In recent years, with summers getting longer and hotter, frequent water restrictions, as well as wanting a more low-maintenance garden, I have become more and more inspired by permaculture techniques and philosophies. This has brought me towards creating a more natural garden, adapting my choices to particular situations. Not only have I been choosing heat resistant plants such as star-jasmine, olive trees, and ornamental grasses, I am inspired by Le Jardin Plume in the Normandy region to create a wild-flower meadow rather than upkeeping a large expanse of mowed lawn. I have read that this can bring the temperature down by several degrees and helps with biodiversity. From a practical standpoint, it is that much less lawn to mow, thus more time to enjoy. I have also noticed that for the last several years the lawn becomes completely baked and dry in the heat of August and Septembre in spite of watering and only the antelopes and giraffes are lacking from my African safari! This is a new experiment, so I have yet to see if the results will be completely satisfying.
My first step towards a permaculture mindset happened when I began my potager and was supplied with a compost bin from my local government. There was at the time a movement to reduce waste being collected by the city. Indeed, so much of what we throw away can be recycled in the garden and turned into compost. Not only do I have a lot less trash being collected and a garbage bin that doesn’t smell, I am creating natural fertilizer for my garden.
From that first step, and through researching different techniques, such as mulching, combined with my reluctance to use insecticides or chemical treatments, I have been learning and experimenting and although I try to find the best solutions possible, like enriching the soil, exposition, or organic fertilizer when needed, my main philosophy is marche ou crève, meaning “sink or swim,” but applied to plants. I have also allowed wildflowers to thrive in my lawn, such as sweet violets, daisies, forget-me-nots and various clovers, making the mowed paths become woven tapestries.
All of these things combined have radically changed the appearance of my once little cottage garden into what I hope to become my little wilderness paradise. 🙂
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”– Popular saying
In 2013, my romantic little cottage garden was to undergo a revolution. My neighbors had decided to install a swimming pool along the old fence separating our properties and this would have to be removed, along with the beautiful old wisteria vine that covered it. That was the beginning that would change everything! Once the fence was removed, I hired a gardener to come in and remove the old wisteria covered arbor to avoid the vigorous vine from invading my neighbors, and since the tractor was here, I decided to rework the entire length of the garden. The bamboo hedge, which was becoming increasingly difficult to contain, was removed and the old palm tree too. All my boxwood would soon be removed because of a caterpillar infestation that was ravaging the boxwood throughout France and finally making its way into my garden, but that would be later. What I ended up with was a destroyed lawn and sun in what had once been a shady area in addition to a direct view of my neighbors’. It was a dismal sight but the plowed up soil became a unique opportunity to create a potager.
In France, the garden where you grow your vegetables is called a jardin potager, the word potager being closely related to potage, meaning soup. I think mine should be called a “jardin salader” or “jardin ratatouiller” since I make a lot of salads and ratatouille. Or maybe I should cultivate more soup vegetables! Anyway, elsewhere, the potager may be called a kitchen garden or vegetable garden but I will use the word potager as it is called here.
Now my new gardening adventure could begin. First, to recreate some privacy and a certain symmetry, I planted a hedge of photinia for its lovely red spring color and a few trees and began dreaming of home-grown vegetables, of pretty rows of strawberries, and brilliant gems of tomatoes, of the potager du roi, the king’s kitchen garden of Versaille, of monastic gardens, and of Chateau Villandry’s ornamental kitchen gardens. I decided to begin my project modestly, unsure if I would actually be able to grow any vegetables and if it would be worth the effort. I was also unsure of how much time and work would be needed. Thus I began small, which I think is a good idea. I read a lot of books. I watched a lot of videos and truthfully, those videos made it look really quite simple and encouraged me in the beginning. I took a lot of notes, drew up plans, filled binders with useful information, and bought my seeds and all the basic material and tools I needed. Then Febuary came and it was time to sow my first tomato seeds in miniature greenhouses in an unused bathroom. When they sprouted several days later I was hooked! I found this quite fascinating and have enjoyed growing vegetables ever since!
My approach to gardening is relaxed and spontaneous and as far from the notion of “work” as possible, an unthinkable notion in years past when growing vegetables was often a necessity. Today, gardening has become a pastime and should be a moment of enjoyment. My potager continues to evolve each year as I experiment different techniques and try new varieties. I am learning that some things will work and others won’t but it is all part of the process and even today I have wins and epic fails! Each year is different, and some things are wildly successful, while others, even past successes can be disappointing the year after. It is why gardening is never boring, always challenging, and a great source of inspiration and my moment of meditation and peace from the outside world.
