I took a vacation in southern France a few years ago. I stayed in an old country-estate-turned-inn that packaged a cozy room, meals and touring bicycle with GPS to guide guests through the spectacular Provence countryside. The innkeeper Nick, was both cycling fanatic and chef. On arrival, he showed me to my room with its view of Mont Ventoux (stage 15 of the 2013 Tour de France) and promised me a culinary experience each evening at the end of each day of cycling.
My first ride was to Menerbes, a mountain top, walled village made famous by British author Peter Mayle in his book A Year in Provence. I returned to the inn with rubbery legs and my appetite piqued for the evening meal. I sat on the inn’s terrasse, indulged in the lavender and herb scented air and sipped wine from nearby Avignon.
That evening meal represented the bounty of the region. And at every meal thereafter, I leaned close to my plate and breathed in bold, fresh fragrance before taking my first bite. I learned that Nick’s secret to preparing meals with sensory seduction was his potager garden near the kitchen door.
A potager garden is one that uses both edible and ornamental plants to create vegetable gardens that are utilitarian and designed with beauty in mind. Pronounced puh ta zhay, the fashionable French love formal and symmetrically designed potager gardens, but they can be as complicated or easy going as you want…and in my case, it’s the latter.
The memory of those meals and garden has inspired me to create a perennial herb potager. I will plant the herbs found in Herbes de Provence…thyme, savory, oregano, rosemary, marjoram and lavender. While some recipes for this herbal blend refer to lavender as optional, for me it is essential. I love its taste and fragrance in quinoa salad, fennel butter rubbed roasted leg of lamb and even buttery shortbread cookies. Perennial herb transplants are available in a surprisingly large variety and will come back every year making transplants a smart, one time investment.
Last summer I excavated a 5x7 garden bed in a sunny area of my small urban backyard. I dug out an unexpected (and exhausting) number of large rocks before filling the bed with rich triple mix garden soil. I grew tennis ball courgette, bite-sized peppers, scarlet runner beans and pretty (and edible) nasturtiums that I enjoyed looking at from my kitchen window. Surrounded by dry stacked stone walls, this bed is perfect for perennial herbs like mint that like to run amok.
Generally, perennial herbs are fairly easy to grow. They need rich, well-drained soil, regular watering, minimal pruning to keep them looking their best and a bit of fertilizing during the growing season. Some, like lavender, can tolerate full sun and drought while others prefer a bit of shade...but for the most part most people with a spot of soil can grow herbs.
To help shop for my garden, I created a list of my favorite perennial herbs and went shopping. I like Sweet Valley Herbs from New Brunswick which offer an amazing selection through Nova Scotia garden centers. I’ve found variegated lemon thyme that will be used in place of the silver or green varieties and a tri-colour sage that is green, gold and purple. Perennial winter savory will likely be planted beside an annual summer variety which is sweeter in flavor while barbeque rosemary can be cut and soaked in water before using as flavorful skewer for meat or veggies on the grill. Moroccan mint will be grown for use in my favorite Thai spring roll recipe. I’ll pick up perennial sweet marjoram as well as annual, green Dolce Fresca basil for pesto and a purple variety too for tomato salad.
I have a lavender plant to move into the potager. It's fragrant upright purple blooms and silver fine leaves will contrast with nasturtiums that will tumble over and soften the rock walls while adding brilliant shades of orange, yellow and red. Colourful mesclun greens and flowering chives will be planted at the perimeter for easy reach while scarlet runner beans will climb tuteurs bringing food for pollinators, create shade for tender herbs like basil and increase production from a small space.
I'll eat herbs fresh all summer and in the fall I'll let the sun dry off the morning dew before cutting and tieing leaves and stems into small bundles. They'll be hung (flowers facing down) in a dry, warm spot inside paper bags that have been punctured with a few holes. After harvesting, the plants will be cut back based on their unique needs. Woody lavender branches, for example, need to keep green leaves intact so they can rejuvenate themselves the following spring.
With a bit of planning and research, a potager garden can be created without a lot of skill or land. Growing herbs will be my pleasure...and each meal will remind me of the scent and taste of Provence without leaving home.