Sunday, 18 March 2012

For The Love of Potagers

Potager - from the French term jardin potager, meaning an ornamental vegetable garden, also known as a kitchen garden. A vegetable bed combined with flowers, fruits, berries, and herbs to make a complete yet aesthetically appealing garden.

A potager need not be large. as even the smallest plot is able to produce a goodly amount of fresh produce. Bio intensive gardening methods such as 'French Intensive" or 'Square Foot' gardening are two ways of getting the most out of your smaller plot. Both of these methods require investing in the soil to create better plants, good soil and great compost means feeding the soil as it feeds the plants.
The French Intensive method involves planting your seeds/plants close together, close enough that the leaves of mature plants will touch, this in turn keeps down weed growth and produces more crops. You also stagger your plantings and so plant new seeds in between the rows of already growing veggies. For example, to plant beans or peas between rows of nearly mature lettuce, as the peas grow they provide shade for the lettuces which would otherwise bolt in the heat. Companion planting is also very beneficial to a good yield, planting plants together that benefit from each other. The Native American 'Three Sisters' is a great example of companion planting, though it, obviously, lol, does not originate in France. Corn, squash and beans are planted in the same bed... corn provides the 'trellising' for the beans, beans provide the nitrogen for the corn, and squash shades out the weeds. Fabulous!  
Square foot gardening is another form of intensive planting, making the absolute most of your small space. One 4'x4' bed provides 16 square feet of produce. Developed by Mel Bartholomew, this method concentrates on each square foot, planting a different vegetable in each square, to cut down on weeds and not waste space. It may be one tomato plant and one cucumber plant in a square, plus 16 carrots or onions in another. You also plant in succession as the crops mature, and, as the bed is reachable from all sides, there is no soil compaction.

There is something really appealing about the combination of colourful, pretty flowers and tidy rows or blocks of edibles, the perfect balance of function and beauty.

Cherries Jubilee Nasturtiums from Renee's Garden Seeds in the veggie bed.... 

You all know that I have a little greenhouse operation at home, where, each spring, I grow and sell (mostly) heirloom veggies and old fashioned flowers. We also happen to have a large, organic potager out back, that keeps the family, dogs included, in blooms and veggies for most of the year.  I am very passionate about growing flowers and heirlooms organically with an environmentally healthy mind set (aka sustainability).

However, what you may not know is, that this is house number 5 for us! (Hubby was in the Canadian Armed Forces for 20 years, which meant quite a few postings.) We put in an organic potager on each one of these properties, going green well before 'green' was more than a colour:)  Each potager held a variety of veggies, small fruits, and flowers, all were Eco-friendly and sustainable, and each one taught me new lessons and skills ...  I 'grew' right along with my gardens.

Canadian military housing in Lahr, Germany

This is how I got hooked on potager gardens....

Hubby and I were very young (early 20's) with two small babes, a 2 year old and a 3 month old, when we were posted to Lahr, Germany for a 4 year military posting.

While there, we lived part of the time 'in the economy', as they called it... meaning, we rented our home from a German couple and lived out in the community, instead of in an apartment set up for Canadian military families.

During my daily walks and outings with the kidlets, I found that potager gardens, or urban homesteading, was a regular way of life in both the small towns and the big cities of Germany and France.  

This German garden photo is from

All types of fruits, berries, herbs, and veggies grew amid flowers in rural and urban gardens. Our landlady grew her raspberries, plums and apples beside the chicken coop, tomatoes amongst the dahlias and roses, perennials and annuals mixed with vegetables everywhere...  and all was in pristine order. These were the prettiest yards I had ever seen, with hardly any lawn to be seen. Paths and driveways were gravel or stone, and the rest were gardens and colour and beauty. Not a lawn mower did I see or hear, though they must have had some, lol.

The landlady's chickens... and my soaking wet daughter, helping out with the watering and gardening...

