CREATING A POTAGER
The house and all its outbuildings are surrounded by fields which, when we bought the place, were just that - empty grass meadows. One of the reasons we moved here was to live a simpler and more wholesome life in which we would be able to provide for ourselves as much as possible. That included creating a potager where we could grow our own food.
And so in early 2012, a few months after we had arrived, our lovely French neighbour C. offered to plough the area of land I had chosen for its location. He and his tractor arrived one cold January morning and in no time the ground was churned, which is how it remained for about 6 weeks to let the frost kill as many of the upturned grass, plants and roots as possible. Then he came to harrow it and left me with an area roughly 30m x 11m to comb through and clean up.
About 50m to the side of the potager runs the mill race, and another 20m behind that the river Dive, so we have fertile and reasonably moist soil here. But it is clay ground and our field turns rock hard in summer and treacherously muddy in autumn and winter. It is also FULL of stones and it took me 3 weeks of raking them all out of the top 30cm of soil. My poor poor hands were a blistered mess, my back nearly broken, but I was finally ready to start planning.
That first season was so exciting. I was a complete novice and took a lot of advice from my dear French friend P. who organised a rotavator for me and taught me how to operate the thing. The French (at least the older generation) seem to use rotavators all the time but I didn't really take to it and had already decided I preferred a different approach which involved no digging at all.
Like a blank sheet of paper, the freshly cleared plot looked daunting but inviting. In March I laid out the beds with string, created my first woven border and planted a mirabelle, a pear and a plum tree, the first strawberry plants and some currant bushes. I then laid a really strong ground cover path all along the outer edge of the potager to define the area and proceeded with planting and sowing the first crops, trying out all sorts - radish, rhubarb, chard, potatoes, carrots, courgettes, beetroot, onions and tomatoes as well as runner beans and parsnips (both of which do not do well in this climate), green beans, peas and mange touts. I had read up on which crops grow well together and which don't so this was my first ever beginners' trial. I loved building simple support structures with the branches that came off pollarded trees. I was obsessed with it every day and that first season gave us a wonderful beginner's harvest.
But then the second year came around and brought despair. The weeds were horrendous and I spent most days on my knees trying to dig them all out. Those first few years I only had enough energy to concentrate on the front and centre of the potager so the back resembled a wild jungle all the time. Only if the most courageous friends came to stay and help would it be cleared! In fact, for a long time this area remained a problem because the ground is a lot drier than elsewhere and has many more stones in it. After trying many different types of crops there, I have now relocated all those perennial fruit and veg crops which develop strong deep root systems to this area- rhubarb, globe artichokes, jerusalem artichokes as well as currant and gooseberry bushes - and that is working well.
They say that your very first season produces the best crops. Possibly because you pay so much attention to every little detail of growing vegetables. Or because the virgin earth is full of nutrients. We indeed had success with everything I had planted, but our best crop that first year were the (Maris Piper) potatoes. I remember going around them with a bottle half filled with water in which I deposited all the Colorado beetles picked off the plants. Never had any since though!
The next few years were all about learning which crops grew best in our climate and this specific location. And, before I saw the blessed light of mulching, they were also about weeding, weeding and more relentless weeding. Every spring and summer presented the same ordeal and I'd have to start clearing all over again. I found it hard to allocate enough time to the project due to other work and renovation commitments and for quite a while I felt I just couldn't win. Visiting the family for a few weeks at the wrong time of year punished me by having to face an absolute jungle on my return - one particular year the grasses and weeds had shot up to shoulder height and I cried all day out of sheer frustration.
It was a constant, gruelling, will-destroying battle., not like you are renovating a building, where you know that what you do will remain in place for years to come. Creating a garden out of a wild field is constant, relentless, never-ending work, season after season, year after year, for not only will seeds be blown in from the surrounding fields, dropped by birds flying over or be walked in on shoes, you will also bring up long dormant seeds, even when you dig only shallowly, culminating in a vast array of grasses, stubborn perennials, creeping pests and flowering annuals taking over your precious vegetable beds.
You MUST have a passionate love for gardening to be able to work on this scale, otherwise you're absolutely best to stick with one or two raised beds!
Much of the work is also subject to climatic conditions - seeds, seedlings and young plants are very sensitive to temperature and moisture fluctuations so months of loving, dedicated work may result in deep disappointment because of very late frost, very early heat, prolonged heavy rain, grubs in the soil nibbling away on the roots of your plants, moles digging through your beds, too much nitrogen, too little phosphorus, or whatever else destroying what might have been a good harvest. Much more so than ornamental gardening, vegetable gardening is a lot about disappointment and frustration, tearing your hair out and starting all over again and again. It is about LOTS of patience. But if you persevere, at some point you'll get to grips with it all. Yes, you will still make mistakes and crops may still get lost due to the weather, pests or plain bad luck. But there's nothing nicer than to walk the paths of your potager and eat the healthy foods you have just harvested !
During the first years I constructed simple arches from branches for roses and vines to cling to and after that I bought some metal arches, none of which were robust enough. But one day in 2015 I was chatting to my dear, now late friend DJ. and mentioned my wishes for two nice strong metal archways for the potager, one on each side of the plot. He promptly offered to make them for me and sure enough a couple of months later his beautiful creations were installed. I love my arched pathways and have named them after him. Another local friend, a talented sculptor and metal artist, designed and made the two wonderful sunflower sculptures which reside in the central asparagus bed.
