My vision for our garden was always to create somewhere enchanting; somewhere that had a romantic feel, I imagined a place where one could float around while wearing a swirling skirt with a glass of champagne in hand. I didn’t want anywhere that would be taken too seriously, instead I wanted somewhere that would delight the senses, fuel the imagination and be easy to maintain. But above all else there had to be somewhere that provided edible treats. If you have ever eaten a warm sun-ripened tomato straight from the vine, you will know that the taste far outweighs anything bought in the chilled section of the grocery store.
Our potager has always been a place where we will often find the children on a summer’s evening, feasting away on tomatoes, so sweet and juicy that they become nature’s candy. Throw in a handful of strawberries (and later in the year some plump purple grapes) and it’s all too easy to have a banquet!
As you know, I am passionate about growing our own fruit and vegetables whenever possible; my idea of heaven is to wander down the garden with a sharp knife and the wooden trug, with no firm idea of what I shall gather, and simply pick what is ripe. I do this with a vague idea for lunch or supper forming in my mind, one I’ll then share with Roddy to elaborate on and ultimately cook – for he is the master chef of the family; whereas I follow recipes, he is perfectly capable of conjuring up mouthwatering dishes without a book in sight. It is no accident, for example, that we ALWAYS have tomatoes, courgettes (white, green and yellow this year), aubergines and peppers in the potager – neither of us need any excuse to make some ratatouille!
To this end, our vegetable garden is of great importance to us and the number one aim is that it must provide good home-grown organic produce for the family. But, for me, it’s also important that the potager is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Whilst the prime consideration has to be the crops themselves, I cannot deny that I wanted something that was in keeping with the rest of the property. I wanted a potager that was both practical and pretty and I think after several years we may be finally getting it right.
In traditional gardens, vegetables are planted in rows in military fashion. Surprisingly, when we moved here there was no specific potager at all, an unusual state of affairs for a French country house, but there were plenty of herbs, all mixed in amongst the flowers in the herbaceous border. At the far end of the garden there were, and still are, a row of old highly productive grape vines and beyond these was a shrubby area with a few roses, a dead tree, grass that came up to our knees and a mass of old discarded stone against a huge stone wall. I instantly knew this was the place for our vegetable garden. The wall is west-facing and so there would be plenty of sun and also shelter from any cold easterly winds.
The first couple of years we rotovated the land and made a traditional patch in which the vegetables grew well, along with a forest of weeds! Last summer we tried some plastic weed-matting, a somewhat effective affair but the overall cosmetic ‘look’ didn’t sit well in my vision; it grated every time I glanced at it, and I knew it was out of place and ugly. So one dark rainy day last winter, Roddy and I made a plan over a cup of coffee to tidy things up with some raised beds, and to do that we’d use some of the mass of old stone at the back of the potager as low retaining walls. With an idea in place, we left the area untouched for several months and it reverted to a natural state, all remnants of a vegetable garden forgotten.
Fast forward to this spring, and under a blistering early April sun we set to, heaving stones into place.
Once the beds were finished we bought in eleven and a half tonnes of a 50/50 topsoil/compost mix, a venture that amounted to six lorryloads that were unceremoniously dumped into a mound by the grapevines. We’d also made the decision to make it a “No Dig” garden, and following the advice of Charles Dowding (the king of ‘No Dig’ gardening), we laid cardboard over the larger areas of the more obstinate weeds. Roddy dutifully shovelled whilst we helped wheelbarrow the mountain of earth into place. Then we started out with the spades and rakes, and after two days of old fashioned labour we felt very content with ourselves!
By early May I was panicking that we still hadn’t planted a thing and spring was marching forward at an alarming rate. But then we had a cold snap at the end of April that caused havoc across the area. We reflected that lady luck seemed to be on our side for a change, and planting late this year had been a good thing!
When we did finally plant the weather was hot and sunny, the soil was warm, and everything started to grow alarmingly quickly. The children had their own areas as always and we watered conscientiously from our spring-fed well every dusk amongst the gathering gloom and burgeoning population of insects, and we watched and waited. Things started to flower and carrot tops started pushing up through the soil.
Our’s is a naturally flowing garden where one section merges gently into another. Down at the end, the vines provide a visual break between garden and potager but there is no fixed fence, one can wander around either side; it’s rather like a large watercolour in which all the edges are somewhat blurred. The old stone provides a retaining wall for the vegetable beds but it’s not a solid hard line, cucumbers and watermelons are beginning to tumble over the sides, softening the look.
We built the beds around the roses. I knew that they’d been planted there a long time ago for a specific role next to the vines, and I’ve learnt that flowers can be miracle workers in the vegetable garden as they play a dual role in attracting both the insects which keep down pests, and they help to bring in many different species of bee and hoverfly, all of them key pollinators. I carefully planted nasturtiums amongst my French beans which have for the past three years been plagued by blackfly, and this year it’s been very much a case of “so far so good”. I sowed cosmos amongst the cucumbers and added some marigolds here and there – a decoy for the slugs that worked a treat. There is also a huge white buddleia at one end, standing proudly alone which attracts a mass of butterflies and hawk moths; the commonest visitor is the ubiquitous cabbage white, though this year the peacocks have appeared in great numbers too.
I also planted some fennel, not just for its culinary value but also because I love the feathery leaves which seem to whisper gently in the breeze, they add great texture to the beds and attract many other beneficial insects, and all parts are edible, the bulb, the leaves and the seeds.
We planted sunflowers for the children, scattered amongst the courgettes and the aubergines; they are coming up strongly and should be flowering within the next couple of weeks.
And the weeds? Well the good news is they are – for the first time ever – manageable! I admit that I’ve been as vigilant as time allows, using the early mornings before the sun gets too hot to attack them with my hoe (my new trusted friend), scratching out any treacherous interloper that has dared to invade the space. Of course we still have weeds and I don’t mind them so much, but at least they are mostly where they should be. In the autumn, once the heat has subsided a little we shall tackle the remaining stone. I’d like to plant an almond tree and perhaps an apricot too. But for now we’ll keep the self seeded poppies and mint and leave them undisturbed.
And here’s a strange insight into the weed question – I remember once asking a French friend in the south of France if a new vegetable delivery box scheme she was suggesting to me was organic. “No it’s not certified or official,” she said “but there are a healthy amount of weeds in the garden.” I opened my eyes in wonderment at her response, for so much made sudden sense. Now I can look back on my childhood home, where our vegetable garden was huge, and where my father grew everything for the house with plenty spare that went into the freezer for the winter months. This was of course before the days when organic gardening became popular, but I never recall the use of any pesticides or insecticides and I do remember plenty of weeds everywhere – all around the edges between the garden and the fields. There were long grasses, stinging nettles, blackberries and a host of other plants, and it was all an edible heaven. We ate as fast as we picked; raw peas from the pods, berries from the fruit cages, tomatoes and salad leaves. Nothing was ever washed, as there was no need.
And today, I now find myself with my own children in the same situation, but just in a different location and with new botanical characters.