A new look at the potager – Cambo innovates again

– Posted in: Garden Musings, Garden Travels, Garden Visits

The potager – that ornamental version of the vegetable garden was always a bit precious. Too many people had visited Chateau Villandry on the Loire and thought they could do a mini-version. The results were all too often a neurotic assemblage of over-controlled vegetables that no-one dare harvest as it would spoil the picture. I remember the late Rosemary Verey (a v. famous English designer, did Prince Charles’s garden) making one, which struck me as taking vegetable-ordering to an extreme. I heard that her daughter’s horse got in there one day. HA! Villandry itself is extraordinary, but absurd. Its creator was an ultra-catholic with near-fascist politics who saw the garden as a political statement about how society should be organized. Yuk! The vegetable garden as Nuremberg rally.

The French potager tradition itself  has now mutated wonderfully, as so many Brit visitors to France report back on “those wonderful roundabouts, why can’t we have roundabouts like that”. You can’t have roundabouts like that because Margaret Thatcher sold off the parks departments years ago, with a massive loss of skills and a whole municipal gardening culture. So even if we could find the money for them they would be difficult to emulate. In France and Germany they seem to have evolved a way of making summer plantings which roll together vegetables, annuals, perennials, wildflowers, anything growing to make the most wonderful combinations. The French seem the most skilled here, but any German garden show has examples and some public parks. Good planting = municipal pride.

The English speaking world seems sadly bereft of these summer planting skills. One place in Britain, where we have got innovative potager planting is at Cambo in Scotland, where Elliott Forsyth keeps himself occupied in the long winter nights producing the annual potager plan.

The pictures here were taken either this year or in previous years and they show certain common elements which seem crucial to success, such as the red-leaved Ricinus and the red kale. There are some perennial components, but everything else changes from year to year. By late summer Pennisetum grasses seem to always play a role. Its a way of playing with the creativity of planting in the knowledge that its only got to last one summer. I think lessons learned here feed back into the rest of the garden. This is the potager freed from obsessive order and allowed to get wild.

More about my recent Scottish trip here.

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

Noel Kingsbury

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Shirley September 14, 2012, 3:50 pm

Hi Noel, I’ve been a big fan of this garden for a few years now – it’s a 75 minute drive for me :-)

I expected 4wks in a garden at this time of year would make a huge difference too. It has. Sadly back on 12th August, I was very disappointed with my visit. I took some nice photos of plantings, but never published a blog post with them.

The ornamental Potager (which I have loved previously) wasn’t looking like this and my visit to the American Prairie was a disappointment too. Add to that I paid £5 each for my companion and I and given no map of the gardens being told ‘that they were there earlier, but gone now’. Fortunately I knew which parts of the garden I wanted to see but there was a new planting in the walled garden that I had no idea what the design/planting was about – it looked pretty though :-)

Sorry to leave a negative comment, I have given great praise and many photos on my blog to this garden in previous visits. The serious insult to me as a gardener visiting a garden as special as this was the invasive Himalayan balsam flowering high in a pretty border :-(

spayne September 14, 2012, 4:09 pm

You make reference to French roundabouts. I am an American landscape architect and horticulturist involved in the planting design of the many roundabouts being built in our area. I would love to see some photos or get more information about what the French are doing with theirs. I doubt we can do better here in the states in our pathetic culture of public horticulture but a little inspiration would be nice.

Kate Kruesi September 15, 2012, 8:46 am

All very attractive, but even from a permacultural perspective I don’t see much food in “the picture”. Isn’t that the point of a potager??

Noel Kingsbury September 15, 2012, 9:29 am

Indeed, I should really have stressed this. My point about the vegetable potager was that it was a way of growing veg that got taken over by aesthetics, and so people would not harvest the edibles – at Villandry everything is composted. So ‘potager’ has almost lost its edible aspect anyway.Elliott’s calling this a ‘potager’ is maybe stretching it a bit, but the orchestrated planting for one summer is in the potager tradition.

Rosie@leavesnbloom September 16, 2012, 3:29 am

I don’t live that far from Cambo but never got to visit this year. I did infact try to bring alittle bit of Cambo into my own garden this year when I started growing the Kale plants as ornamentals alongside my various types of verbena. Lets just say that the Kale has never looked as impressive as the ones I had seen previously in Cambo but I put that down to a surge in the population of slugs and snails. Ruby chard and lollo rosso lettuce are also good ornamentals to grow in the borders.

Cathy September 18, 2012, 5:26 pm

Noel, as always, what a fascinating post! I don’t know how a potager compares with a kitchen garden or even if it does. Are they at all similar? The idea behind our garden is to be both beautiful AND to produce fruits, vegetables, herbs, and edible blossoms that we can eat as well.

We built what we refer to as our “kitchen garden” in raised beds on the deck outside of our kitchen. It’s not always beautiful, especially when the tomatillos start getting straggly and spread out over the geraniums and basil just before they are ready to be harvested. We don’t restrain the vegetables for the sake of beauty and it’s definitely colorful and productive at the same time. From early spring until it’s buried under snow there are herbs and vegetables to harvest and flowering plants in bloom.

We have quite an eclectic mixture of vegetables (and we plant three different crops as the seasons change), herbs (both annuals like basil and perennials like lavender and thyme and sage), miniature roses, geraniums and other annual flowers, and violas, balsam, and other perennials. We also have lilac shrubs set into the beds and a hydrangea tree and some other tender trees that we bring in for the winter.

I confess that we don’t spend hardly any time planning what goes where (oh gosh, did I just hear someone gasp?). Except for the perennials, we aren’t even consistent about what we plant in the different beds from year to year. Mostly, I plant what fits well in he space available and what looks good together — dark green and purple coleus next to bright green basil, lettuce mixed in with eggplant and geraniums, and thyme spreading under the roses make a gorgeous visual impact and provide herbs and vegetables for dinner and bouquets for the table.

In years past, we’ve had cucumbers trail through the miniature roses and cosmos growing among the squash. Coleus also looks wonderful planted with cabbage, and one of my early spring and fall favorites is to grow radishes, leaf lettuce, dahlias, and pansies together. When the pansies get leggy, we trim them back and they reward us with enthusiastic growth after the radishes have all been harvested and the dahlias are starting to wind down.

Today we harvested the tomatillos and some lavender that I wanted to dry. We’ve been picking peppers and eggplant for weeks. The last of the tomatoes are ripening now and we’ll be planting another round of lettuces, peas and radishes on the weekend. And growing among all of the aforementioned are rosemary, lavender, cosmos, geraniums, miniature roses, mini carnations, and stocks.

It’s not a “public garden” (although it is always a hit on the garden tour) and it’s in a confined area, but it certainly is large and very diverse. Does that count as a potager?

Cathy September 18, 2012, 5:31 pm

Quick comment to Shirley, who was disappointed by the American Prairie. Shirley, pardon my ignorance at even having to ask this, but are you referring to a garden in Europe modeled after the American prairie or did you make a trip here to see some prairie gardens here?

I ask this because we had one of the worst droughts in recent history and it affected a the central US (prairie country) hardest of all. If you came here this year, I expect the prairie gardens were struggling terribly. We actually postponed a planned trip to see some gardens in the south central states and Texas until next spring because of this, but it’s much harder to reschedule a transatlantic trip that has been planned for months or years because of uncooperative weather.

I feel badly that you may have traveled here during what has easily been one of the hardest years for gardens, both public and private. How frustrating and disappointing for you if that was the case.

Noel Kingsbury September 19, 2012, 1:12 am

The garden in question is actually in Scotland!