'Potager' in French means an ornamental vegetable or kitchen garden. 'Potage' is vegetable soup, and so all the necessary ingredients may be found in a good potager. The Potager is a source of vegetables, herbs and fruits – all plants with very different needs.
Traditionally, the kitchen garden is essentially a separate type of garden from the residential garden and lawns. There is a different history to the kitchen garden, and often different approaches to the design. It is frequently a structured garden with a design based on repetitive geometric patterns.
Only Summer Vegetables for the First Few Years
During our building and renovation of La Mouissone beginning in 1998, one of the contractors announced that he had a present for Madame Lockett when she came on an inspection visit.
Voilà! the bare piece of ground next to the kitchen terrace had been transformed into a structured garden, comprising three geometrically shaped beds, and narrow strips against the boundary walls, all edged in salvaged terracotta edging tiles. There was a wrought iron pergola attached to the stone wall, the material salvaged from an old chicken hut of the previous owner. The paths were of fine cream coloured gravel.
It was beautiful! What a present! And then he presented his bill of several thousand euros!
For a few years we enjoyed 'ratatouille' vegetables, mediterranean herbs and blackberries grown in the potager. Eventually, the penny dropped that these vegetables were not as vigorous, or as early as in other gardens in the area. In addition, there was a lot of expenditure and work for a not very high yield. We looked at the conundrum carefully and worked out that the little kitchen garden is probably in the worst location we have to offer for such a thing. It is north east facing. It is shaded by two olive trees on the north east side. These shade much of the morning sun; and another olive tree on the south west side, shades the afternoon sun, as does the tall stone wall. In addition, the soil is very free draining, so the plants need constant watering. It was time to re-examine our approach to kitchen gardening.
A Sunny New Potager
In 2012 we decided to create a second vegetable garden – the New Potager. A new terrace was cleared. It faces more or less south, and receives full sun for at least six hours a day. It has a heat-holding wall at the back. However, it had not been cultivated for decades.
The four beds were carefully marked out and two ‘calade’ slabs were constructed in the centre to give the required formality. Later on we would plant box balls and box hedge strips to further formalise the garden. ‘Calade’ is a French term for a decorative and useful arrangement of medium-sized pebbles fixed to the ground; that is, a type of cobblestone paving.
The Three Sisters
We love to experiment, so we went straight ahead and planted a mini Native American patch – a group of vegetables known as The Three Sisters.
According to Iroquois legend, corn, beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive together. This tradition of inter-planting corn, beans and squash in the same mounds, widespread among Native American farming societies, is a sophisticated, sustainable system that provides long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet.
Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb.
Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the plot by providing nitrogen to the following year’s corn. Bean vines also help stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind.
Shallow-rooted squash vines become a living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, thereby improving the overall crops chances of survival in dry years. Spiny squash plants also help discourage predators from approaching the corn and beans. The large amount of crop residue from this planting combination can be incorporated back into the soil at the end of the season, to build up the organic matter and improve its structure.
The well-designed potager can provide food, as well as cut flowers and herbs for the home with not too much maintenance.
Our vegetable plants are chosen as much for their colour and form as for their functionality. Many are trained to grow upward. Most at La Mouissone are grown from seed. In some parts we are experimenting with perennial vegetables. For example, the runner bean is used as a perennial plant in its native Central America. We have had plants in the ground for three years, with good cropping.
As the garden is open for visits, it is always interesting to have surprises for the guests. Therefore we have several vegetables unknown to the French in the South:
- Quintessentially British - runner beans - one of the easiest of all vegetables to grow. To many people summer is incomplete without them. Our French visitors had never heard of them!
- Rainbow chard, for its wonderful colours.
- Kohlrabi – also unknown in the South, and grown here in memory of the cuisine of my German parents.
- Edamame beans and oriental leaves for use in far-eastern dishes.
- Jekka McVicar’s red veg collection 'Reds in the Bed'.
- Purple sprouting broccoli – the best!
Our first three years of gardening two vegetable plots has built up our experience, and refined our understanding of the needs of the vegetables we enjoy most. This has led to a recent decision to grow the mediterranean vegetables grouped on the New Potager (Med Veg!) and the more tender northern favourites on the Old Potager (the Cold North!).