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.
Lettuces are very easy to grow, as long as you respect the type of lettuce for each season, and planting distance. My spring lettuces are growing well this year and I love looking at them, they are like giant edible flowers! Red Salad Bowls are soft and silky to the touch, and Batavias are more like crisp little tutus. I wouldn't think of caressing lettuces at my local market, but I can't help but pet them in my garden. Maybe I should give them names too!
Although lettuces are easy to sow directly in the garden, they are even easier to plant, and there are many varieties to choose from at my local nursery. I buy very young seedlings in early spring to be planted at the end of March. Seedlings should be planted 25-30 cm apart in compost enriched soil, making sure they "float" above the surface, pressing down well around the plant. Mulch and water well. They may wilt a little but usually recover the next day. I shower my lettuces in the evening so they have all night to absorb the moisture they need and harvest in the morning while they are crisp and wet which makes them easier to clean. Cut mature outer leaves as you need them, inspecting each leaf to unlodge any unwanted guests before bringing them in. I shower each leaf before soaking in water with a splash of vinaiger. Slugs aren't really a problem for me, because I usually have too much lettuce anyway, so there is more than enough for everyone! I will usually leave the outermost leaves to keep them happy.
Red Salad Bowl is one of my favorite varieties of lettuce. I love the way it looks in my potager, and the way it tastes in my salads. Last year, I let some of them flower and this year I had baby lettuces growing spontaneously all over my garden, in the potager, in the grass, and even in the terrace. I replanted them in March in neat little rows in front where I can see them and easily harvest their leaves. I am still finding Red Salad Bowl seedlings and replant them, hoping to prolong my spring lettuce season. I planted some green Batavia lettuce for variety and crunch and they remind me of my grandfather who grew them in little raised beds in his garden.
My daughter's ginger cat follows me around in the garden and decided to sit among my lettuces as I was taking photos. It took me awhile to realize that he was sitting on my newly planted zucchini squash plant! Lettuce remain calm! I decided to put my squash in cages and I am also hoping that they take up less space this way, leaving more room for other vegetables. Lettuces are such an easy fast vegetable to grow and I love being able to walk outside and pick some leaves whenever I want a salad!
The month of May is well under way and happily everything is growing. Because their tops were covered with aphids, I cut down the swiss chard which were still in place from last year. I left two plants that I had planted from side shoots back in March, even though one plant was black with aphids. As I had anticipated, I am beginning to see ladybugs on the swiss chard which were left, and several weeks later, the aphids have almost been completely destroyed by my little helpers! This includes tiny spiders that I saw hopping around there too. The ladybugs keep themselves busy walking all over the leaves, and their larvae, although I didn't spot any, are frighteningly ugly creatures! Having a potager has made me learn to appreciate many bugs and other creepy things! Even the aphids, which were a living buffet for those pretty little ladybugs, although I do remove them from my tomato plants!
One of my swiss chard planted from a side shoot is huge! I have planted two rainbow chard, from my local gardening shop, which I must always have in my potager since discovering them a few years ago. They are amazingly decorative! We call these plants blettes, or bettes, as in betterave which are beets, and they are closely related, the bette à carde being grown for its cardes, or stems, and betterave for its rave or root!
My tomato plantlings are growing and getting stronger. I bought two plants from my local nursery to replace the two I broke when planting. I forgot why it is better to sow more than you need! My dear friend Lydie gave me three Beefsteak tomato plantlings so I should have an abundance of tomatoes this year! We call these tomatoes Cœur de bœuf, or Beef Heart tomatoes because they look like hearts! I do think they look more like hearts than a sirloin steak myself!
My peas and potato plants were growing, and when they are 25 cm high you should bring soil up around their stems. This also has the nice advantage of weeding and I use a small hoe for this purpose. I found some zucchini squash plantlings growing among my potatoes, so I planted three of them in my garden, and potted the rest to give away. They have recovered well, and I am testing some cages I found, probably meant for tomatoes, to keep my daughter's ginger cat from sitting on my squash plantlings, but more on that later!
