Tarting up the veggie patch

Setting the standard, really. The ultimate potager in the parterres of Villandry (Wiki Commons photo)

Setting the standard, really. The ultimate potager in the parterres of Villandry (Wiki Commons photo)

The arrival of a book on ornamental edible gardening set us thinking and talking about tarting up the veggie patch (in the vernacular), or the role of the potager (for those who aspire to a touch more class).

Keen vegetable gardeners may throw their hands up in horror. For some, there is beauty in a well presented vegetable garden with good straight rows, obedient plants in healthy condition and a succession of crops. There are sound reasons for planting vegetables in rows, including ongoing maintenance with a push hoe which is not only effective for weed control but also keeps the surface well tilled. I doubt that any other method of vegetable gardening can rival the traditional techniques for productivity. It takes ongoing work to keep it all in tiptop condition but that is to be expected. Why, some veggie gardeners may wonder, would you want to turn it into an even higher maintenance, yet lower productivity style of gardening by imposing ornamental values on what is essentially an unpretentious, utilitarian activity?

The ornamental edible garden, or potager, is almost de rigeuer today. Here is the marriage of food production with traditional garden design and practice, right? Well, yes and no. If you look at the history, it is another gardening style that has its origins with the rich and powerful of Europe, now democratised. Another example of prole drift, one could say a little unkindly. The stylised and designated herb garden, often laid out on formal principles dates back to times when herbs were more about medicine than cooking. As such, the range of plants grown was considerably more extensive and these gardens belonged in monasteries or designated apothecary gardens attached to institutions.

A word about parterres and potagers. The parterre is a highly stylised form of gardening, laid out on lines of rigid symmetry, much favoured in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of the grandest was created at Versailles for Louis XIV. The famous parterres of Villandry, also in France, are modern, dating back to the early 1900s. I liken the parterre to tapestry gardening. It is about building pleasing designs with plant blocks, originally planned for viewing by the lord from upper story windows. It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the harvest, even when vegetables are included.

Potager is another French word, now widely applied to ornamental edible gardens. It is on a more domestic scale but its origins were also socially elevated. The peasants of yore would not have been growing in such a managed and decorative manner and the middle classes had yet to appear. So it was the upper echelons of society who could afford to indulge in creating formal gardens to grow edible crops in an ornamental style.

Rosemary Verey popularised the potager on a domestic scale (Photo:  Brian Robert Marshall)

Rosemary Verey popularised the potager on a domestic scale (Photo: Brian Robert Marshall)

The late English gardener, Rosemary Verey, is credited with popularising the potager in the last twenty years and in her hands it became a marriage of formal garden design, herbaceous traditions and food production. However, she seemed to refer to it, in the main, as simply a vegetable garden. The English show mastery of understatement. There is a pleasing symmetry in a well cared for ornamental edible garden and the formality means such gardens photograph well. It is a particularly feminine style.

It is just not a style to which we aspire personally. It is not quite one thing or the other. The principal criterion for plant inclusion is that it be edible or possibly medicinal, not that one will actually harvest it. Frankly, how many bay leaves will you ever use? One bay tree has its place, a row of topiary laurus nobilis is technically fitting the edible criterion but is primarily ornamental. And if one is going to grow ornamentals, I’d rather have topiary michelias, camellias or something more interesting than boring bay trees.

If you are gardening for looks, then the whole block of highly decorative red cabbages is going to mature at the same time so, unless you are into pickled cabbage big time, most will end up on the compost heap. Besides, you spoil the effect if you harvest one at a time, as required.

And then there are those tidy buxus hedges defining garden beds. Leaving aside the ravages of buxus blight and the fact that these tidy hedges harbour snails, buxus has an invasive root system. It sucks the goodness out of the soil and as the roots reach further afield, it becomes problematic to get crops of lush, healthy vegetables in the middle.

Often lavender is used as an edging plant but any of those big, floppy types of edgers are a problem if you have narrow paths (brick is the favoured option) and a high rainfall climate. I prefer to pop out to the garden to pick a lemon or a lettuce without getting wet lower legs.

More meadow garden than potager here

More meadow garden than potager here

We are pragmatic here. We would rather have good crops of vegetables, easily planted, tended and able to be harvested as required, with more permanent plantings of ornamentals elsewhere. That said, our vegetable gardens are by no means limited to vegetables. By this time in late summer, they are more akin to meadow gardens. Mark is fond of growing annuals for butterfly food but zinnias, marigolds and the like do not sit comfortably in our more restrained ornamental gardens so they get bedded in and allowed to seed amongst the vegetables. For us, the meadow has more romance than the potager. Besides, in this day and age when two raised beds out of tantalised timber and a citrus tree in a pot are claimed to be a potager, we would rather tread a different path.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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