Do you have or want a potager? It’s a French kitchen garden, supplying the cook of your home with fresh vegetables and/or herbs year-round. If you live in an apartment, you could have a potager of pots — a garden in containers.
Potagers differ from regular kitchen gardens in that one crop follows another year-round. Our usual kitchen gardens feature harvest followed by mulching and lying unseeded until the following spring. Space can be limited or abundant. Some potagers are planted in front yards but they’re ideally situated close to the residential kitchen.
Many food crops would not survive our winters, but many others do. Tomatoes, eggplants, chiles, corn, cucumbers, squash, basil, sweet potatoes and beans, for instance, are killed by frost or freezes. Root crops, kale, collards, some leeks, cabbages, many greens and several culinary herbs survive and thrive in frosty conditions.
Growing a potager requires different techniques and knowledge than our usual gardening to harvest then letting soil rest until spring planting. I know some gardeners in Europe spade the plot where a vegetable has been harvested and use manure to enrich the soil before planting another crop. The use of fresh manure is not allowed in U.S. certified organic gardens, and is generally frowned upon.
Thoroughly composted matter, including manure, though, may be used. Planting in containers usually is done with potting mix, which may or may not contain crucial nutrients for plant growth. If the mix doesn’t contain them, use something such as fish emulsion or a pelleted fertilizer. Remember, basic required nutrients for plants is nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, identified on fertilizer containers in three numbers. I wouldn’t use the same potting mix for several years in succession. Dump it out and replace with fresh mix every few years.
To plan your potager or kitchen garden, consider what you and your family like to eat that could be grown in the sunny space you have available. You’ll need at least a half day or more of sun exposure to grow anything more demanding than leafy greens. Your soil or containers should drain well, for most edible plants do not thrive with wet feet.
Potagers may be planted in beds rather than rows. Scatter seeds and lightly rake them in, and after they germinate, use thinnings in salads. I would add compost when one plant or crop is removed, before the next is sown or transplanted, and fertilize at an appropriate time (not super-hot weather, when plant has begun to grow to maturity).
In early spring, for example, you could plant a cluster of peas in the center of a container, or bed, and let them entwine with one another. Podded, or sugar snaps or sugar peas would work. The outer ring of a container could be planted with seeds of leafy greens. If you use spinach, Swiss chard or leaf lettuce, you could harvest outer leaves over and over, leaving the center of each plant intact to grow more leaves. By the time the peas are done, snip off the vines at soil level, enabling the roots to feed the next crop since they were able to fix nitrogen out of the air while the plant was alive. Plant a summer-loving plant in place of the peas.
When that plant has finished for the season and been blackened by frost, cut it off at the soil line and sow seeds of leeks or kale for a fall crop. Those roots left behind will decay, adding organic matter to the potting soil. Lacinato/Tuscan kale may not survive a cold winter, but some of the Russian kales or Ragged Jack or Western Front kales are more likely to be survivors of harsh winter. Any of those cruciferous plants (four yellow petals in the shape of a cross) that survive winter will bolt to flower in spring. Those buds and flowers are delicious.
Vining crops can be trained to grow up a trellis (or tied with soft strips of cotton or Velcro). Don’t forget to plant herbs. Sage may grow large, so you need a large container, but smaller containers will suffice for thyme, parsley (flat leaf is favored by chefs), rosemary (Arp variety may be hardy outdoors, but other varieties may not survive), oregano, mint, sweet marjoram, cutting celery and chervil. Cilantro grows in a container, and is best planted as a cool weather crop, for it bolts to flower and seed quickly in hot weather. Basils and Southeast Asian herbs such as lemongrass, rau ram, la lot, rau om, Vietnamese mint, and green coriander (cilantro) are sometimes available here as plants. These are tender to frost, so should be planted only for summer production.
Send garden questions to email@example.com or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.