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The Wheelbarrow Gardener - Preparing your potager

The Wheelbarrow Gardener - Preparing your potager

After such a wet winter, we are all dreaming of a dry and sunny spring. Trevor Bridge shows us how to start preparing our jardin potager to ensure a summer-long supply of fresh vegetables…

 

 

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Spring has arrived and the sunny days of April and May are beckoning us back into the garden. The soil is heating up, seeds are germinating more quickly and seedlings are starting to grow faster.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security though, watch the weather forecast closely as a cold snap is not uncommon in the middle of May and this can prove fatal to young crops. It’s worth remembering that farmers and wine growers in France hold to an ancient tradition that their crops are not safe until after the frost saint’s days of Saints Mamertus, Pancras, and Savartus on 11, 12 and 13 May. Personal experience has led us to believe there is some truth in this folklore and we hold back from sowing or planting frost-tender plants until the middle of May. It’s not just the frost that we need to watch out for, high winds and hail can suddenly strike, so place horticultural fleece over vulnerable plants such as recently planted beans. We copy local gardeners who prop old tiles over their plants to shelter them from the wind and to retain some of the day’s warmth overnight.

 

 

WHAT TO DO IN APRIL AND MAY

 

VEGETABLES

Second-early potatoes can be planted until mid-April and plant maincrops from mid to late-April.

You can plant onion sets, asparagus crowns, Jerusalem artichoke tubers and globe artichokes. Only plant tomatoes when all risk of frost has passed.
As the soil warms it’s a good time to sow seeds of beetroot, carrots, cauliflower, lettuce, parsley and turnips.

For an even supply through the season sow a few radish, spring onions and salad greens every three weeks. As French beans and sweetcorn need a minimum soil temperature of 10°C they are best sown under cloches.

Wait until May when the soil reaches 13°C and when all risk of frost has passed to sow courgettes, squash, marrows and pumpkins. A favourite
of ours is perpetual spinach which can also be sown now. It self-seeds well, providing a ‘free’ crop that can be harvested through-out the year.

 


FLOWERS

Hardy annuals such as sunflowers, calendulas, poppies, lavateras and stocks can be sown directly where you want them to grow. Early April is your last chance to sow sweet peas against a trellis or fence.

There’s nothing more encouraging than early colour so plant spring bedding plants. Remove them in May when they stop flowering and prepare the ground for a colourful display of summer bedding.

Pelargoniums or geraniums make a lovely summer display in pots and containers. They are sold as seeds or plants or can be propagated from softwood cuttings. When all frost danger has passed, move stored pelargoniums back outdoors. If necessary, trim them back, feed, re-pot and remember to water well.

Finally, when the last of the frost has passed, plant hanging baskets with summer annuals and keep them watered.

 

 

 

shutterstock 78177832Making your own organic jardin potager

The question that I’m asked most about gardening is ‘How do I go about starting to grow vegetables?’. Many people move to France to live the “good life” and the fertile soils and wonderful climate of Poitou-Charentes are ideal for growing delicious, nutritious produce. Increasing environmental awareness means more of us are becoming interested in growing organically, enabling us to experience pesticide-free, fresh, tasty and healthy food. We also save money and know exactly where our food has come from.

Seven years ago Jocelyn and I created an organic jardin potager at Le Fayard after neighbours had waxed lyrical about the wonderfully manicured vegetable plot that was now abandoned.

 

LOCATING YOUR PLOT

It’s a good idea to be able to see your potager from a window or on your way to the post box or another regular route. Ours is close to the house, making it easy to see what is ready to pick and to nip out for our cooking ingredients. We are also more likely to do a spot of weeding in a spare moment.
Try to choose south-facing land so your plants receive at least six hours daily sunshine. Level ground is easier to work on and avoids erosion from water, an increasingly important consideration. Good air movement helps so try to find an open but sheltered site. Steer clear of very windy spots where plants can be blown over or desiccated, bees and other pollinating insects won’t like them either. Easy water access is essential - the hot summers make carrying full watering-cans a chore.

 

 

PLAN OF ACTION

We opted for crop rotation which is beneficial for pest control, soil fertility and soil structure. Groups of vegetables are grown in specific beds each year
then moved, not returning to the same bed for three years.

Although crop rotation requires at least four beds, we created two beds at first, cultivating what we could maintain initially then enlarged and evolved the garden gradually. A small, well looked-after garden is better than a large neglected one. We now have six beds which we manage easily. The size and number of beds will depend on the size of your garden and the amount of land you wish to cultivate.

