Bon Potage!

A gardener’s tale of restoring breath and vitality to his formerly formal English garden.

Having a home vegetable garden was once as much a part of the dream of American domesticity as having a tidy bungalow with a porch swing, surrounded by a white picket fence on a tree-lined street.

Planning and planting a garden was part of family life. Everyone joined in, from the first furrow to the last lima bean. Winter was reserved for making selections for the next year from the many elaborately illustrated and colorfully printed retail mail-order garden seed and plant catalogs that filled the mailboxes of America—there was always something new between the pages to try.

Practically everyone knew how to plant and tend a garden. During the first three decades of the last century, many children were taught the rudiments of gardening in both public and private schools, and many had garden plots for instruction in botany and horticulture. Groups like the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and 4H Clubs even gave merit badges and blue ribbons for gardening.

By the time the U.S. entered World War II in 1941 and the Victory Garden program saw millions of Americans planting home and community gardens to free-up farmland and manpower for the war effort, the idea of the home vegetable garden—rectangular in shape with vegetables planted in straight, static regimental rows—had taken hold. Over the past 60 years, this model has not changed and today has become the standard for the American urban and suburban home vegetable garden.  

My father, a farm boy from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, had such a garden as a boy when he, his parents and three brothers worked for the Atlee Burpee Seed Company in Doylestown during the Great Depression and then again in his own home after a stint in the Navy during the war. (His expertise in gardening became quickly known and sought after in the neighborhood, and I can recall my mother talking about his perturbation trying to show a Princeton-graduated doctor of applied physics who lived two houses away the best way to plant a simple row of sugar beets.)

I repeated the same rectangular plan my father used when it came time for my wife and me to plant our own vegetable garden in McLean in 1976. We devoted five years to vegetables.

But in 1981, I was given a wonderful book, Garden Design by David Hicks, and my whole way of thinking about gardens changed. It introduced me to the formal English garden, which was like learning an entirely new language. As a career graphic designer, it spoke of visual order and hierarchy of space and elements. It said there was a way to celebrate my love for early English history and culture, and it also whispered to my eccentricity.

By the fall of 1982, all traces of my former vegetable garden were gone. I introduced lawn and 16 small European hornbeam to create the beginning of a pleached allée and installed dwarf English boxwood, yews, dry-stacked fieldstone retaining walls and fencing. I delineated and planted perennial flowerbeds and, though not yet mature, the garden had the beginnings of the “good bones” one reads about in books such as Hicks’. The entire experience of creating the illusion of a little slice of England in a garden in Virginia was transporting and exhilarating.

My wife and I did most of this transformative work ourselves, using ideas and principles from Hicks’ book, along with what we had seen and learned from visiting noteworthy formal gardens here and abroad. All of that work and worry paid dividends over 30 years in what became for us an oasis of rest and relaxation, a green chapel for choruses of songbirds and a front row seat for watching the seasons change.

The fact that we no longer had fresh vegetables was not important to us then. Gardening had become all about design, and the challenge and satisfaction derived from putting in our own formal English garden more than made up for any loss we felt at the absence of our typical American-style vegetable garden (though we did still reserve a couple of large pots to set out in summer for growing tomatoes).

But after a time, I began to feel that good bones and plantings limited primarily to yew, boxwood, and hornbeam, with stonewalls, brick and pea gravel were not enough, and I realized that the garden was interesting but not inviting. It needed a foil, some element to play against, something to give it meaning, a purpose and a personality beyond formality. The garden had good bones and a healthy body, but it had run out of breath and vitality.

It wasn’t long before I found a solution to this dilemma.

On a Saturday afternoon several years ago, during a gathering at my niece and her husband’s home, I noticed their vegetable garden, which was filled with raised beds of lush produce of all sorts, some of which I had never heard of before. I had seen raised beds before, but there was a certain design, style and sensitivity to these.

