Gardens (potagers) Article

Village houses in the Languedoc rarely have their own gardens. Or rather, they rarely have gardens next to them, for everyone has a vegetable garden within walking distance from the house. Villages are often surrounded by a patchwork quilt of these gardens or potagers.
Organic gardening may be newly fashionable in much of Europe, but it never went out of fashion here. Gardens are kept much as they were in the Middle Ages. There's no point in buying chemicals if you don't need to. How do gardeners keep pests away without chemicals? They do it largely by what is now called complementary planting. They are careful to plant certain plants next to certain others. At its simplest this works by the second plant repelling insects that would otherwise be attracted to the first one. Sometimes both plants are edible, for example onions planted next to carrots are claimed to keep away carrot-loving insects. Fennel reputedly protects leeks. Sometimes it is necessary to put in inedible plants - you will often see pretty flowers that seem out of place in a potager. You might even find what are normally regarded as weeds. Dandelions turn out to be extremely useful. The same principal works in reverse. Certain plants should not be planted next to certain others: for example if they are both particularly thirsty, or if one produces chemicals that the other doesn't like. Planning a productive garden layout becomes a huge logical puzzle. There are other complications too. A neighbour warned us last week about planting hazel trees at the edge our potager. Apparently wild boar love them. And of course a family of wild boar are likely to move onto your potager - or more to the point his potager - as soon as they've had their fill of young hazel shoots.
Almost anything grows here. We grow all our own vegetables, a couple of dozen different herbs; and our own fruit: apples, pears, peaches, apricots, cherries, and figs. We've just planted some meddlers and persimmons for a bit of variety. Pomegranates grow but do not ripen here, and orange and lemon trees have to be protected during the winter this far away from the coast. Our proudest boast is to be self-sufficient in nuts - only walnuts and almonds, but it's a start.
All of our neighbours sow and reap, plant and lift, split and graft according to the phase of the moon. I tried to find out if there was any scientific basis for this, but have not so far found much compelling evidence. The sheer weight of everyone else's certainty counterbalances my natural scepticism. These people, especially the ones who grow commercially, simply don't do things that involve unnecessary work or inconvenient delays. I find it hard to believe that they do it merely because their forefathers have done it since the Middle Ages, and probably since the Dark Ages. I asked an Oxford biologist about it last year. He laughed at me, saying that everyone knows about the importance of lunar cycles in plant growth. I asked about possible mechanisms: gravity? Moonlight? Magnetism? Weather? He had no idea. I asked a local farmer. He thinks it's mainly gravity. For example he explained that he cuts wood for building at the full moon when the sap is high, and cuts wood for burning at the new moon when the sap is low. I objected that the solar cycle must be more important. He agreed, and pointed out that the trick is to make the most of both cycles. You can always find a full moon in any season. It sounds plausible. I started my own controlled scientific experiment with radishes last summer, but half of them got eaten by slugs before the end of the first lunar cycle. This rather compromised the statistics so I gave up.
Friends of ours who garden commercially grow Jerusalem artichokes for their own table, but not for market. We asked them why, and the answer was that Jerusalem artichokes simply don't sell. Why don't they sell? It's certainly nothing to do with taste, or healthiness, or price. They are delicious and nutritious, yet our friends say they cannot sell them at any price. The only explanation that makes any sense involves events that took place over two generations ago. Apparently, during the Second World War, crops in Vichy France were requisitioned for the German army. Germans did not like, or as the locals claim simply did not know about, Jerusalem artichokes. Consequently, the only vegetables left in abundance for the locals were Jerusalem artichokes, which the Germans took to be crops for animals. The result was that locals had plenty to eat, but everyone was sick of the damn things by the end of the war. They stopped growing them as soon as they could. Jerusalem artichokes vanished from gardens and tables, and never came back. They still remind the older generation of unhappy times, and the young simply don't know about them. Many of them have never even seen one.
We heard another story about crops being sequestered during the war. One villager who knew a thing or two about plants hit on a way to keep his potatoes for himself. He grafted tomato plants onto them. The tomatoes of course were requisitioned, but no one thought to look underneath the tomato plants for another vegetable. At the end of the season he sneaked out to his potager and collected a small but valuable crop of potatoes. According to gardener friends the tale is not that far fetched - potatoes and tomatoes are sufficiently closely related for grafts to be successful. It's a good story to bear in mind the next time a government requisitions your vegetable garden.

JdeSt-F © 2004,2005.
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