Friday, 6 April 2012

The Potager - My Grand Design

One of the early versions of my potager design.
Little has changed, just a bit of reshaping to accommodate the mower
and a couple of the permanent beds swapped around.
The Wheel
Way back at the beginning of last year, I came up with a most ambitious plan to turn a grass paddock into a series of fifty two veg beds. Out in all weathers, I began carving my sculpture into the grass, building mounds of turfs as I went. The whole thing began to resemble some alien spaceship's landing site.

I knew what I wanted to create. Everybody else (apart from Sue) thought I was mad! I guess my plan was too ambitious and my new neighbours did not know how determined I am once I get an idea in my head.

I hired a deturfing machine as my carving tool. The hire shop people neglected to tell me that using this on wet ground was going to require the strength of an ox and the patience of a saint. Not only that, but they fobbed me off with the oldest, most stubborn machine they had.

Anyway, I broke it! Three times.
So they sent me a new one, a better one which they should have sent me in the first place.
I broke that too. Well, actually, it wasn't really me. It wasn't up to the job.

Over the next year, I've steadily chipped away at the job. Each time I need to spend a day absorbed in the soil, when conditions are right, I tackle another bed.

I've abandoned the machinery and just get stuck in with the spade and my fingers, crumbling the soil and picking out the perennial weeds as I go, mostly dandelions and couch grass. Bucketfuls of weeds and the soil that clings to their tapering and creeping roots get thrown in with the pigs, who do a great job picking through, devouring what they like, especially the dandelion roots and clover leaves, and trampling the rest into the soil. The chickens peck all around me, picking off any creepies or crawlies unlucky enough to be brought to the surface.

Finally, after a year of hard work, everybody can begin to see my vision take shape and appreciate it.
The Principles
It's based on a few organic principles, mainly having vegetables growing in individual beds small enough that I can for the most part avoid treading on them and destroying the soil structure.
The whole design is based on a wheel, each quarter for a different category of vegetables which rotate year after year. This system of crop rotation ensures that pests and diseases do not build up in the soil and means that soil structure and nutrition can be managed to suit individual crops. Potatoes need lots of goodness put into the soil, but the same would ruin other root crops such as carrots and parsnips. Beans and peas put nitrogen into the soil. Brassicas (cabbages, calabrese, kale an surprisingly turnip) need goodness and lime, as well as a firm soil. They must be moved to avoid clubroot getting into the soil. 

Veg, Flowers and Herbs working for each other
Along with these principles, I was fascinated with the idea of a potager, an old-style French kitchen garden, usually based on a geometric design, which incorporates flowers and herbs into the vegetable garden. This enables me not only to have a beautiful veg plot, but a functional one too. The flowers and herbs will bring bees and hoverflies into the garden as pollenators. Other plants will attract predatory insects to tackle aphids in particular. Many herbs and flowers will repel bad insects, both with their scent in the air and their chemicals in the soil.

Good Companions, Bad Companions
Nasturtiums bring heat to radishes, marigolds protect against all sorts of insect attack, summer savory keeps blackfly off broad beans, sage, thyme and rosemary keep whitefly and cabbage whites off brassicas, onions and carrots hide each others' smells, confusing onion and carrot flies, even better if a clump of coriander accompanies them and a sprinkling of annual flowers is mixed in too. Potatoes grow well with beans, but hate sunflowers. Beetroot and onions do well together. Nothing grows well with gladioli. Everything benefits from calendula marigolds - grow them everywhere! 

Some may be old wives tales, some may have a very scientific basis, but I reckon that the wisdom of generations of gardeners can't be all wrong! I'm always looking for snippets of knowledge and plant combinations, so please leave a comment if you have any of your own theories or if your grandad (or grandma) passed down any gardening wisdom to you.

All of this requires a lot of planning! Sometimes the companion planting doesn't fit in with the rotation, but there's always a friendly plant to be found. It doesn't stop in the veg plot. Lettuces and strawberries grow well together, and the herb borage is said to give health to strawberries too. Tomato plants will protect gooseberry bushes from insect attack - a great way to occupy some of the space needed between to gooseberry bushes. 

The  disadvantages
It's difficult to devote exactly the same area to brassicas, potatoes, roots and legumes. Some vegetables don't fit neatly into these categories, such as squashes and sweetcorn. I did think about having a six bed rotation, to include a section to leave under green manure for a year and another for miscellanous crops.
The small beds neat a lot of management. Not for a tractor, or even a large rotavator.

To get round this, for my sins, I have another veg plot, an open area of ground. Many of the same principles are applied and it gives me somewhere to grow the crops which won't fit in otherwise. 

So there you have it.

Vegetables by design.

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