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French intensive vegetable gardening

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05/22/2002
French intensive vegetable gardening

The French are pastmasters at getting the most out of their potagers. Virtually every yard has a spotless vegetable garden. Often, it occupies most of a small yard. And it is planted so tightly you can hardly imagine how the gardener manages to walk between those closely packed rows. What's more, there never seems to be a trace of a footstep between those immaculate lines of vegetables, which always appear freshly cultivated. It's as if the gardener hovers in the air to do his or her work!

Perhaps this intense approach to gardening is responsible for generating the incredible variety of French gardening tools. Unlike their American counterparts, who rely heavily on motorized tools, the French still largely garden entirely with hand tools. Each task and even many crops have their own dedicated, specially designed tools. Living in France, I have really discovered that gardening by hand with a perfect tool is a viscerally satisfying joy.

It's not unusual for a very small space to yield enough fresh vegetables for a family of four. The secret to this incredible production is succession planting and what I call "interplanting." Even even before a crop is harvested, the French gardener starts another one between the rows. Or, he or she has transplants ready to slip into place the minute the previous crop leaves the ground.

Faced with much less available space than most American gardeners, the French have learned to push the envelope of plant proximity. They habitually plant much more closely than their American counterparts, and would be incredulous at the "recommended" spacings that we follow. On the other hand, you have to figure into the French gardening equation the fact that French gardeners feed their soil with plenty of manure and compost every year, and never let a weed tarry past the seedling stage, to prevent any competition for their treasured vegetables.

In my potager in Normandy, I cram and jam plants in the same way I always have, since I started vegetable gardening back in the 70's. Unlike the French, I don't garden in rows, but rather in raised beds about a yard wide. But like the French, I can never get enough variety or production. So within those beds, I may broadcast seeds (small salad greens such as m”che or arugula over the surface of the entire bed, or I may plant in closely interknit rows. In the photo above, for example, I first planted three rows of different lettuces. Three weeks later, I squeezed some haricot vert (French green bean) seeds between the lettuces. As the beans grow, they will shade the lettuces a bit, thus delaying their bolting (going to seed). And the beans will mature just about the time the last of the lettuce is pulled out.

French potagers also traditionally combine flowers with vegetables. I've planted climbing deep red nasturtiums among my pea vines. And in the bed I've devoted to artichokes (a perennial), I've broadcast a mixture of wildflower seeds I've gathered from dry places such as Provence and Morocco, since artichoke is a drought-resistant thistle. The idea is that the artichokes will tower above a sea of lower-growing mixed wildflowers that will remind me of some of the lovely places I've been. After all, the vegetable patch is as much a place to live out your dreams as any other part of the garden.

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Products of Interest:
Effortless push weeder
Reversible weeding rake
'Rosier' weeding hook
Provençal double-duty cultivator

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