So whether you call it a kitchen garden, a vegetable garden or a potager, I hope you find my garden journal useful and that your garden brings you much joy.
Happy gardening !
“He who plants a garden plants happiness.”
– Chinese Proverb
When we first acquired our old house and set out to renovate it, the garden was in a pitiful state of neglect. Having lived in the city for several years, I dreamed of creating the charm and romance of an English country garden, a little haven of greenery for my family, just a step away from town. We loved French antiques, English china, and old-fashioned flowers like roses and hydrangeas. Inspired by cottage gardens, I knew I wanted old rambling roses in clipped boxwood borders and we chose to create a gravel terrace for its country aesthetic as well as being economical. I kept the old arbor made of hornbeam and wisteria where my children would later love to hide and play. I also planted more boxwood along the gravel terrace to be sculpted into spheres, and in pots where I would slowly form them into tiered topiary. Each springtime I would fall in love with their pale green leaves of new growth.
I never got quite so ambitious as to plant perennial borders, although images of English gardens like Hidcote or Sissinghurst made me swoon. I’m far too lazy for that, and beautiful flower beds need much loving care. This is why I relied on the generosity of the old roses, the wisteria, and a few flowering shrubs to flower my garden, with the addition of tulips, lupin, geraniums, hydrangeas and a few tree peonies.
As time passed, my little cottage garden evolved and continues to change to this day. When we repainted the façade after twenty years, going from white to yellow, and with the palm tree now grown, my garden suddenly felt more Italian than English! My beautiful old roses had to be removed in order to repaint, and I replaced them with a thornless Lady Banks with small yellow flowers and evergreen nature. I still miss the perfume of those first two roses.
Later, other changes would arrive. The arbor and palm tree would be removed following a series of outside circumstances. Then all my beloved boxwood would be removed due to a caterpillar infestation ravaging the boxwood throughout France. I don’t use insecticides, and even if I did, I felt that it would be a losing battle. Nature always wins! Suddenly lacking their luscious green setting, my roses, implanted in the gravel terrace in the scorching summer sun, just weren’t the same.
I said farewell to rambling roses and began a new transformation towards a sustainable garden adapted to the changing climate, with summers getting longer and hotter, and to my personal choice of wanting a more low-maintenance garden. This is also when I decided to create a potager. Heat-tolerant star jasmine replaced the climbing roses and I love their year-round vegetation and wonderful fragrance. Potted olive trees and ornamental grasses are also making their appearance now and I am experimenting with turning part of my lawn into a wildflower meadow.
If I told you that the old house I fell in love with in the beginning was an ugly old house, you probably wouldn’t believed me. Here are some photos of that original house and garden showing how it has evolved over the years.
Our house when we acquired it in 1989.
Five months later, renovation is making progress. Here we can see the old garden and the arbor, with its sweet smelling wisteria in a serious state of neglect.
Two years later, me and my daughter with our strawberries, the garden is already beginning to take form. I see in the photo that the pampas grass that was already there hasn’t been removed yet.
My daughter with her strawberries!
Our old house in 1993, completely transformed in three years.
My antique rose covered wall two years after planting. The arbor which had been cut down severely is growing back nicely.
2011, a yellow façade, boxwood, climbing roses and potted citrus trees.
Lady Banks’ rose in full splendor.
The wisteria covered arbor where my daughters loved to play.
Potted flowers, culinary herbs and climbing roses.
My boxwood finally reaching the second tier, and Pierre de Ronsard, a modern climbing rose with old rose charm.
Three years ago while cleaning up my potager, I had pulled up some plants that looked somewhat like radish plants, but not quite. As always, I throw the weeds on the ground and leave them there to serve as mulch. I continued to go about my business, enjoying being outside and in a somewhat meditative state, when suddenly something caught my eye. What is this? Oh my goodness, a tiny pea-sized potato!! Little gold nuggets growing randomly in my garden! This was the first year I had added compost from my compost bin to my soil, and they had grown from potato peelings. I immediately stopped what I was doing and prepared a spot for the four little plants I had managed to save, and I have been growing potatoes ever since.
Mangetout peas, strings removed and cut in two
Smoked ham or bacon, slivered
Two eggs, lightly beaten
Organic blanched peanuts
Cooked jasmine rice
Garlic chives or a small leek, sliced thin
Salt and pepper
June has arrived and with it, promises of fair weather and spring peas. My polyantha dwarf roses, The Fairy, are just beginning to bloom. These poor plants have been transplanted three times in various places in my garden before finally ending up at the front of my potager. Now into their second year, they have reached mature height and are thriving. The giant clover, oxalis articulata, which have taken up residence in my potager, somehow manage to return each year. Their little bulbs look like shelled hazlenuts, and the first time I saw them while digging in my garden, I was puzzled by the mystery of where all these hazlenuts came from! I don't know how these plants got into my potager, but I think they make a nice groundcover with pretty little purple blossoms.
