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French garden diary - January 2019

Layered benefits of lasagne bed - This raised bed technique is ideal for growing veggies, says Cathy Thompson

It was clear to me from the pleasing trickle of readers’ courgette and haricot recipes we received that more than a few of you are quite dedicated to your potager.

I increasingly share your passion for growing my own and imagine that the influence of my French neighbours – foodies to a man or woman – has something to do with this. But have you noticed that there is, in France, a kind of ‘permaculture’ style that was probably typical decades before the English-speaking world discovered it?

The garden as a kitchen resource – with the gardener as ‘gatherer’ in season, whether it’s a supply of nuts, fruits, or a few perennial, leafy crops.

There are many cultivars of perennial vegetable still popular in France: Chou perpetual Daubenton (a cabbage that doesn’t make heads, but is grown for the young leaves), cardoon, Good King Henry (a spinach substitute), onions for many purposes, and lovage or ‘poor man’s celery’.

If I had any flat land, I’d try growing vegetables in lasagne beds. I’ll never forget a friend presenting me with the most superb butterhead lettuces direct from his lasagne bed – right in the middle of a drought. These beds are ideally situated right near the kitchen door, where they can be watered every day.

Start by creating raised beds in any shape you fancy – the walls can be of wood, old brick, roof tiles, even tyres (with the added advantage of providing good insulation early in the season). It’s the produce that counts, rather than the shape or look of the beds. You don’t have to lift the turf at the base, but should cut the grass and remove any really evil weeds before you start.

Lay a cardboard base and get cracking on the growing medium for the bed, alternating layers of woody/carbon-rich material with layers high in nitrogen. The first, high-nitrogen, layer is composed of grass cuttings, weeds, green kitchen waste, chicken manure, coffee grinds, etc.

Then a carbon layer: shredded woody prunings, fallen leaves, shredded paper, dead plant material such as the chopped stems of your herbaceous plants after the autumn/winter tidy. Continue to build these two layers up to as much as 45-60cm in height, and water each layer before you add the next.

Cover the bed with permeable landscaping fabric and leave to bake! Ideally the bed should be left to mature for a year, but if you want a start this season, you can lay an 8-10cm layer of finished compost/good garden topsoil and plant into that.

A quick-fix method for creating vegetable beds that are not raised (and are less water-retentive than lasagne beds) is to lay sheets of cardboard onto the ground and then to build up a growing medium by adding a very thick layer of mushroom compost or a soil/manure mix on top of the cardboard. This is very much a no-dig, permaculture type approach to growing vegetables – they root into the soil below the cardboard – and it works impressively well. Not only does ‘no-dig’ save your back, it also saves the crucial earthworms.

For those who garden on sloping land and want to create flat terraces for growing vegetables (again, conserving moisture and making watering easier) you can do this without the expense of actually building raised walls.

Try roughly terracing (with a good old spade!) the site into different flat areas and lay landscaping fabric on the steep slopes between each of your ‘flats’. Through slits in the landscaping fabric you can plant evergreen shrubs to create a green ‘wall’ on each slope. Favour bee plants, such as santolina, lavender, hyssop, thyme, marjoram … whatever you fancy. Then, at the top of each slope create a low hedge to retain the soil on your planting terrace.

I used box cuttings, directly stuck in in autumn from my own plants, but if you’ve been plagued by the box tree moth caterpillar, try substitutes such as hebe, Euonymus japonicus ‘Microphyllus’, Lonicera nitida, Ilex crenata, or rosemary. 


Don’t forget to sow onions as early as possible (under cover, in cell trays in colder areas). Check newly planted trees and their stakes to ensure that roots are safe against any rocking by winter winds and that the tree trunks are not being damaged. Damage to the top layer of bark in very young trees can curtail uptake of water and nutrients in spring.

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