A Case of Garden Envy?

July 20, 2011

My wife, Wendy, just returned from a week’s visit with good friends who live in Southern England, about 20 miles south of Oxford.  Duncan runs a garden design school that I attended years ago and we have been friends ever since.  I live in the foothills of the Sacramento Valley in Northern California with hot, dry summers and cool/cold, wet winters.  Theirs is the classic English garden climate that you always see in gardening magazines – lush and green and darned little need for irrigation systems!  But what Wendy really coveted was their perfect kitchen garden, or potager, as the French call it.                                                                                                                                                                                           

Although their house is over a hundred years old (youthful by English standards), the kitchen garden was added after they moved in.  It was nothing but a neglected side yard where the garbage bins resided to begin with.  Much thought and planning was put into it before any construction began, as with any good design.  A true kitchen garden, it is reached by going out a door directly from the kitchen and down a few steps.  Inside a large rectangular walled space are a number of raised beds filled with a colorful combinations of vegetables and flowers.  A pergola for roses runs along one long wall, and there is a water feature that provides the sound of splashing water.  Plants grow riotously, spilling over the edges of the beds.  Plants in pots are scattered everywhere, and it looks pretty enough in summer to be featured on the cover of a magazine – in fact I think it has been! 

Just outside the walled area is a small, picturesque old glasshouse facing West where they grow tomatoes, basil and other soft vegetables that need more sun and warmth.  On one end of the garden is the Taj Mahal of chicken coops, where 4 chickens reside in luxury surroundings.  Periodically they are allowed into the kitchen garden to forage, fertilize and eat bugs.  In return they provide a bounty of eggs every day.  On the outside of the opposite wall, Duncan keeps two hives of honeybees.  The bees have a ready source of pollen and help pollinate the plants in the garden.  All of this is done organically – crops, chickens and bees working symbiotically to maintain and improve the soil, fertilize and pollinate the crops and provide healthy, wholesome food for the table.

Of course I have a vegetable garden here at our house in California that I enjoy very much, but what a difference.  Due to the hot summer days, watering is a major issue. Our clay soil has been worked with for 10 years now – amending and using heavy mulches to conserve moisture is a necessity.  The hot sun in summer (often over 100 degrees F) bakes everything and even with the thick mulching my pumpkins and other squash must sometimes be watered twice a day.

We also garden organically and are seed savers – my theory being that seed from plants that have adapted to the site are going to be hardier in next years’ garden, and I know how they have been treated. 

 Chickens are not much of an option as we live near the rim of the American River canyon and between fox, bobcat, bear and every other wild animal that enjoys a chicken dinner, I’m afraid the birds wouldn’t have a very good chance of survival (a neighbors chickens were attacked twice by a bear – the second time finishing off the flock), and as to honeybees – serious allergies.  Anaphylactic shock is no fun. 

But at least I can take satisfaction in the knowledge that I will definitely get more tomatoes than our friends in England.                                                              Ok, one picture of OUR tomatoes in California!

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