Inspired by my friend Lydie and my mother, who both grow clematis in their gardens, I have decided to plant one! I was a littly afraid by their seemingly complicated needs, but I need more flowers in my garden, and I love the way they look with climbing roses. My new bed, near the compost bin, has a deep pink climbing rose 'Allegro', blue geranium 'Nimbus', a deep purple clematis 'Ayako', and an ornamental apple in front of a star jasmine covered wall. I used to think that all I had to do was plant flowers in my garden and they would grow. Of course this never worked! Having a potager has taught me that most plants, including flowers, need organic material in order to thrive. I have added much compost to enrich the soil, and now I have my fingers crossed.
I have harvested my first mangetout peas and decided to make a risotto with them. The combination of creamy, chewy, crunchy is spring heaven to me!
- Mangetout peas: 150 g, trimmed, strings removed and cut in half
- 1 medium sized yellow onion, finely chopped
- Fresh rosemary: 2-3 sprigs, washed and minced
- Arborio rice or paella rice: 100 g or 1/2 cup
- White wine: 100 ml or 1/2 cup
- Hot chicken broth: 1/2 l or 2 cups
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Freshly grated parmesan cheese: 50 g or 1/2 cup
- Arugula leaves for garnishing, also known as rocket
Heat olive oil in a medium-sized pot and stir-fry mangetout peas, stirring constantly, until they change color and are just cooked. They should remain crunchy. Remove peas to a plate.
Return pan to heat and add olive oil. Sauté onion with rosemary until softened and golden, stirring constantly. Add rice and stir to coat rice. Add white wine and cook until wine is absorbed. Add chicken broth 1/2 cup at a time, letting rice absorb the liquid before adding more broth, stirring often. When 3/4 of the liquid has been absorbed, test rice for doneness. Cook until al dente, adding just enough broth as needed. Remove pan from heat. Stir in grated parmesan and season with salt and pepper. Stir in mangetout peas.
Serve immediately in individual bowls, topped with arugula and freshly ground pepper.
I have learned something in my potager this year and that is that swiss chard is a biennial plant. The ones I planted from side shoots were suddenly shooting up flower stalks, so it was time to harvest them. I got huge white stalks with dark green leaves, and I will be sowing this variety when I pull up the plants. They have a mild taste and will be wonderful in gratins and soups such as minestrone, and are quite impressive in size. For the moment I have left the flower stalks for the ladybug larvae to hide in, and I must try to put them among my tomatoes. This is one of my favorite recipes for swiss chard and a perfect side-dish.
Preheat oven to 180° C.
For one big bunch of swiss chard you will need:
- Crème fraîche: 60 cl
- Grated swiss cheese: 150 g
- Salt and pepper
Chop swiss chard coarsely, and blanch 5 minutes in boiling salted water. Drain and let cool. Mix together with crème fraîche and grated cheese, and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a baking dish and bake 30 minutes, until golden.
The end of May has been rainy and cool and I somehow managed to get everything planted and sowed before the rain, and now I can let nature do the watering for me. I sowed beans and cucumbers, as well as California Poppies and I am crossing my fingers hoping they all grow. My Reine-Claude prune tree has prunes this year, although the Mirabelle prune tree didn't flower so there are no fruit.
"April showers bring May flowers," and May showers too. My roses and the viburnum are in bloom and the star jasmin will soon be too. I have planted some perennial geranium plants thanks to advice from my dear friend and fellow gardener Lydie. She has a talent for flowers and I am happy to learn from her as I need more flowers in my garden! I have one major criteria for flowers, they must be low maintenance and easy to grow.
The month of May is a busy time in the potager and among the "weeds" I am pulling are the numerous potato plants growing wildly among my lettuces. Now that most everything is planted, I also bought several bags of Miscanthus mulch to protect my soil and have made tags for all my plantings. I have a newcomer this year, Kale, also inspired by my friend Lydie. It is a super-food, full of calcium and other great things so I hope they grow well in my garden. They are quite decorative too!
The mangetout peas are in bloom and will soon be producing. I must start searching for new recipes to try this year! I have taken advantage of the cool wet weather to transplant my ornamental apple tree. It barely flowered this year which was highly disappointing! I hope it appreciates it's new location, and I must water it frequently throughout the season since I planted it quite late. Now I can sit back and enjoy watching my garden grow.