What could I do with the dull patch of grass in the centre of our garden? Inspiration struck when I saw the show garden at Chelsea (above) made by Jekka McVicar of Jekka’s Herb Farm, near Bristol.
Her Modern Apothecary Garden, a harmonious mix of fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers, was put together on the basis that every plant in it should be useful. The result was something between a conventional herb garden and a ‘potager’, a mix of flowers and vegetables. Constructing a traditional potager involves using the principles of garden design to create an area that is both ornamental and productive.
The gardens of the Ballymaloe Cookery School near Cork, which I visited last May, include a flourishing potager complete with sculptural scarecrows. Globe artichokes, sea kale, squash, chillies and oriental vegetables grow side by side, ruby chard, sprouts and ornamental cabbage provide winter colour, and edible flowers include lavender, marigold, nasturtium and cornflowers. Crops are rotated each year and the gardener practises companion planting whenever possible.
The Potager du Roi at Versailles
The grandest potager of all must be the 22-acre Potager du Roi, created in Versailles between 1678 and 1683 to provide fruit and vegetables for the Sun King, Louis XIV. Still a productive fruit and vegetable garden containing many old and rare varieties, the Potager du Roi is now used for training horticulture and landscape architecture students. Jules Hardouin-Mansart, architect of the Palace of Versailles, designed the layout of 29 regular plots around a central fountain, and the king had a raised walkway built so he and his courtiers could stroll round watching the thirty gardeners at work.
Flowers and herbs, fruit and veg
With no palace architects to hand, we dug up our battered lawn and laid out a simple grid of beds edged with gravel board, installed a rusted iron arch and large terracotta pot as focal points, and made paths by putting down weed control fabric and covering it with gravel. Two iron obelisks reclaimed from elsewhere in the garden provided height in the central beds.
A small solar-powered fountain that had been lying unused in the garage for years found a place at the central crossing, and we planted standard hawthorn trees at the corners.
After adding plenty of compost to the clay soil, we began planting: herbs near the front, salad and vegetables in the middle, and fruit at the back. Lavender went in near the entrance, and two tiny myrtle bushes grown from cuttings by a neighbour began their duty as evergreen winter interest. I copied Jekka McVicar’s idea of a carpet of different varieties of thyme, and added sage, parsley and mint. I sent to Kent for a hop – variety ‘Fuggle’ – for one side of the arch, to David Austin for a climbing rose for the other side, and to Jekka’s Herb Farm for seeds of camomile, lovage, feverfew, lettuce and chard. I added marigolds, foxgloves, and two majestic cardoons for height and impact. Blackcurrant, redcurrant and gooseberry bushes went in, together with a miniature mulberry tree.
A first harvest
We have harvested salads, herbs, courgettes, peas, beans and berries, and had an ever-changing carpet of colours and textures to look at from the kitchen. It’s a work in progress: we still lack the final touch of brick edging, and the plan to make a mini pond in the terracotta pot is on hold. Strawberries, which were raided by birds and invaded everything with runners, have been banished. But the rainbow chard blazed away all winter, while salad leaves, spinach, kale and sprouting broccoli are holding up despite pests and weather.
Planting for rhythm and texture
According to the design principles for a potager, the main points to consider are rhythm, line, colour and texture. Repeat planting and the use of accent plants should maintain a rhythm through the plot, and lead the eye to focal points. Within a formal structure, crops can be grown in drifts, dotted through the plot, and used as edging. As well as creating a sense of drama through the contrasting colours and textures of edible plants, the idea is to include ornamental plants for further contrast, as companion plants, and to encourage pollination by attracting insects. I haven’t used my feverfew to treat headaches yet, but the plant’s long-lasting clusters of yellow and white blooms and delicate foliage made a pleasing contrast to the beans that grew up behind them. This year’s challenge is to experiment with more varieties, both productive and ornamental – if I can find the space.