You’ve never planted a vegetable garden. You think you don’t have the space or the expertise. It would be too big a job, too much of a commitment. You don’t have the time. And besides, what would you do with all those vegetables?
I have the answer. Plant a French-style potager garden. It’s a year-round garden to supply your kitchen on a daily basis. It can be small, only a few short rows, or even 1-foot squares. You plant in spring, then, while you’re still picking lettuce and pulling radishes, you plant for your summer crop, and so on for each season.
Why would you do such a thing when you can buy anything you want, anytime, just about anywhere? Two main reasons: Anything you grow that goes straight into your kitchen tastes better than anything you can buy, and there are few things more rewarding and fulfilling than growing your own food – or at least some of it – all year long.
My husband and I grew our first potager in the front yard of our very modest house in Vacaville in the 1970s, protecting it from the neighborhood dogs with a chicken wire fence. After digging up half the lawn in early spring, we planted the space with peas, radishes, carrots and lettuces. As the weather warmed in May, we ate the last of our spring vegetables, replanting the same space with summer squash, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and string beans.
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We picked all spring and summer long, and our table was never bereft of fresh vegetables. Our children were small and helped us harvest, readily accepting the grilled eggplant and zucchini we cooked, amazingly enough, and they were happy to pull the fresh radishes and carrots and eat them raw.
In late summer, we planted a few pumpkin seeds, and even though we were still picking tomatoes and peppers, we planted lettuces, carrots and radishes again, plus broccoli and cauliflower, ensuring that we’d have vegetables in fall and into winter.
Our neighbors loved our front-yard potager garden. They stopped and chatted, commenting on how beautiful it was and how smart we were to do it, reminiscing about vegetable gardens their families once had. We were proud of our garden and thrilled to share any extras with them, and yes, even the dreaded zucchini was welcome. Our family feasted from April through the next March with what came from our garden.
We’d planted vegetables gardens before. One in San Diego and another in the backyard of our flat on Fulton Street in San Francisco. We shared the yard with couples in the other two flats, an African American woman from Louisiana and her husband, and a Salvadoran woman and her Czechoslovakian boyfriend.
In early summer we worked up a space of about 50 square feet and planted potatoes, tomatoes (which were not successful in San Francisco), green beans that cascaded from bamboo stakes and strings that we erected, and some eggplant. The potatoes, which we grew from grocery store potatoes that were sprouting, were better than any potatoes I’d ever had, firm-fleshed and earthy. One of those homegrown potatoes, mashed up, was my baby daughter’s first solid food. The beans were very productive, and we shared them among us, each cooking them different ways, according to how our parents had cooked them.
However, as summer ended, so did the garden. It was a typical harvest garden, planted in spring or early summer, harvested in summer and into early fall, then abandoned until the following year. Then, not long thereafter, I discovered the potager garden.
My husband and I moved to southern France to raise goats and pigs, and there we saw that everyone had a garden and each day, sometimes twice a day, someone from the household would go to gather what would become the foundation of the day’s meals. The vegetables changed with the seasons, and while harvesting the ripe crops, seeds and seedlings for the next season were being planted, ensuring a continuous flow of food. That was the inspiration for our first potager, the one in Vacaville, planted after we returned from France.
I’ve had a potager ever since, and what I grow still tastes better and fresher than anything I can buy, and all I have to do is walk out the door and pick what I want, living and cooking with the rhythm of the season.
It isn’t always perfect. Birds eat the lettuce, gophers gnaw the roots of the radicchio plants and nibble on the carrots. Vigilance is required to spot signs of the big, green tomato worms that gobble the leaves. Nevertheless, it’s worth it.
Right now in my potager, I have three kinds of cabbages, and lots of brilliantly colored chard, all planted back in October, and this is what I’m harvesting now.
Fava beans, planted in December, are in full flower, and the first pods have started to form. We’ve pulled out the spent broccoli and cauliflower plants, and in part of the place will go a last spring crop of quick-growing radishes and lettuce, and in the next 10 days, the remaining space will be planted with summer squash and the first tomatoes.
The thrill of planting seeds or seedlings, and watching them grow as they gradually transform bare soil into a lush “foodscape,” has never waned for me.
Potagers don’t need to be big – that is the beauty of them – 12 square feet produces an amazing amount of fresh vegetables, and you aren’t bound to use lots of equipment. You can keep it quite simple, in the old rural French style. It’s all about flavor and taste with the added attraction of being rewarded by the work of your own hands.
Georgeanne Brennan, an award-winning cookbook author and culinary journalist, has written more than 30 cookbooks and garden books. She lives in Winters, where she writes, cooks and runs her new online store, La Vie Rustic (www.lavierustic.com). Her forthcoming book is “A Personal Journey: Food and Fetes of Provence with Recipes” (Yellow Pear Press, Oct. 2016).