Parents in France

Growing Your Vegetable Garden
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Tomatoes grow well in the south of France

Starting a potager


Growing vegetables and fruit in France is easy – wherever you live, you are bound to have perfect conditions for at least some types of fruit and veg. So the first thing to do before you start out is to think about the climate – if you live on the Roussillon coast, you may have trouble growing perfect cauliflowers, but you should have a bumper crop of tomatoes and melons.


You also need to think about the garden space available. With a small garden, it’s probably best to stick with easy-to-grow vegetables so you make the most of your limited space. If you have a larger potager, it’s tempting to be very ambitious and grow too much. This is generally a bad idea. In our first year of vegetable gardening, we innocently planted 6 courgette plants – only to find that by early July we were disappearing under a courgette mountain. Over the next two months, the plants continued to produce courgettes far faster than we could eat them, despite nightly courgette menus and the valiant courgette-eating efforts of our neighbours.


The easiest vegetables to grow are generally those that you buy as seedlings, rather than raise from seed. In spring, many markets have stalls selling young plants such as lettuce, tomatoes, leeks, cabbage, broccoli, onions, courgettes, aubergines and melons. They are usually grown in small squares of potting compost which makes planting them out very easy, as there is no damage to the roots.


In my experience, lettuce, tomatoes and leeks are a very good bet – they are relatively straightforward to grow, and easy to use in the kitchen. Tomatoes do need some tender loving care, but this is one vegetable that is worth a bit of effort. The cabbage family (cabbages of various sorts, broccoli, cauliflower) is also worth a try, especially if you live in the north – they need quite a lot of water and a rich soil, so they probably shouldn’t be top of your list if you live on the Mediterranean coast. Unless you live in the far south of France it’s probably not worth bothering with melons and aubergines (if you want to try, you’ll need some sort of protection, such as a plastic tunnel, and the blessing of the weather gods, to get a good crop).


Another way of getting a headstart is to purchase bulbs or tubers and plant them out. This mainly applies to onions and potatoes. Tiny onion bulbs, known as “sets” in English, are available from most garden shops (eg Gamm’ Vert) in early spring. These can be planted out and produce full-size onions during the summer. It’s a very worthwhile crop as onions can be stored all winter.


Gamm’Vert and similar shops also sell “seed” potatoes (small tubers that develop into potato plants). A very wide range of potato varieties is available in France, so you will have your work cut out choosing which to plant. The important distinction is between early, mid-season and main-crop potatoes – this refers to the date by which the potatoes are ready to eat. Early potatoes give an early crop, but won’t keep – you have to eat them quickly. Main crop potatoes mature late, but will keep for most of the winter if stored correctly (kept reasonably cool and protected from light, frost and rodents). We generally plant an early potato (Belle de Fontenay or BF15) and a maincrop (Desirée, which is highly recommended – great for chips!). Because they are sold in large bags, it’s usually a good idea to arrange with a gardening neighbour to take your leftover seed potatoes. This will earn you brownie points and avoid a crop of wild potatoes on your compost heap (potatoes don’t compost – they just grow like weeds!).


Finally, you can grow most vegetables from seed. In many cases this is more difficult than buying your plants from a market stall or Gamm’ Vert – but there are a few plants that I’d definitely recommended planting from seed. Courgettes are incredibly easy to grow –  you can grow indoors in a pot, then plant out, or sow directly into the ground once the weather is warm enough. Two plants will provide more than enough for even the most enthusiastic courgette-eating family, as long as you give them plenty of water plus either manure or fertiliser (you need a tomato fertiliser rather than a general-purpose one).


Most root vegetables can only be grown from seed, because transplanting damages their roots. Radishes are easy, as long as you plant them in spring after the coldest weather is over but before the hot dry season arrives (they like huge amounts of water and will be woody and hot without). Carrots are not the easiest crop to grow, but worthwhile especially if you worry about chemical build-up in commercial carrots (eg if you have a baby to feed). We also grow parsnips – I’ve never seen them on sale in France so it’s either grow them or do without. Having experimented with beetroot, swedes and turnips, I would put these in the “more trouble than they’re worth” category of vegetables.


The best source of information on what to grow and how to grow it is probably your neighbours. They will know what types and varieties of vegetables are most successful bearing in mind the climate and soil, and they’ll have lots of useful tips for you – most potager-owners are older people, and in my experience they are delighted to see young people joining the ranks of vegetable growers.


One highly recommended book (in English) is “The Vegetable and Herb Expert “ by Dr D G Hessayon. You should be able to get it on Amazon, or ask a relative back in the UK to pop into WH Smiths and buy it for you. Most of the information is valid for vegetable growing in France though if you live in the South, or in a very cold mountainous region, you might have to adjust the recommended planting dates slightly. If you watch what your neighbours do you shouldn’t go too far wrong.


Happy gardening!

This article contributed by Ally.

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