Carolee's Herb Farm

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The Potager Print E-mail
In traveling through Europe, I have often observed a garden style that I feel is deserving of adaptation in the United States.  This is the potager, or small kitchen garden.   The potager is a small plot of land that contains small beds bordered by narrow pathways.  This tidy garden (and they are always tidy!) is usually located near the gardener’s back door, but may also be an allocation along railroad right-of-ways, on city-owned property, rented from a nearby farmer, or even multiple containers along walkways or stairs.  Each bed is filled to capacity with  vegetables, herbs, and a few flowers to decorate both the garden and the table.  Sometimes a dwarf fruit tree is included, or a small grape arbor.  Often, there is a table and chairs so the gardeners can rest, or enjoy a glass of wine or a picnic in the garden.  The objective of this garden is to provide fresh vegetables and herbs for an elegant but simple dinner each and every day of the growing season.

To accomplish this in such a small space, European gardeners plant an astounding variety of vegetables, and  have mastered the art of successive plantings.  As soon as a plant is harvested, it is replaced with a new seedling or a pinch of seeds.   There is usually a small bed or even just a flat, devoted to a variety of seedlings which can be quickly transplanted. Vertical gardening, that is training vines and other plants to grow on a trellis, fence or netting is encouraged to save space.  The gardeners also carefully plan what to plant when, taking seasonal weather changes, and days to harvest to maximize production.  Before the planting time even arrives, seedlings of cold-hardy plants such as onions, radishes, shallots, peas, snow peas, lettuces, various greens, broccoli, cauliflower, and many other veggies and salad ingredients are ready to go in the ground.  These are followed in succession, as the weather permits, by sun-loving squashes, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, melons, potatoes, and basils.  Even after the autumn frosts, the potager yields crops of cold-tolerant greens, brussel sprouts and other cole crops, root crops such as carrots, turnips, parsnips, and other vegetables that may have been protected by a layer of hay mulch.

Few Americans are avid vegetable and fruit growers, especially in suburban locations.  Even in rural areas, vegetable gardens are seldom seen anymore.  Traditionally, the American vegetable garden is a large affair sown all at once as soon as the weather is settled and the ground dry enough to work.  Typically, long rows of vegetables in large quantities are planted that are harvested all at one time.  The excess produce is preserved for the winter.  As one crop is harvested, the space is left empty, or soon grows with weeds.   By August, when the last of the vegetables are harvested, only a few overgrown, often sad-looking tomatoes and vine crops remain, and the “gardener” has moved on to other pursuits.

A well-done potager is a beautiful garden that provides vitamins and variety.  It is not designed to provide massive amounts for preserving, but for small quantities to be harvested daily.   I realize that with the massive produce displays in our groceries, one may wonder why I advocate growing your own food.   But, just imagine walking out to your own pretty garden,  picking fresh salad greens, a few herbs for the dressing, and  vegetables for a side dish.

I’ve become a vocal advocate of the potager style of vegetable gardening.  First of all, it takes little space, and less time overall than the traditional American vegetable garden.  Secondly, all of the food is available fresh to the table, rather than frozen or canned.  Thirdly, one can be certain that no harmful chemicals have been used in the food.  It is energy efficient, and provides beneficial exercise.  And, you’ll find that you will eat healthier, with fewer carbohydrates and less meat.  I also feel that we are becoming disconnected not only with the land and nature, but with the food chain of our country.  The average vegetable has traveled over 600 miles before it reaches our table!  Locally grown food is becoming a rarity.

So, this year, why not begin to grow a bit of your family’s food?  It doesn’t have to be anything monumental.  Just a single bed, with perhaps a trellis of pole beans in the back, with a sweet pepper plant or two, and a bit of lettuce will provide several tasty dishes.  When the lettuce is finished, it can be replaced by summer squash, tomatoes, or even late fingerling potatoes!  Once you experience success, you can add additional beds and varieties.  You’ll be amazed at the flavor, and the feeling of pride when you bring home-grown-with-love food to the table!