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British “Marvellous Grower And Writer” Joy Larkcom Tells Us All About Potagers

Photo by Arnaldo Aldana on Unsplash

In her book, Creative Vegetable Gardening, British author Joy Larkcom, described in the local press as a “marvellous grower and writer, and so inspirational,” tells us how to design and grow our own creative vegetable garden or “potager,” no matter what size space or site conditions we have to work with.

She begins, of course, by defining the term ‘potager’ and how we should translate it into our own home landscape. “The term ‘potager,’ which some people find pretentious and others puzzling,” Larkcom says, “has crept into use since the eighties to describe a decorative vegetable garden. There is no straightforward answer to the question ’What is a potager?’, because the term has come to embrace two styles of vegetable gardening—humble on the one hand and grand on the other—as well as various sorts of garden in between.

“On the humble end, ‘potager’ is the French word for a kitchen garden, derived from its original role in providing the ‘pot herbs’ for soup, or ‘potage’,” she explains, “This evolved naturally into the garden where all the household vegetables were grown, and to many people, that’s precisely what it still is: no less, no more than a plain kitchen garden.”

But Larkcom says the grand interpretation came the rise to fame the of the “world famous ‘potager’ at Chateau Villandry in the Loire Valley. This renaissance kitchen garden, which is laid out in patterned parterres outlined in box edging, is a glorious tapestry of texture and colour created by the skilful planting of vegetables and herbs. It has been so influential for thousands of gardeners all over the world that ‘potager’ has also come to mean a formal, designed, ornamental kitchen garden.

“The story doesn’t quite end there,” she adds, “for the blending of vegetables, flowers, fruits and herbs ‘Villandry-style’ has been adopted, adapted and modified in many much smaller gardens, which their owners also think of ‘potagers’. At the less formal end of the scale, some are barely distinguishable from the traditional cottage garden. Of course, the old French ‘potager’ was itself a cottage garden, with fruit bushes and trees cultivated alongside vegetables which, in turn, mingled with both herbs and flowers, grown for medicinal and culinary use.

“It seems to me appropriate to steal the word ‘potager’ and apply it to any vegetable garden, of whatever size, which has been touched with the paintbrush of imagination,” she declares, “And at the risk of being pretentious, I feel it should be pronounced in the French way, ‘pot-a-zhay’, with equal stress on each syllable.”

Larkcom describes her inspirational journeys to other gardens before writing the book to develop contemporary approaches to designing and creating one’s own ‘potager’. “There is no doubt, however, that the gardens I did see in the British Isles, France and in three weeks in North America, revealed a rich spectrum of creative vegetable gardening, from highly-ordered, formal gardens to those where nature, in the name of ecology, had a free rein.

“I also saw many gardens where vegetables, herbs and fruits were woven into the main garden,” she adds, “Asparagus in the herbaceous border, climbing beans over the front porch, squashes along the garden fence, alpine strawberries and mint as ground cover and flower beds edged with lettuce or rosette pak choi: these are the sort of things I love to find.

“Where you choose to pitch your vegetable garden in the vast spectrum of possible styles is a personal matter,” she concludes, “The size and location of the garden and the priority given to feeding the household are all factors to consider, but the key lies in the yearnings of whoever wears that ‘head-gardener’ sweatshirt.”

Throughout her book, Larkcom guides us through “the magic in vegetable gardening,” featuring her ‘potager’ concepts, while incorporating details on elements of design, dramatic effects, fruit as a decorative feature and ‘potager’ management—which includes listings of many of her favorite plants and how they are used. Through her guidance, any aspiring gardener should be able to create his or her own ‘potager’, regardless of garden-area size or growing conditions.

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