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Starting your Jardin Potager

Starting your Jardin Potager

Trevor Bridge tells us how he and his wife Jocelyn have enjoyed creating a productive, organic vegetable garden at their home in the Charente.

Isn't it wonderful to taste a tomato picked straight from the plant, its red skin warm from the sun? And isn't there more flavour in the fresh new potatoes dug from your own plot? Increasing numbers of us are hungry to eat tasty, wholesome organic produce, and throughout Europe there is a new awareness about healthy food. As a result, more and more people have taken up growing their own vegetables and fruit. In the UK vegetable seed sales are now outstripping flower seeds, while the French are of course well-known for their love of the vegetable garden - le jardin potager - and plots of all sizes can be seen far and wide.

tomatoes

Here in Poitou-Charentes, with its large tracts of countryside, fertile soils and wonderful climate, conditions are ideal for growing vegetables. This is what made my wife Jocelyn and I decide to create a jardin potager three years ago at Le Fayard, our fermette overlooking the valley of the River Son in the Charente. From the outset we decided that our garden was to be organic. We think it is very important for the environment and our health, and of course fresh organic food is so much tastier.

Le Fayard already had a wonderful orchard with over 60 fruit trees, and we knew from an old aerial photograph and talking to local people that there had been an extensive and productive vegetable plot before we moved in. It had fallen out of use and reverted to grassland, and our aim was to recreate the garden's former glory.

Locating your plot

In our case, we decided to put our plot where one had previously been, but where should you put yours?

It is a good idea to have it as close to the house as possible; this makes it easy to nip out and gather up your cooking ingredients. You are also more likely to go out and do a bit of weeding in a spare moment if the plot is close by. Also, you may need to get wheelbarrows to your beds for composting and the collection of produce, so it's worth bearing the distance in mind.

Most vegetables need full sun, so a sunny sire facing south, south east or south west is the best. Try to choose a site that receives at least six hours of sun each day. Some crops can cope with semi shade (lettuce, runner beans and redcurrants, for example) so don't worry if your conditions aren't perfect.

While it is important to have a good movement of air around your plot, try to find a sheltered, but open site. Bees and other pollinating insects don't like windy conditions and plants can be blown over or dried our by the wind.

If possible, choose an area where the ground is level as it is easier to work on flat land and you will avoid water run-off and erosion. If you have no alternative, you can plant along the contours of the slope or make flat terraces.

garden hose

Having water nearby is useful. Position the water point so that it is easily accessible for watering cans and hoses. In a later issue I will describe how to collect and make use of rainwater for your garden. Compost bins are also a great idea. These provide free soil improvers and are an excellent place to dispose of your waste organic matter. You'll be able to read more about the wonderful subject of composting in a later issue.

For the storage of tools and seeds, a shed or outhouse is ideal. It is also somewhere to have a cooling drink in the heat of a summer's day and contemplate your garden and its bounty.

A plan of action

I would advise having a plan of action. In our case we had a long think about what type of vegetables we enjoy the most, which vegetables we eat a lot of and those that we eat less. We decided not to take on too much at first, but to cultivate what we felt we could look after easily during the first year and then enlarge the garden as we went along, letting it evolve with us. It's better to have a small, well-maintained garden than a large neglected one. The most important thing is to have fun growing your own food.

This is an excellent time of year to start thinking about creating your own plot. Have a look at other gardens in your area to see what people are growing and to get ideas on what you may want to plant in yours. Their gardens will be heaving with produce at the moment. If you don't recognise any plants don't worry - ask the gardener In my experience all gardeners will talk at length about their gardens and provide you with lots of useful advice, and, if you are lucky, a sample for the pot!

We intended to use crop rotation - that is, growing specific groups of vegetables on a different piece of land each year. These groups are moved so they don't return to the same bed for at least three years. It is beneficial in pest and disease control, weed control, soil fertility and soil structure. It is an easy and simple system to adopt; I will explain more about it in the next issue.

Size of plot

At first, we decided to create two beds as we felt these could be easily managed. We knew that the crop rotation system required a minimum of four beds, but thought we would develop and extend the garden gradually. In fact after three years we now have six beds, which we find we manage easily. The size and number of beds will of course vary, dependant on the overall size of each garden and the amount of land each person or family wishes to cultivate.

We are a family of two, but as we are both vegetarian we probably need a larger plot than many people.

Small gardens

If your garden is tiny you can happily grow vegetables amongst flowers: you can grow lettuce with a variety of colours and textures as edging along borders: or grow French and runner beans on trellises or up string on fences - they are worth growing for their flowers alone. My advice is to grow vegetables with short growing seasons that benefit from being picked fresh and take up a small amount of space. Carry out succession planting; this means planting a few at a time, which avoids gluts of produce and ensures that there is always something ready to pick. Grow fewer vegetables of each type for variety. Select varieties for superior taste rather than crop size. Vegetables suitable for small spaces are generally harvested when young and tender because the growing season is shorter and plants can be cycled through faster. Baby cauliflower, finger carrots, cherry tomatoes, spring onions, baby leeks, lettuce, Oriental greens, peas, radish, rocket and spinach are good examples.

lettuces

Larger gardens

If you have the space it is better to split your plot into beds divided by paths. This bed system has many benefits: crop rotation is easier because you know exactly what you have planted previously: weeding from the paths is easier: and you can apply compost, manure and fertiliser exactly where they are needed.

veg garden plot

General advice varies on the size of beds - if you make them 1-1.25 metres wide you don't have to stretch far, making weeding much easier - and there is less need to walk on the cultivated soil. We opted for 3-metre wide beds for no other reason that they looked good! This goes to show that there are no hard and fast rules. The beds can be as long or short as you like; ours are 8 metres long, but only because that happens to be the width of our garden.

It is best to orientate your beds north to south so that all your vegetables will get the same amount of daily sun.

Our paths are 50cm in width because at first they were mown grass, and this width suits our mower. It also leaves a good enough space for our wheelbarrow and the paths are wide enough to kneel on when tending the beds. We found that while they are very attractive, grass paths needed to be edged and mown which wasn’t a major problem, but grass and weeds tend to spread into the beds. We eventually opted for 50 x 50cm concrete paving slabs laid on compacted earth, which we have found to be excellent. An unexpected advantage is that as many of our rows of plants need to be 50cm apart, we simply run a string between the joints in the slabs and plant or sow along it. You can also use bare earth for your paths or put down bricks, bark chippings or even broken roofing tiles, which many people in this region have in abundance.

Enjoy planning your jardin potager. Look forward to spending time in the open air getting fitter, tending your plants and, most of all, eating healthy, fresh tasting vegetables. 

6 good reasons for having your own organic jardin potager

• Eating fresh, tasty, chemical-free produce

• Helping the environment by reducing food miles, composting waste and not using chemicals

• Improving your health by spending more time outdoors and getting fitter

• Doing something that all the family can enjoy together

• Swapping produce with your neighbours and getting to know them better

• Saving money

 harvest basket

 

 

Originally published in Living Poitou-Charentes Magazine.

 

WORDS: Trevor Bridge PHOTOS: Jocelyn Bridge and Shutterstock

 

 

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