 

 

SMALL GARDENS

Grow vegetables amongst flowers. Sow a few at a time regularly to avoid gluts and to ensure there is always something ready. Choose vegetables with short growing seasons that take up little space and then harvest them when young and tender. Try baby cauliflower, finger carrots, cherry tomatoes, spring onions, baby leeks, lettuce, oriental greens, radish, rocket and spinach. French beans are worth growing for their flowers alone.

 

 

LARGER GARDENS

It’s worthwhile dividing your plot into beds with paths so that you don’t have to stretch far, making weeding easier plus there’s less need to walk on the soil. Our beds are 3m wide, so we can hoe from the paths, and 8 metres long simply because that is the size of our garden. Orientate your beds north-south so your vegetables get equal sunlight.

Initially our paths were mown grass, 50cm wide to suit our mower and wheelbarrow and wide enough to kneel on when tending the beds. Although attractive, grass paths need mowing and grass spreads from them into the beds so we eventually laid 50 x 50cm concrete paving slabs which are excellent.

 

 

CULTIVATING THE SOIL

Plants hate compacted soil so thoroughly loosen it by digging or rotovating. If it’s too hard to use a spade try a fork which is easier to push into the soil. Remove all weeds, cut seed heads off and remove without shaking - fallen seeds return as weeds. Try to remove entire roots of dock, couch grass, dandelion, thistle and bindweed as tiny bits will re-grow.

After a renovation project you may be left with a compacted plot full of builder’s rubble. Don’t be put off. Once you get stuck in it is surprising how quickly you can turn it into an attractive, productive garden. Dig in plenty of peat-free organic compost to improve texture, moisture retention and increase nutrients. Green waste is turned into excellent, cheap compost at Centres Technique des déchets Ménagers. Enquire at your déchetterie or Marie about their location and opening dates and just roll up with a trailer. Finally, work your soil into a fine tilth by using a wide-toothed rake then finish with a finer rake.

Continual cultivation gradually reduced our weed population and the addition of compost made our heavy clay-soil workable. We now use the rotovator less, mostly looking after the plot by hand.

 

 

Trevor is a landscape architect who ran a busy practice in the UK for 20 years. He and his wife Jocelyn moved to an ancient fermette in Poitou-Charentes in 2004 where they garden organically and keep bees and hens.

 

 


Crop rotation

A three year crop rotation system requiring four beds is suitable for most gardens. Decide what to grow, which you enjoy most and those you eat less of, then place them into groups.

 

 

 

TREVOR’S TIPS

- If your ground is very weedy, plant potatoes during your first season. Cultivation, ridge formation and harvesting constantly work the soil, inhibiting weed development and densely foliaged potato plants limit sunlight, reducing weed germination.

 

- What to do in your garden now

• For a quick, inexpensive path, use old roof tiles. Just bash them and lay straight onto the ground. Our hen-pen path got muddy last winter and we quickly rectified it using a couple of barrow-loads of these. They can also be used as a base for other paving materials. Never throw away old tiles – they can also be used as plant labels.

• Not everyone has the time, space or inclination to have a vegetable plot, but almost anyone can grow something regardless of size of garden or location. Even a window box will produce herbs or fresh greens for the table.

• Weeds start growing strongly at this time of year - regular hoeing will stop them becoming a problem.

• Companion planting - some flowers help others when planted together. Marigolds deter carrot fly and aphids. Grow nasturtiums with brassicas and lettuce to attract caterpillars away from the crop. Plant chives next to chrysanthemums or sunflowers to wards off aphids.

• May is a good time to visit local brocantes to buy plants from fund raising organisations such as parent-teachers associations. Wonderful bargains can be found and the money goes to good causes.

 

 

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Good, Better, Best: PATHS

 

GOOD: MOWN GRASS

A simple strip of mown grass is very effective if the traffic is light. At Le Fayard we mow a band around the edge of a meadow which looks good. They are effective meandering through wild flower gardens, the managed areas contrasting with the ‘natural’ areas.

 

BETTER: LIMESTONE CHIPPINGS

The most popular local paving materials are the honey-coloured limestone chippings available from builder’s supply yards. Part of our region’s architectural vernacular, they are inexpensive, attractive in town or country, robust, easy to maintain and drain well. At Le Fayard we no longer weed them but simply run our mower over them from time to time which is very effective in creating a soft but maintained effect.

 

BEST: PAVING SLABS

There is a wide range of these. Expensive but effective are natural stone paving slabs and setts often found on older properties. They are available new or reclaimed and just a few in a prime location can set a garden off. Reconstituted stone slabs that emulate natural stone, are much cheaper, more environmentally friendly (there is less waste in their production process), and after some natural weathering look excellent.