My niece’s husband is an award-winning chef for one of Washington D.C.’s finest restaurants, and the garden was his creation and handiwork. I immediately gravitated toward it and began reading some of the labels. He came up behind me and said in an engagingly self-deprecating way, “Ah, the famous potage garden.” My French vocabulary of three or four words now had another. (It has proven to be my favorite.) It was new to my ear, but my eyes could see and my mouth could taste how wonderful the word was.

He gave me a guided tour of each of the raised beds and added that they hoped the garden might serve a sort of dual purpose, supplying the family table and perhaps some for the restaurant. While the chef picked different varieties of eggplant for the grill, I picked his brain about soil, water, compost, pest control, rotating out beds for seasonal planting, and more.

Although he seemed to value his garden for its yield and utility, to me it had the quality my formal English garden was missing—one that made me want to pull up a chair and linger there in the simple beauty, bounty and honesty of it. One of the keys to a successful English formal garden is to create within it an element of surprise. Mine had that, with paths along yew hedges, opening to the rows of hornbeam, with box and walls, and good focal points to draw the eye along to a conclusion. But its heavy teak benches were nearly immovable, and a lack of diversity of interesting plantings at the level of the sitter had failed to make it a place where people would enjoy spending much, if any, time.

I realized that formality could remain for my garden, but it could not be an end in itself. Its interior must be softened with lower planting of groundcover and color, and it must contain comfortable, casual, movable seating furniture and small tables to make the garden a more “organic” and fluid place for lingering, entertaining.

That autumn and winter, my wife and I spent most of our time freshening up the garden and preparing it for the re-introduction of vegetable plants. We began by turning and amending the soil in the parterre beds, which we cleared of perennials to transplant elsewhere. We put rhubarb under old terra cotta forcers in one bed with collards in another and started cherry tomatoes, the last of which would be retrieved throughout the coming summer for making sweet pickled tomatoes.

We planted and trellised several sorts of berry bushes along the fence line that would yield blackberries, currants, gooseberries, and black and red raspberries, which made nice raspberry and raspberry basil jam for family and friends.

When we were done, we found that even small changes—a bit of color and the texture of rustic-looking hardy vegetable plants—against the tailored plantings of box and yew breathed excitement and new life into our formerly formal English garden.

In April, the perennials awoke, and hornbeam catkins began to appear. Yew and holly hedges were putting out new growth, and I recalled the words of Robert Browning: “Oh, to be in England now that April’s there.” I first read those sentiments many years before, with the same longing as Browning to be in England. But now I felt a curious contentment in discovering that I would rather be right here in my own garden in Virginia.

The work on the garden this past fall and first months of winter have been active, at least on paper. The green of boxwood, holly and yew looks darker and deeper in the cold light of winter. The pleached allée of deciduous hornbeams stands bare. The leaves are gone, revealing the wire support structure and skeletal branches of each tree like 16 hands with outstretched fingers intertwined. Nearly the entire garden can be seen from any spot in winter. It is the perfect time to take digital pictures for printing on the computer. And for planning.

The photographs in Hicks’ Garden Design are nearly all in black and white. Many of these are of the conceptual over-drawings and creative scribblings with notations over them. We are doing the same with the digital pictures of our garden. Using our copy machine to print out multiples of these pictures in black and white, we can use markers, just as Hicks has done, to draw in trellises, make indications of vegetables for the boxwood parterres, as well as try new ideas for the perennial border, placement of pots, where decorative elements might go, and so on. We can put them all side by side to compare, critique, and combine the best ideas into a single plan.

Doubling the length of trellis and number of berry bushes along the fence will be too costly to tackle in 2013, but creating the initial design, construction details and overall geometry can begin. The important things like improving the soil, composting, winter weeding, mulching, truing up edging and borders and starting plants indoors, cost little or nothing but are critical to having a successful and healthy garden.

I have not attempted to deliver a blueprint or textbook chapter on potage gardening here. I’ll leave that to the experts and academics. What I can offer is encouragement to old gardeners like myself to maintain an adventurous spirit when it comes to your garden. Know it. See it, and though it may sound strange, listen to it. If there is a time for change or a freshening up, it will let you know.

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