I fell in love! Fell in love with kitchen gardens, fell in love with living off your own land, fell in love with growing your own food, and most especially, fell in love with growing everything on ones own, from the fruits and berries to the veggies and herbs, all together on one plot....  Potager gardening.

I was hooked and have been ever since... that is how I began my personal road to potager gardening.  

Okay, so never mind the hubby looking very very young, lol, and it was the 90's...
This first potager garden was 6' wide and a huge, long L-shape that followed the perimeter of the yard...
It held tons of veggies and flowers!

After our tour ended, 1994, we returned to Canada, bought our first home, and began to play around with this new form of gardening. Hubby built a large, wide raised bed around the entire perimeter of the fenced-in back yard. Into this urban yard and garden went a jumble of annual and perennial flowers, bulbs, berries and veggies of all sorts.
It is also where my passion for tomatoes really took hold! I had discovered that I loved to grow tomatoes!

Potager #2...
Three rectangular raised bed (4'x8' to keep it simple) house the veggies and annuals.
 Corn in the far bed, carrots and potatoes in the centre, and tomatoes in the near bed.

It was when we moved into our second home in 1996 that I got really serious about gardening, especially integrated kitchen gardening. It was a regular lot in small town Alberta, but had a long narrow back yard and little front yard. Perfect!. We ripped out a huge blue spruce to build a tidy potager garden instead. Three rectangular raised beds housed the veggies, bordered by an L shaped small-fruits bed. Along the sides, we planted raspberries, both red and black. The reds were tidy with much fruit, the blacks were long crazy whips and very little fruit.

Another enormous spruce shaded the little lean-to greenhouse. It too was knocked out, to instead house a large strawberry patch... which we quickly had to learn to keep the robins out of, as they were pinching all the fruit. One small sour cherry (sweet cherries do not grow in Alberta) was planted in place of an ornamental apple that died suddenly after a really tough winter. From this tree, we  harvested one (very) small bowl of cherries before our next move.

Wow, I actually found a pic of the bowl of cherries in the process of being picked!
 The strawberry patch is behind as is my tiny lean-to greenhouse.
This is where I started to grow 12 to 18 tomato plants a year and also where I grew my first ever heirloom tomato.... the Purple Prince. It was a huge, sprawling, tangle of tomato vines, that produced masses of the loveliest and tastiest purple fruit ever. Till then I had no idea that purple (black) tomatoes existed, nor did I know anything about determinate (bush) varieties versus indeterminate (vining) varieties! Therefor, I had nicely planted each little Purple Prince tomato seedling in a traditional wire tomato cage.... and come August, we could not find the cages for the tumbling mass of vines! Amazing fun!

This is the way I NOW grow my indeterminate tomatoes :) Not fancy but it works!
Hubby built these simple wooden trellises/frames out of 2x2's
 and attached them to the sides of the raised beds.
I toss the string around the top of the frame
which gives me two strands per plant (add more if and as needed)
Tie the string loosely to the bottom of the vine
Keep twisting the string around the vine as it grows. 
This easily holds up the vine and bears the weight of the fruit.
Garden number three was a brand new house with a bare patch of dirt and no prior landscaping. We quickly erected a wooden fence, a large deck, and a lovely potting shed/play house. Having these structures not only served a function but also created little micro-climate pockets, allowing Zone 4 and Zone 5 plants to thrive in my Zone 3 garden.

This potager consisted of  three huge rectangular 'garden beds' and long beds along the two side fence lines. Instead of building raised beds with actual walls, we heaped the garden soil higher than the pathways and bordered them with a sharp trench. This created distinct planting areas without the visual barriers that come with walled beds. As this back yard was small, we felt that raised walls would make it seem even smaller. We again planted rhubarb, more raspberries,  strawberries, a few fruiting trees and shrubs, and, of course, lots of veggies. My son built a small cold frame in which to start the cucumbers and it worked a charm! We had 4 plants and enough cukes for the whole neighbourhood!

