100 Seconds – French Lessons for Gardeners 3/24/21

My Journey to Provence: Potagers and Lavender Fields

My basement flat in London came with a modest outdoor space. For an unlimited quantity of Fosters and pizza, two Aussie brothers built me a rude potting up shed, made the garden access safe, and hauled off rubbish – a brew of bricks, rotten boards, and broken glass. I wanted to grow vegetables organically, attract birds, and sit in serene floweriness. But how would I get from muck to magic? I needed inspiration and instantly thought of France.

Early July, I wrangled some time off work and took the early morning Eurostar to Paris, then onto a TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse or really fast train) to Aix-en-Provence. By late afternoon, I was ensconced at a café alongside the central market square with my favorites: “une infusion de verveine” (lemon verbena herbal tea) and “navettes à la fleur d’oranger “(orange blossom biscuits).

The next morning, I visited the bus terminal where the local tours usually start. Clearing my throat, I tried out my fledgling French at the ticket window. “Y-a-t-il des visites de potagers?” (Are there any tours of French kitchen gardens?) Standing nearby, a young woman, wearing a smart silk scarf, smiled with a look I interpreted as both gentle encouragement and amusement. She responded with “bien, vouz essayez de parler français” (good, you’re trying to speak French).

After that, she spoke English. I learned her German tourists cancelled their tour today, so she was free. I told her about my garden dreams. She offered a walking adventure, which would include a visit to a private garden with a potager expert, lavender fields, and “une surprise”. I instantly said yes.

What a day in the Provence countryside! The intense sunlight and colors, inspiring both Van Gogh and Cezanne, has never left me. I absorbed everything I could about potagers in bits and pieces of two languages. A doyenne in a print smock and jeans escorted me around her kitchen garden, patiently answering my questions, sharing local wine and cheese with us. Her garden stroked all the senses – from the drone of cicadas to soft bursts of scent everywhere.

The essence of a French potager lies in its combination of beauty, productivity, structure, and respect for nature. The gardener must protect and nourish the “terroir” (the soil) that nourishes the plants. A potager is both art and autobiography, combining vegetables, herbs and cutting flowers, utilizing repetitive geometric patterns which structures the growing space. Within that structure, plants grow exuberantly, feeding you and your weary spirit.

In the last century, 94% of heritage vegetables have disappeared. A French kitchen garden relies on seeds from regional heritage varieties. Only taste and nutrition matters, not shelf life. My host was growing a spinach with huge, dark green leaves, called Monstrueux de Viroflay. It was even mentioned in a Medieval book and thought to have originated in a suburb of Paris called Viroflay.

Oh, what was my guide’s surprise? A visit to a 12th century abbey called Sénanque, bluish-gray weathered walls rose above a swaying ocean of lavender. I took my French lessons to heart wherever I called home.

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