasive species which poses a threat to local vegetation as it rapidly forms dense bushes. Its seeds are disseminated by the wind, helping this tenacious invader to spread quickly.
Tall soaring poles - slender sculptures by Bernard Vié - stand 25 m (80 feet) high along the boundary of the garden.
On the edge of the lawn, the Blue waves Pavilion and the Rocks Pavilion conceal large openings and offer the only elevated viewpoints over the garden. Huge blades of blue marble and pink granite are fixed on metal structures to screen technical facilities and public toilets.
In the middle of the central alley, the Hesperides Island draws our attention to the sky and the elements (rain gauge, anemometer, barometer etc.). The giant mirror deflects the sunlight towards the shadier, eastern side. On the western side the garden is less dense, opening onto the large lawn whose winding borders evoke the movement of the ocean. In May the pergola is covered with crimson glory vine and wisteria, abuzz with bees attracted by the fragrance of the blue-mauve flowers. The planks evoking a ship’s upper deck or a seaside boardwalk, are an invitation to sunbathe. For sports-lovers, 5 tennis courts (managed by a club) have been installed on the edge of the lawn.
After your walk around, exit the garden to your right and cross the Boulevard Pasteur.