Monday, May 27, 2013

In Search of the American Potager

Much of my garden plant placement has been an exercise in trial and error. I place plants in one bed one year and opt to plant the same type in another location the next year. Some years I focus on flowers, other years I focus more on vegetables. My herb garden alone has made a move from one location to another and I am still contemplating yet another move to location number 3! I am always reevaluating the best ways to use my space, and with a mostly annual plant type garden, this is fairly easy to accomplish as annual plant life spans allow a gardener to start over in a new location on a seasonal basis. Perennial plant moves are harder and many times one has to start over from scratch. (The herbs didn't transplant well, later died, and needed to be repurchased and replanted in their new home.) Ever practical by nature, I have been searching for a design that would optimize my garden space to fit the maximum vegetables without creating overcrowding and that would give some sort of structure to my formless garden bed meanderings. 

Enter the not-so-new idea of the Potager/ Kitchen garden of early Europe. Through ancient to early modern Europe, peasants, clergy, and lords maintained their household gardens typically close to the kitchen. These kitchens fed families and were the mainstay of main a fine and simple table. These potagers became more formal through the late medieval period as monks and other clergy members developed these agricultural gardens for their specific needs. For more information about the history of the Potager garden, please read Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An America Potager Handbook by Jennifer R. Bartley. This book has been instrumental in helping me start my potager. It includes gorgeous pictures of old world and new world potagers as well as designs. In designing a potager, here are the most important elements to keep in mind:

Review your space: determine how much sun the area receives and place plants according to their sunlight needs.
  1. Consider your kitchen's culinary needs: Place your potager close to your kitchen for easy access and choose plants based on what you like to cook and eat.
  2. Layout: Potagers look neat and formal from a bird's eye view and repeat sequencing of plants. The key is to create a sense of unity in texture and color.
  3. Enclose the garden: Traditional potagers are enclosed by a natural or man made wall to give a sense of charm and exclusivity within a garden space. I struggled with this concept due to practical purposes: how will I water the plants with an enclosure in the way. I opted not to completely enclose the area, but rather used annual flowers to create a border effect.
  4. Create an edge to raised beds: Edging makes the space look neat and formal but in my garden, practical needs have outweighed aesthetic ones at this time. 
  5. Counterpoint - This is the idea of using colors at opposite sides of the color wheel. I am not good at this because I tend to plant what I want, when I want and damn the consequences. Perhaps this is proof I need more structure?
  6. Verticality: A tomato gardener doesn't need to be told twice. Utilize trellises and support for vining plants to increase the visual appeal.
  7. Winter uses: I need to contemplate my seasonal plantings. I like to let my beds go fallow for a couple of months during winter so I can recharge my batteries.  My potager only has annual plants at this time so I need to reconsider the winter. (Bartley 97-118)
Here are the step to our first Potager (we started process in March so we could plant in early April):

Amending the soil: we used 3 bags of compost and 3 bags of chicken manure for  ~150 sq  ft
Roto-tilling the soil, crunching up weeds and mixing in amendments
Ready for placement of stones in new pattern
Stones placed, all pieces reused from previous bed configuration.
Round 1 of the planting included beets, kale, sunflowers, green beans and arugula from seed, San Marzano tomato, pepper, and annual flower seedlings. Round 2 will include more tomato and pepper seedlings. Round 3 will include tomato and pepper seedlings and more beets from seed.

Overview of warm season potager
Annual flower edging: marigolds and zinnias
San Marzano tomatoes and basil in bloom
I am enjoying the potager design since it allows me to stagger planting, maximize square footage, experiment with new crops, and rotate crops between the cool and warm seasons. I plan to potagerize the three beds on the east side of my garden and use one side for early spring vegetables (cool season) and the other for late spring/ summer vegetables (warm season). I plan to create a greater sense of enclosure by planting roses on the north side of the bed, but I do not want to start that project until the property fence height has been increased (for more privacy). Lastly, my herb garden is going to need some editing and revision to get it up to potager standards. I keep gaining more form and function in the garden thanks to potager ideals; I look forward to seeing the plants filling in the spaces and producing copious amounts of vegetables for a bountiful summer table.

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