Pottering about with Vegetables
...it’s about looking good, eating well and sharing the surplus.
Hilary Collins BSc. (Hons)hort., M.C.I.Hort.
All photos (C) Hilary Collins
Originally published: January 2013 in The Edge
More Encore than Agincourt
There is something very satisfying about basking in sunshine, mug of coffee in hand, inspecting serried ranks of vegetables, in the kitchen garden. A peaceful haven of regimented calm; orderly neat rows of food.
Tasting the first peas (they never made it to the kitchen), fresh baby carrots washed off under the garden tap, their unbelievably sweet flavour resembling nothing purchased at Tesco; the ephemeral scent of sweet peas mingling with the fruity aroma of ripening tomatoes on a humid summer evening.
This romantic notion of the kitchen garden is often a long march from the reality of the average British veggie plot. Several I recall resemble a battleground rather than dig for victory. Treading carefully through this vegetarian minefield, when it comes to design, I postulate that this is one instance where French style wins over British practicality. A triumph of Potager over Kailyard (14th century Scots from the Old Norse kál - meaning where the cabbages grow).
Too often our vegetables are hidden away in gloomy garden corners, almost as though we are embarrassed by the sight of them. Better yields are achieved when vegetables are grown in good soil with full sun and this means turning over a prime piece of garden to production; so it needs to look good too.
The French, ever passionate about food, have spent centuries perfecting beautiful kitchen gardens. Whereas historically, we have tended to be a bit resistant about the green things on our plate. However, the great culinary renaissance of the past decade, has resulted in a quest for information; we want to know how our food has been produced and that it is chemical free. Growing your own vegetables is even better; from plot to plate in less than 20 minutes with no air-miles and flavour which knocks the spots off a tired, travel-worn supermarket runner bean.
So what is a Potager?
In a nutshell, attractive and tasty vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers are grown in an ornamental fashion, whilst providing food for the kitchen. They are not complicated or flashy, but simply laid out with a quiet sophistication and a certain style. The French cram in the plants so close, there is no room for weeds. This requires a non-mechanical, hands-on approach to cultivation and the gardener is rewarded for his/her diligence with a beautiful looking plot.
The potager system is so productive, there is plenty to donate to friends, with a few spare for the odd itinerant slug.
Decide where to cultivate yours and to prevent jungle warfare (or the raising of a white flag), design it first on paper: simplicity is key. On a small scale you could choose a formal parterre or rustic cottage-garden style.
Traditionally a potager garden consists of symmetrical beds in geometric shapes, divided by pathways of grass, brick, flagstone, gravel or even bark chips. Accessibility is important, so make the beds no more than 1.5m wide, so you don’t have to walk on them to cultivate. Then you can use the no-dig-system, where you mulch thickly with compost and let the earthworms do the work.
Beds can be ground level, edged with timber or raised; being constructed from wood planks, sleepers or even brick. Use good soil, enrich with compost, sharp sand and fertilise frequently with Vitax Q4.
The vegetables are not planted just in straight rows, nor are you producing 1000’s of leeks to feed an army, but growing with some military precision would be good: think diagonals, triangles and square formations.
As you become more confident you can experiment with intricate woven patterns in cabbage and dwarf french beans (or not), depending on how you feel!
Edge the beds with box hedging (choose the disease resistant Buxus mic. Faulkner or Winter Gem) or shrubby evergreen germander Teucrium lucidrys. You may not live at Versailles, but a little ornamentation goes a long way. You can even use single Marigolds, Tagetes, Parsley or herbs as a border.
Which varieties to choose?
Whilst the potager layout and style is important, the choice of crops is equally critical. Not only should the produce taste good at harvest, but it should look beautiful whilst growing. For example, if you must have cabbage, select one with purple tinges to the leaves.
Choose runner beans for flavour and flower colour: the white flowered heirloom variety Czar (which produces edible dried beans as well as green pods) against the flame coloured ‘Firestorm’.
Beetroot: Quattro Gourmet mix has four different coloured roots.
Feathery foliaged Florence Fennel looks terrific in the border; the bulb makes fantastic
Grow tomatoes of different colours; chocolate, gold and scarlet.
The fluorescent pink, gold and orange stems of Swiss Chard Bright Lights illuminate a winter border, but you can harvest the baby leaves for salad and steam the stems for a winter vegetable.
Herbs and flowers are an important part of the French Potager system and are
selected to co-ordinate with the vegetable bed-fellows.
Nasturtiums, Borage and Calendula are ideal for attracting bees and butterflies with the added benefit that the petals make a great addition to the summer salad bowl.
Introducing a more diverse range of plants will also ward off pests and diseases that are inherent with mono-cropping; in particular Tagete tenuifolia will confuse the rootfly which attacks your carrots and parsley. In addition, you will have created a pleasant place to sit as
opposed to the traditional depressing rows of cabbages.
Tight on space?
Grow small or grow tall!
Bring height to borders and structure to the winter garden with obelisks.
Install arches over pathways for training Loganberries, primocane Blackberry Reuben
or cordon gooseberries.
The secret to productivity is successional planting; always have something ready to pop into a vacant space, once a crop is harvested. Further more, interplant; mingle the hugely productive dwarf french bean with lettuce. Underplant newly sown runners with radish. Liberally scatter Eschscholzia californica seeds around perennial vegetables such are artichokes and rhubarb. I sow Cornflowers (for the bees) in-between the rows of perpetual spinach, grown for our chickens.
Small can be beautiful: try mini varieties of carrot, spring onions, little gem lettuce, tasty salad leaves for a quick turn around.
‘Accessorise’ your potager tastefully. No tatty bits of polythene, nor old bamboo canes; plastic pots are forbidden! This is to be a beautiful garden feature. Use metal accessories for formal gardens and timber for rustic gardens, but try not to mix them up. If cottage-garden is your plan, choose hazel wigwams or salmon traps; team them with chestnut archways, edge beds with hazel mini-hurdles. Complete the look with wicker baskets of scarlet geraniums in summer.
Find a good quality bench, use terracotta cane tops, give an old metal watering-can a lick of paint, deploy bamboo or metal plant labels. If the budget runs to it, acquire a terracotta rhubarb forcer.
Keep replanting with new things and the beds raked. Above all, tidy away old crops as soon as they are over (as you would tidy your herbaceous border). Don’t leave old leaves lying around; heavens, anyone might think it’s just a vegetable plot! And when the beds are empty? Pop in some instant bedding or cover the raked soil with landscape fabric and stand a few pots of seasonal patio plants, bulbs, mix of herbs, until you need the bed again. The trick is to keep the beds in use, with something beautiful.
We’re not aiming to replicate Chateau Villandry gardens (a work of art), but you could visit www.pinterest.com/bekytrail/raised-beds-and-potagers for some workable ideas.