This year my spring lettuces are growing well, and they are almost too pretty to eat! I have to force myself to harvest some of their outer leaves, otherwise I would be happy just looking at them! This brings me back to creepy things! I'm not the only one who likes my lettuces, and I think it is better to harvest leaf by leaf, inspecting each leaf carefully along the way. As I do this, I oust any hidden tenants before bringing them in to finish cleaning them. I have learned to not completely dislike these creatures because they nourish my soil. That being said, I don't want them in my salad, I'll leave them to the birds!
Now that my aromatic herbs are planted, I love sitting on the old well, pulling a few weeds, and watching them grow. The cats lie at my feet, always nearby, although they aren't very good gardeners. I didn't realize when I was planting my herbs around that old well how convenient and pleasant it would be to have them there, the well becoming a seat for me and the cats to lounge on! I can't help but brush them lightly through my fingers and taking in their wonderful fragrance. It is quite addictive and free aroma therapy.
Thyme is a small spreading bushy perennial, 25 cm in height, and should be cut back after flowering in order to maintain a compact shape. Cut sprigs as needed, from May through October. Plants must be renewed every 3 to 4 years by division or cuttings. My thyme has large round leaves compared with most of the thyme I've seen here, I believe the difference being English thyme as opposed to French thyme. They need full sun and well drained, dry soil. Protect in winter.
Sage is a small evergreen shrub, 45-60 cm in height, and should be pruned back after flowering in July, or cut back to the ground every 2 years. Pick sage leaves just before flowering or during active vegetation. They prefer full sun and well drained, dry soil. Divide every 3-4 years.
Oregano is a perennial plant 30-50 cm in height. Harvest from June to October when plants are in flower, cutting the upper two thirds of sprigs in the morning. Let dry well in the sun. When dry, rub off leaves and stock in a cool dry place. They need little care and demand full sun and dry soil. Protect in winter.
Savory is a small annual or perennial, 20 cm in height, used in the Herbes de Provence and is one of my favorite herbs for cooking. Harvest in the morning if warm and dry, from spring to fall. They need full sun and well drained soil. Protect from hard frost.
French Lavender grows 40-60 cm in height and demands full sun and well drained soil. In the spring, in April, prune back previous flowers plus 3 cm of growth to maintain a compact shape.
Chives are a perennial herb growing 20-30 cm in height. They demand rich, moist soil and a sunny to partly shady position. Cut back leaves as needed throughout the season and remove flowers as they fade. Cut back older plants leaving 5-6 cm to encourage new growth. Divide every 2-3 years, planting 15 cm apart, in March or October.
Parsley is a biennial which is better cultivated as an annual. Pick outer leaves as needed. They demand rich soil and partial shade. Water regularly.
Garlic chives or chinese chives are frost resistant perennials, 70 cm in height. They demand full sun to partial afternoon shade and regular watering. Harvest like chives. Divide in March or October.
This year I am also testing leaf celery, a bienniel, in my potager, to be used in soups and seasoning. Along with my two rosemary plants, and the bay hedge, my garden is now full of bonnes and fines herbes.
I have decided to create an herb garden this year to replace my aging lavender plants around an old well. Personally, I prefer jardin d'aromatiques, the French word for an herb garden, because it evokes the notion of smell, and much of the pleasure of growing culinary herbs comes from their scent. I love rubbing them with my fingers and smelling their wonderful aroma on my hands even if I'm just strolling by, and I must walk past my herbs to get to my potager. Of course calling it an herb garden is perhaps a bit pretentious because it is quite small, little more than a flower bed. My original plan was simply to replace the aging English lavender angustifolia, with another variety, but 1) I only found three French lavender stoechas plants, and 2) I really want to be able to walk outside and gather culinary herbs to use in my kitchen. Plus, I came across these Leonardo da Vinci shrub roses and it was love at first sight!
I began by preparing my soil once the lavender plants were removed. The soil was quite poor, so I added a large bag of compost and raked it all in. I also added several liters of compost in the bottom of the holes of my roses. Then I began placing my plants, and when I was happy with their placement, it was time to plant them! First the roses, then the lavender, and finally my herbs. I only chose herbs that I use in my kitchen: thyme, savory, oregano, sage, chives, parsley, and garlic chives. Mulched and watered, I hope to see my herb garden thrive!
