Many vegetable gardens are traditionally planted in regimented rows, with tomatoes lined up in one area, cucumbers in another, and long, straight rows of beans, lettuce, carrots, radishes and all the other crops in yet another area. But French kitchen gardens often deviate from this traditional pattern by adding color, texture and excitement to the design plus growing wonderful vegetables, herbs and flowers at the same time.
Herbs and edible flowers are inter-planted amongst a myriad of vegetables to create an edible landscape. Straight rows are often abandoned and large, square or rectangular areas of vegetables are edged with herbs, flowers, walkways or ornamental edging materials. Vegetables are chosen and planted for their contrasting colors and textures and the garden becomes a handsome and colorful collage of decorative patches rather than rows.
The French word for kitchen garden, potager, means soup. These gardens were typically designed to include any seasonal ingredient that could be thrown into a pot of soup. Kitchen gardens,by their nature, rely on continual harvests throughout the seasons. Succession plantings (several sowings) are the norm and cold-season and late-season crops are commonplace. This makes for a highly productive garden in a small space.
Kitchen gardens often use raised beds because this format makes efficient use of small spaces and allows you to reach over and tend your bed without compacting the soil with foot traffic. Raised beds also allow you to design your garden, dividing it into squares, rectangles or other shapes that suit your fancy and your site. Build raised beds on a level area that is free of weeds and rocks. Construct your frame from bricks, stones or rot-resistant wood, such as cedar or redwood. Do not use pretreated lumber or old railroad ties that contain creosote or other chemicals. Fill beds with soil and ammend with 2 to 4 inches of compost for the first year and then, from a top dressing to an inch thereafter.
Two, cold-season, French classics are mâche and leeks. Mâche (also known as lamb's lettuce or corn salad) is a small, nutty green that can easily be grown in a cold frame throughout the winter months. Sow outdoors in the fall for a late harvest or in late March for an early harvest. A little frost will enhance its flavor. Leeks are traditionally planted twice a year, once in early spring for a summer harvest and again in late summer for a winter harvest. 'Blue Solaise' is a classic heirloom that takes 100 days.
Inter-planting of different crops is also a hallmark of the kitchen garden. Fast growing crops such as radishes and turnips are often planted amongst slower growing crops to maximize the use of space.
French kitchen gardens are famous for their mixes of young salad greens often called mesclun. This is based on an informal, cut-and-come-again, method of growing lettuce. Seeds of several varieties of lettuce and other greens are combined to produce a colorful, textural and flavorful experience. Individual leaves are cut when young, while other plants are left to grow larger. Peppery arugula and mustard are mixed with sour sorrel. Buttery cos lettuce is combined with crunchy romaine. Shaved fennel, spicy radishes and sweet, baby carrots add the finishing touches.
Many vegetables are harvested when small and tender; others need to be picked at a certain time. Beets and turnips are plucked out of the ground before they swell to their full size. Sugary, baby carrots are preferred over the long varieties. Slender green beans, haricot verts, need to be harvested daily while still small or they become stringy and tough. Baby peas, petit pois, are also particular about their harvest time. The tasty charentais melon should be harvested just before it ripens when the small leaf opposite the fruit turns yellow.
Many crops respond well to successive sowing. Sow every 2 to 3 weeks for a constant supply. Early season lettuce, mixed greens, spinach, turnips, beets and radishes fare well with multiple sowing. When the weather starts to warm, some of the early season crops can be grown in light shade, while others need to be abandoned. Lettuces come in many bolt-resistant varieties these days, giving gardeners a chance to enjoy a good salad in the middle of the summer.
When successive sowing is not the answer, replacements can always be found. Early shelling peas, snow peas and snap peas can be replaced in June with pole beans that will produce a good crop until frost. Daily or continual harvesting of these legumes once they reach maturity increases the plant's productivity.
Many plants are amenable to both early and late sowings. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, leeks, collard greens, kale and kohlrabi are examples of vegetables that can be sown in early spring for an early to mid-summer harvest, then replanted for a late fall or early winter crop. With the French habit of harvesting crops when they are still small and tender, tasty baby turnips and beets can be sown in the late summer for a fall harvest. With the shorter days and cooler temperatures, late season crops will take longer to mature.
Finally, herbs and flowers are an important feature in the French kitchen garden. Nasturtiums, calendula (pot marigold), lavender, borage and hyssop produce edible flowers that brighten up any dinner table. (Always remember to check; not all flowers are edible and some are quite toxic.) Dill, basil, chives, rosemary and thyme add their flavors to the culinary feast. One staple of the French kitchen garden is the small, alpine strawberry, the delectable frais des bois.
Regardless of the vegetables that you choose for your garden, whether traditional, French varieties or your own favorites, kitchen gardens are an extremely productive, colorful and enjoyable way to grow vegetables.
Here are some French classics to get you started: