A potager potluck

Happiness is strolling out to the garden for a handful of blueberries to decorate my breakfast cereal, a colander of crisp lettuce leaves and radishes for a luncheon salad, or a pocketful of juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh basil for a pasta sauce. One of my prime quality-of-life priorities is easy, frequent access to the most nutritious, flavorful food possible — which is why I choose to be an organic home gardener.

Why organic? Because the chemicals, pesticides, irradiation and genetically modified seed used in non-organic agriculture represent either potential or proven threats to human health, and because a number of studies point to the nutritional superiority of organically grown produce.

Why home gardening? Because freshness — the secret of optimum flavor and nutrition — is a matter of how long it takes a fruit or vegetable to get from garden to stomach. Even an organically grown crop loses nutritional value the whole time it travels and the whole time it’s stored. The home gardener also has maximum control over soil building, growing, harvesting and storage methods, all of which influence a plant’s impact on both palate and immune system.

I was in my 40s before I had some Southern Appalachian red clay to transform into a garden, and I knew nothing about the gentle art of coaxing life from the soil. After extensive research, I decided that the perfect home garden for me was a potager, one of the oldest styles of kitchen garden, cultivated wherever people aim to eat the freshest food possible as often as they can. I was drawn to the potager’s modest scale, the goal being many meal-sized, mixed harvests rather than larger ones requiring preservation and storage.

Potager derives from “potage,” the French word for soup. Soup has always been the bottom line in nutrition and economy, sustaining people through hard times. A French potage is thick with fresh vegetables and rich with herbs — whatever’s at hand. In fact, a potager rule of thumb is that the basis for your daily menus is whatever’s available to harvest. Of course, anything you can throw in soup you can also incorporate into salads, stir-fries, casseroles, sandwiches and side dishes.

Ivy Rose, my garden-prodigy granddaughter, calls our potager a “potluck garden.” She loves to explore and make suggestions for meals. Early this spring, when nothing was growing but overwintered lettuce and young green onions, she announced with true potager spirit, “Tonight’s potluck is onion potage and salad.”

As with most home gardens, the contents of a potager reflect the tastes of the individual gardener’s family and the limitations of available space and light. (I don’t have enough of either one to even bother trying to grow the corn Ivy Rose loves.) Yet even with my scant seven hours of daily light in midsummer, a wide variety of crops thrives for most of three seasons in the north-south-running mountain cove where I garden. Last year, I grew 60 varieties of 32 crops (including herbs) over an eight-month period. That’s a manure load of vitamins and minerals.

The secret is succession planting. Potager gardens always have little plots of many kinds of vegetables in various stages of development. As soon as one plot is harvested, in goes a new batch of seeds or seedlings. I plant half a bed of green beans (several kinds) in May, June and July to create a constant harvest from late June through early October. I sow small patches of lettuce — different varieties according to the season — about every three weeks, beginning in late February and ending in mid-September, for a nine-month total harvest.

Potager gardeners also “companion-plant,” mingling veggies, herbs and flowers that benefit one another’s growth and productivity. Planting the herb borage near peppers, for example, draws the insects needed to pollinate both. And the contrast of glossy peppers and luminescent blue borage flowers delights the gardener’s artistic eye, making garden grunt work more bearable during the sweltering dog days of summer.

Potagers have individual character and charm, often achieved by companion plantings. One of my favorite combinations pairs delicate arugula blossoms with calendula flowers. I grow potatoes under a hedge of valerian. As soon as the valerian blooms, the purple stars of potato flowers appear, seemingly to take advantage of the hoards of pollinators drawn by the valerian’s white lace. And an embroidery of fallen valerian blossoms transforms the homely potato plants. I often encourage some of the native wildflowers that spring up in garden paths and along the edges of raised beds. In mid-April, clusters of purple henbit (said to be a general insect repellent) look lovely fringing bright-green lettuce leaves.

The garden party is in full swing in April — abuzz with insects, jazzy with bird song. We’re still harvesting last fall’s plantings of lettuce, spinach, kale and spring onions. There are chives for salads and cilantro for burritos. Ivy Rose reports that radishes, peas, arugula, potatoes and more lettuces have germinated. Bok choys, cabbages and leeks are well established. This week we planted carrots, arugula, chard and dill. And in another few weeks, we won’t be able to keep up with all our potluck choices. Even though not everything we plant will thrive, we’ll be rolling in high-quality produce.

Ivy Rose calls our potager a personal, low-budget health-food store (a perfect description). I think about nutrition when I choose seed varieties, when I tend the soil, when I harvest and store what I grow. As I snip a bouquet of Italian parsley (which I use lavishly in soups and stir-fries), I think about how rich it is in vitamin C and calcium; about its potential to reduce coagulants in the veins, to prevent kidney stones and anemia; to cleanse the blood and make it more alkaline. I think about its ancient folk reputation as a tonic for the nerves, skin and digestion. I think about how its freshness and organic cultivation will empower my immune system.

And that’s just one easy-to-grow, common herb. No wonder the proverbial “good life” invariably includes a home garden.

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