Because of the river Dive, which runs through our little valley, the ground is marshy and the vegetation remains lush and green even during the hottest summers. The top few centimeters of our soil will turn rock hard but just underneath that it will stay relatively moist. Deep mulching however is crucial to prevent the top soil from drying out.
I use water from our well for irrigation. Some people have suggested I install a sprinkling system but I prefer to water by hand - I know which crops need more than others and I love that time of early morning or evening dedicated to watering the plants.
The overall garden layout has never changed.
I eventually covered the inner paths with strong ground fabric too. Ugly but extremely practical., this stuff has been down for 9 years now and still serves a treat. Everything dug out from the beds goes on it and is left until it has been killed off by the sun and is then swept back onto the beds. Aspects of the garden have however changed and changed again. I ordered lengths of 'sapin' from the local wood mill which for several years made nice borders for the individual beds. But in the end I decided maintenance was easier without them. Perennial crops have moved place once or twice until they found their perfect spot. The paths have been reduced in width and those along the archways have had different flowering plants in them. Some fruit trees have been relocated and fencing has been moved.
Over the years and bit by bit the garden has developed and matured.
Throughout the potager pear, nectarine, plum, fig, almond and apricot trees have been planted. Every year we have more delicious Chasselas (white) and Muscat de Hambourg (blue) table grapes as the vines spread over the archways. Tomatoes, potatoes, onions, carrots, aubergines, peppers, leeks, currants, berries, strawberries and raspberries, green beans, peas, rhubarb, garlic, asparagus, artichokes, courgettes, beetroot, lettuces, rocket and chard all do well here. Parsnip however gives me a hard time.
Cabbages are cool weather crops so I plant these towards the end of august once summer temperatures reaching 40ºC have come down.
I do think a kitchen garden should be pretty too, not just row after row of crops which seems to be the norm here. I need a bit of romance everywhere! And so I have planted roses, echinacea, erigeron, lavender and buddleias together with herbs such as coriander, parsley, marjoram, mint and borage which self seed every year. I also sow sweet peas and nasturtiums every year. I like the potager concept - the defined beds give a much higher measure of control. Yes, it's hard work to get to this stage but, eventually, thick mulching and stubborn hand weeding really will result in a garden which is almost free of weeds and so much easier to maintain.
This year we have installed a small greenhouse/potting shed but over the years I have tried different methods of germinating seeds. In the beginning, during early spring, the dining room would be taken over by small plastic seed trays with transparent lids. Then came straw bales topped with old windows and metal frames covered with protective fleece.
My little greenhouse serves really well in late winter but when temperatures rise dramatically here in march the interior gets too hot for many of the young seedlings, so the next project will be to create some shade cover - either an arched frame with climbing honeysuckle or some small trees planted around it.
The web offers a huge amount of information on vegetable gardening and you will find an answer to any question or problem you have.
Even after ten years of veg gardening I would never claim to be an expert. But for what it's worth here are some of my personal experiences:
MULCH, MULCH, MULCH.
Mulching prevents the soil drying out so you need to water a lot less. It also makes a huge difference to your time spent weeding. Some measure of weeding is inevitable but it will be nothing like when the soil is left bare (although the super tough bindweed survives and defies absolutely any type of mulch applied 😡). I mulch with cardboard topped with straw, autumn leaves, lawn clippings, twigs, small branches and chicken and goose manure. And I empty the compost pile onto the beds once a year.
PS - chicken manure needs to be well rotted before adding to the soil otherwise the beds will suffer a bindweed infestation, like I have this year!
ONE YEAR OF SEED IS SEVEN YEARS OF WEED..
It is very true! And you have no idea how many 1000's of tiny seeds can come from only one little flower. So I get any weeds out before they go to flower or seed and I make sure to stay on top of them!
ONLY GET A FEW TOMATOE PLANTS.
I plant any side shoots I take off straight into the soil where they soon form roots and grow into a new plant. Likewise, any seeds from tomatoes left on the soil the year before will germinate and provide new plants.
I don't take off every side shoot as generally recommended - I leave three leading shoots on each plant and let them ramble freely. I should add that I prefer cherry tomatoes. They are prolific, easy to grow and not so heavy as large tomato varieties. They taste super sweet and are easy to pick and enjoy while I'm gardening!
PROTECT YOUNG PLANTS AND FRUITS WITH NETTING.
Pigeons and doves especially love to pick off young leaves and leave nothing. The same goes for strawberries - I cover mine with netting otherwise the local birds would have them all!
PROTECT CROP FROM VERY HOT SUN.
Heat is good. But prolonged temperatures of 35-40ºC are just too much for most crops. So I stretch some old large sheets between forked poles to protect the most vulnerable plants against direct sun.
STRUCTURE YOUR GARDEN.
I love natural vegetable gardens where to a certain level 'weeds' and flowers are left to flourish and crops are just quasi randomly planted. These potagers look wild and relaxed and they are beautiful. I also appreciate this may provide a more natural and beneficial habitat for crops. But I need a garden with defined beds and paths, with a clear structure to give me some measure of control. Without that control I could never cope.
DON'T GIVE UP.
Be prepared for a lot of work every single day. For frustration and disappointment. For seeds not germinating or seedlings disappearing, for young leaves and fruits to be eaten by birds, slugs and voles or for roots to be devoured by grubs. For crops to shrivel up in the heat of the sun or for tomatoes to rot away in prolonged rain .
Don't look at the sheer mountain of hard work ahead. Take it day by day and bit by bit. And never forget that this year's failures will be next year's new chances!!