I have always loved the romantic English garden with its profusion of flowers, and most of all, roses. When I arrived in southern France, the climate was much more temperate, and with regular watering, it was possible to have roses and boxwood and camellias and hanging baskets of geraniums, impatiens and fushias. With climate change, summer's heat and drought arrives more and more early. The sun is scorching and the heat barely tolerable, and August appears to begin in June!
Therefore, my garden is perpetually changing. As the summers become hotter and dryer with each passing year, I keep adapting my planting accordingly. First, the boxwood were removed because of a caterpillar infestation that was ravaging the buxus all over the country. Then the climbing roses near the terrace were replaced with star jasmin or trachelospermum jasminoides, which are not only heat tolerant, but also evergreen and perfumes the air with a wonderful smell. Although I was aiming towards a low maintenance garden suited to warmer climates, something more mediterranean, what is a garden without roses?
Two of my favorite climbing roses, Domaine de Courson and Pierre de Ronsard, have since been removed, along with Neige d'Avril and Lady Banks, both ramblers, which grew well but were too much maintenance with their huge rambling style on my small façade. They are more suited to growing on top of a large wall. I have planted two Leonardo da Vinci shrub roses and I love how they look next to French lavender, lavandula stoechas. I have also planted a small climbing rose, Allegro, near my compost bin, which also has a romantic old rose style.
My fresh herbs are growing near Leonardo da Vinci roses where I can appreciate their beauty each time I gather herbs for the kitchen, and Golden Celebration, an English rose offered by my dear friend Lydie, now into its second year and offering an amazing show of perfumed roses, is planted near the terrace where it fills the air with its sweet smell. The month of May must have roses, and to paraphrase Claude Monet, I must have roses, always and always.
May is coming to an end and I am faced with a dilemma. My rainbow swiss chard from last year is still growing in my garden and now that the temperatures are rising, their ends are infested with aphids. The benefits are that my roses and tomatoes are pest free. I have noticed on the underside of some leaves, ladybug larva which will feast on those aphids, so nature is very well organized, but unfortunately I don't like seeing these poor plants in my garden. I also need to make room for new planting, so I have decided to cut them down. Before doing so, I gathered all the young healthy leaves along the stems which are much like spinach, and decided to sauté them with pasta for a simple dinner. This is an idea I got from my dear friend and fellow gardener, Lydie, who makes this with fresh kale from her garden. I like to use spaghetti or large spaghettoni, but you can use whatever pasta you like.
Rinse your greens well and soak several times in water with a splash of white vinaiger until clean. Chop greens coarsely. Also peel and chop a garlic clove. Heat olive oil in a large pot on medium high heat and sauté garlic until fragrant, and add greens. Sauté, tossing constantly, until cooked. Season with salt and pepper. Cook pasta al dente according to package instructions, drain well. Toss with greens and serve with freshly grated parmesan.
Mid-March turned into mid-April, then the end of April became May and now I am desperately waiting for the week-end to get my cucumber and pumpkin plantlings planted. They are quite big as I sowed them a little too early. Although I was tempted to plant them during the mild April weather, I decided to follow the lunar calendar and wait until mid-May. I'm glad I did as we are having very cold weather this past week. The proverbial saints de glace, or ice saints, which fall May 11-13, have yet to pass, and popular wisdom tells us that we shouldn't plant our tomatoes outside before mid-May. I have already planted my tomato plantlings and am hoping they survive! Each year is so different and I never really know what the results are going to be! I must remember next time to sow my tomatoes and eggplant early, and squash and cucumbers much later, as they grow fast and I don't have a greenhouse. Cucumbers and squash also work well sown directly outdoors in May.
My next project is to remove the aging lavender which aren't very intresting and replace them with French lavender and thyme and sage and oregano and chives. In the meantime, I'm sitting, waiting and wishing for nicer weather, dreaming of rainbows and pots of gold. Intrestingly, my potager is almost at the end of the rainbow!