My thoughts on gardening continue to evolve. I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the past year reading books by the great British gardeners – Rosemary Verey, Gertrude Jekyll, Christopher Lloyd, Penelope Hothouse (why no Americans you may ask? Not sure. No doubt there are many, but perhaps they’re too busy gardening to write books).
In the course of this “study,” I’ve realized that what I’ve created in my vegetable garden area over the past 2 years, quite unintentionally, is in fact a “potager.” (defined below).
I created the enclosed 52’ x 52’ garden area in 2014 for two primary reasons: (1) I wanted a smaller, more contained garden space that was closer to the house; and (2) I wanted to try the no-till method of vegetable gardening. With some deliberation, I chose to place this garden close to the orchard and to include a fair number of beds of annuals (zinnia, sunflowers, and cosmos) in the vegetable garden. Much of 2014 was spent tilling and cleaning rocks out of the 3’ or 4’ wide beds, creating 2’ walking paths between the rows (covered with cardboard and wood chips to kill off any grass and weeds and to compact the soil) and a 4’ wide path down the center. I also fenced the entire area to keep our little bunny and woodchuck friends out of the veggies. Once the last of the fall crops were harvested, I spread several inches of composted straw and sheep manure on the beds to allow this organic matter to break down and leech into the soil over the winter.
In accordance with the no-till method, last year I left the layer of mulch on the beds in the spring, added a little more compost (and any other organic amendments needed to maintain a balanced pH level in the soil) and very lightly worked all of this organic matter into the top couple inches of the soil using a broad fork (the idea being to disturb the earthworms and microbiotic organisms at work in the soil as little as possible). This growing season, I will try not to disturb the soil at all (other than by planting). The compost will be placed on top of the bed (“top-dressed”) in the early spring, and theoretically, watering and subsoil organisms will pull this organic matter into the subsoil throughout the growing season.
Transplants such as the flowers, eggplant, tomatoes and peppers are planted directly into the mulch/soil leaving much of the mulch untouched. To sow seeds, I brush the layer of mulch aside so I’m certain the seeds come in direct contact with the soil. Once the seedlings break the surface and get to be 2-3” tall, I move the mulch back around their bases.
The benefit of a no-till system of gardening is that you are able to add new organic matter once or twice a year, while minimally disturbing all of the beneficial life in the soil. As an added benefit, you remove the labor and more importantly, the gas, required in tilling the garden on an annual basis, and the mulch retains moisture in the soil requiring less overall watering. With healthier soil, you see healthier, more bountiful vegetables and over time, fewer pests. Seems like a win-win method, hence the desire to give it a go.
In addition to adopting the no-till method, I’ve also moved away from the traditional American style of vegetable gardening, i.e., symmetrical rows with each row containing only one type of vegetable and each vegetable plant a polite distance from its neighbor. As mentioned, I’ve been growing flowers in my garden for the past few years, but they were also in their “own” rows. There was no diversity; no spontaneity. It was all very clean and linear, but lacked the wild abandon I prefer in my flower beds (or, the look I’m striving for at any rate). I decided I wanted that same carefree, natural look in my vegetable garden, and I wanted to add more flowers and herbs into the mix. Turns out that what I had in mind has existed in Europe and England for hundreds of years. What I ended up designing as I planned my vegetable garden was a “potager.”
For those unfamiliar with this term, a potager is a formally laid out “kitchen garden” that incorporates vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. Some use formal boxwood hedges to define the beds; others may have raised beds. All have established walkways that can be as formal (stone, brick, gravel) or informal (grass, wood chips, compacted dirt) as you like. Some have fruit trees, as well as berries mixed in. But all grow herbs, flowers and vegetables intermixed and densely packed in the beds. For instance, a single bed may contain beets, onions, parsley and poppies. Not randomly tossed in the bed, making it difficult to know what’s what, but all in a single bed nonetheless. The final result is visually stimulating, as well as productive, in a much smaller amount of space than that used by the typical vegetable garden.