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Monday, November 29, 2010

Potagers, kitchen gardens and vegetable gardens

 What’s the difference between a potager, a kitchen garden, and a vegetable garden?

A potager is dressier in its intentions and execution than the others. It could be a very useful model for our Gardens Not Lawns people whose neighbors are tearing their hair over the virtuous “green” but disordered mélange that has replaced the lawn.
Jacques Boyceau de La Barauderie wrote in 1638( in his Traite du jardinage selon les raisons de la nature et d'art) that "the principal reason for the existence of a garden is the esthetic pleasure which it gives to the spectator." (W)
Well fine, as we all know the French are passionate about their food and practical as well. Alors! The potager:

This is a flower garden in the Potager du Roi at Versailles. If you look closely in the middle, there’s lettuce growing, sheltered and shaded by the lupines and foxgloves
which like the same growing conditions. Sooo… the potager mixes flowers and vegetables. Some aver, only edible flowers, but obviously that doesn’t apply here,unless you are planning and poison party serving digitalis (from foxglove roots).

This odd combination might  been from the lovely gardens at Chateau de Chenonceau which contained ……. extensive flower and vegetable gardens along with a variety of fruit trees. Set along the banks of the river, but buttressed from flooding by stone terraces, the exquisite gardens were laid out in four triangles.(W)”    
This was a famous and influential garden, originally planned by Diane de Poitiers,   the king’s mistress, the queen’s  rival. When the king, Henri II, died, Queen Catherine was able to wrest Chateau de Chenonceau  and its lovely gardens away from Diane.
The queen, Catherine de Medici was accused of poisoning people right and left, but possibly suffered from a bad press rather than the instincts of a serial murderer. She loved gardens, including the gardens at Chateau de Chenonceau and where she planted a potager. Catherine, (like the original design of the potager) was Italian--- a Medici.

The Medici’s, being upstart (in the eyes of older French aristocrats), made a great showing as patrons of the arts, and gardens. Catherine brought the family love of display (and gardens) with her when she married theFrench King, Henri II. (See an Italian vegetable garden .) The traditional Italian vegetable garden is laid out along classical lines in squares rectangles and triangles, separated by gravel paths. It is at once practical and elegant. No flowers except “medicinal “ones.  
 Catherine di Medici was famous for her “recipes”. Here is a bit of her vegetable garden at Chenounceau:

                            and here's another.

Curiously enough, that’s a castor bean growing, marked very properly as ricin- Ricinus communis (Castor bean). Quite poison.

 Hmmm…. Both Catherine and Louis seemed to have poisons growing in their potagers rather than “edible” plants. (You could eat the marigolds, and the herb growing which looks like sage… or possibly the gardeners are having their little joke?) Interesting! These gardens are both national treasurers--- historical sites---preserved--- my guess is the planting is historically accurate. It paid to keep a sharp eye on those royals!

So where are we with our potager? It has to be laid out geometrically, in a pleasing pattern, separated by gravel (or maybe decomposed granite) paths. We are growing vegetables, poisonous flowering, no this won't do. We have to find a harmless potager, such as the one above at Chateau Villandry. 
.Jean de Breton whose chateau it was, apparently quite straight forward—at least in his gardening. (He was the Controller –General for Francis I, not an easy master. (See Shellabarger’s novel The King’s Cavalier).

Now this innocent potager is going to be a little oversize for most of us, but could easily be copied on a small scale. Normally we don’t make a salad for 200 at dinner, don’t need 6 beds of 6 x 6 lettuce at a time.

The garden contains long slim beds of artichokes, maze patterns of red cabbage, beautiful ornamental (and edible kale) lots of peppers, celery, using the blocks of color created by the vegetable foliage in a decorative pattern, as well as having the geometry of the beds as a strong design element .

Those of us who have ripped up our lawns to grow vegetables in our efforts to be green and thereby annoyed our neighbors—may do well to consider a potager along the lines of Villandry as a working model. The vegetables would thrive, the irate neighbors subside.

Potagers are still fashionable, desirable and “green”.The Huntington Museum has just been left a massive bequest (around 100 million) by Frances Brody especially favoring the gardens.

According to James Folsom, director of the gardens, high-priority projects include “improving and modernizing” ....... and creating a “potager” or kitchen garden. (La Times 11/20/10 Home section).
High style! Frances, Catherine and Diane would have understood each other.