This is where I first trialed lasagna bed gardening, which is, of course, just layers of compost-able materials... heaped gardens..go figure ;) I also split this garden down the middle one year, to trial a traditional granular fertiliser against the organic Gaia Green Organic Fertiliser and Myke ( mycorrhizal fungi). Organic did far better... so no there was no turning back ever again after that!  

Potager #4, Bon Accord, Alberta.. The BEFORE picture...

Potager number 4 began as a nightmare and became a dream. Purchased an older home on a prairie acreage, meaning three acres of grass to mow! There was a lovely hill up the back, with a wide flat area at the bottom that had been created as a runoff swale for storm waters???? On the prairie? Don't ask me what they were thinking! That swale area held a few gnarled, misshapen apple trees and a rectangular patch of dead weeds...  perhaps an early attempt at a veggie plot? The soil was cracked clay, hard as concrete... which explained the dead weeds.

We expanded this 'plot' into a large L shape with apples on the side to make for an acre of potager garden. Hubby built a fence (for looks more than deer control) and a pergola covered walk-way through the centre. We the hauled in 7 truckloads of garden soil, levelled it all out, set out the pathways, and started planting.

First, in went some more fruit trees to create the small orchard while we slowly pruned the old apples into a healthy fruiting state again.

The short part of the L shape became the small fruits garden. An area with rows ( I do like my rows) of fruiting shrubs, the different varieties separated by concrete stepper pathways. A row of raspberries, only red this time but two different varieties in two different areas, blueberries, gooseberries and Jostaberries, currants, rhubarb, and one! new, black, non-suckering, raspberry shrub, the Wyoming Black Raspberry.

We also put in a hedgerow of the new blue wonder fruit of the prairies, the Haskap aka Blue Honeysuckle. That hedge started from tiny, little plants in 4" pots when these fruits first became available on the market. I was able to purchase some of the very first plants, right from the developer of the phenom fruit. Pretty exciting times.
Then we planted up the large part of the L. On the one side of the pergola, we created a formal garden with a central square. This was planted up with perennials, roses, shrubs, and a wee bit of edibles, with vining ornamentals climbing the pergola walls. The other side of the pergola held long beds running north to south, capped off with beds running east to west. This area was planted up with veggies, herbs, and annuals, a few perennials, and hardy grapes climbing up the pergola.

The AFTER... Potager #4 in Bon Accord, Alberta

Various types of Onions, Swiss Chard (because it is so pretty though I dislike the taste!), sunflowers, marigolds, potatoes, rue (cat deterrent), and the climbing "Polar Star' hardy rose.  

Which brings us to the current home and current potager, still very much a work in progress...
Backyard potager #5
The island is all rocky hard pan soil, so we built 23 raised beds to create our backyard potager garden.

This 5 acre property is in Nanaimo, BC, a zone 7 west coast garden with winter rains and summer drought. Is a whole new learning curve for this gardener! Much new is being learnt every day and each season... 

We have planted cherry, apple, plum and pear trees, 20++ blueberry shrubs, black raspberries (again, crazy I know!) red raspberries, gooseberries, black currants, and one thorn-less blackberry, so far...  Also, rhubarb, asparagus, and strawberries... a huge variety of English roses, mini roses, perennials, annuals, and, of course, heirloom vegetables.

Heirloom/heritage plants, in my opinion, go hand in hand with kitchen garden. They are beautiful, healthy, 'green', and absolutely sustainable. Potager gardening... beauty and function.
My Heirloom Pumpkins :)

More on this current potager in another blog post :)

1 comment:

  1. I love looking at your beautiful gardens.I have a small garden,on a small lot,but I have room for some raised beds like you have,it gives me an idea,maybe i will try that.


Moving Thyme

Sadly, the Nitty Gritty Potager blog is no more... but the good news is that I can now be found at my new blog called the Olde Thyme F...