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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

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