Next: English Kitchen Gardens

Friday, November 19, 2010

Catch-Up! Hummingbirds, butterflies, vegetable gardens

Here are the Monarch caterpillars stuffing themselves on the Mexican Milkweed (Asclepia incarnata). Had to make two trips to the nursery to pick up 3 more gallon cans of milkweed, bringing the amount of milkweed to about 15 plants. The caterpillars would have eaten more, given more. Not only will the Monarchs come, they'll eat you out of house and home. Every lady Monarch for miles around heard about the milkweed and hastened over. I never cease to be amazed when something works exactly as advertised.

The hummingbirds are migrating, recognizing the feeders in the same place they found them last year. The gold finches told their friends about the nyger seed in the backyard, and they ate 2 sockfuls in a week. The Gulf Fritillaries are still hatching from the Passion vines. Urban wildlife is persistent and smart!

We've been eating from our heavily composted vegetable garden for several weeks. The tomatoes ripened very late, due to the cold summer. The most successful varieties were San Diego and a September planting of San Francisco Fog which is still producing tomatoes. The Rainbow chard has been a constant delight (saute' finely chopped garlic, a bulb of fennel also finely chopped, in olive oil until translucent. Add the sliced chard just long enough to wilt it. Salt to taste.)

We grow a lot of things.It was a great year for Italian parsley--still going strong, a foot high, shaded by the tomatillo bush. The chives liked the shade of the tomatoes in the afternoon. The fennel grows abundantly and happily shaded by another tomato. Basil and peppers of course, like the full sun (good luck finding any this year!)

Vegetable gardeners, get the latest issue (Dec/Jan.) of  Organic Gardening magazine, as it has a remarkable organic, layered vegetable garden growing in L.A. We've composted, but this goes farther--it's a no dig garden, layered with 14 layers of various things. The garden "recipe" was developed for the Australian Outback, which is even less hospital to vegetable gardening than our semi-desert. The Layered Garden is on p. 46.

If you go to  you'll find an astonishing source of just about anything you could think of in vegetable seeds--including the hard to find baby purple artichoke, Violetto. Even more impressive is their selection of books-- many hard to find old ones at amazing prices. They carry the original book on layered gardening, the carry the original book on companion planting. (This makes sense, but never tried it- next on my list of plant experiments) 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

More musings on the fabulous Fava bean

Everybody—pretty much---knows about the Irish Potato Famine being caused by a potato blight  (“Phytophthora infestans is an oomycete or water mold that causes the serious potato disease known as late blight or potato blight” W). During The Great Hunger one in eight Irish people died.

  roughly, a million) and another million immigrated to the U.S. all because of a one crop agriculture based on one kind of potato only. (Called Lumpen potatoes) Had they grown several different kinds, the Famine would not have occurred. Most of us know about the Famine, but the fact that it was based on only one kind of potato ( monoculture) is crucial. If a variety of different kinds had been planted-some would have survived. see                                             

Many of us ( with Irish genes)  know the English were not much help to the Irish at this time. (Queen Victoria, for one, was later accused of being actively opposed to the helping the starving Irish for economic reasons having to do with protecting English grain prices. Actually she gave them 25,000 lbs of her own money.She got angry with the Irish later on about something else entirely ---- spurning a memorial to Prince Albert.)


But since the fava bean had been a staple in  N. Europe before the introduction of the potato in the late 16th c. to Ireland why did no one attempt replace the blighted  potato with the Fava Bean? 

 The mass migrations to this country would never have occurred ........

 If there is a moral to this story, and there are several (make up your own!) --- one is the simple non-inflammatory fact that Irish agriculture with its dependence on one crop suffers the same kind of fate as the giant Roman farms , the latifundia of  1 B.C through the period of Empire. The latifundia had problems with various grain blights that destroyed a whole year’s crop in no time.       This is a mosiac of Pestilence from a latifundia villa in Italy (Villa of Hamlet) She is holding grain in her left hand .                                         

  In this country, right now, we are having a terrible time with  Bee Die-off (Colony Collapse Disorder) in which the bees desert and abandon their hives. Apiculture as big agro-business has turned out to be yet another environmental disaster that seriously effects our food sources. Here are the bees being trucked off en mass to another location, taking their CCD with them.                                         
Small really is better! In Ireland during the time of the potato blight, a few small farms growing varied crops survived handily because their economy had never been based on a one crop system. The English had imported some small farmers from N. Europe ( Bavaria, as I remember) in an attempt to introduce  an example of better farming methods , rather in the spirit of Prince Charles  today at

The small varied crop farms never really caught on in the big Irish estates--- but those farmers went right on thriving and surviving. Betcha they were eating Fava
beans! See Marcella Hazan Root-Vegetable Braise. She's one of the worlds great cooks.