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Meet the amateur behind France’s best vegetable garden

65 year-old Bernard Patry's 1.5 hectare 'potager' in Charente-Maritime that he began in 1999 impressed the judges with its huge diversity

Every year there is a national competition to find the best vegetable garden in France, organised by the SNHF French National Horticultural Society, the FNJFC, National Federation of Family and Collective Gardens, Jardinot, association for gardeners and GNIS, the French Interprofessional Organisation for Seeds and Plants.

The results for 2020 will be released this month (March) judged on the winner’s knowledge and variety of plants, gardening methods, originality, appearance and motivation. Any amateur can apply.

In 2019, the winner was 65 year-old Bernard Patry who impressed the jury by the huge diversity of his vegetable garden. He grows 116 different varieties of vegetable in a garden where the natural conditions are hostile.

'I am living close to nature and on a very small scale I can do something to respect the natural world and redress the abuse it is suffering'

His 1.5 hectare garden is at Pisany, Charente-Maritime. 75% is wooded and his potager is situated in a 400m2 clearing. He began his potager in 1999, when he was still working as a draughtsman for EDF, and since his retirement has been able to devote more time to it. He says now he spends 90% of his time outside:

“I do it because I love gardening. We produce 95% of the vegetables and fruits we eat but for me harvesting is the least interesting task. I am someone who always likes to have a project on the go, and do something useful and there is always something new to do, and new to learn in the garden. Nature is always fascinating and I always find it extraordinary that you can plant a tiny seed and watch it develop into a plant. It is magical.”

His garden consists of a small orchard with plum trees, a second orchard with almonds, apricots, apples, figs, cherries and quinces, a row of pear trees, an ancient limestone quarry, a flower garden, a meadow and the vegetable garden.

In the potager, as well as the vegetables there are herbs, a vine, fruit bushes, flowers grown between the vegetables to attract pollinating insects and repel unwanted ones, comfrey and borage, and a bed of perennials including lavender, fennel, geraniums and rock roses.

Every year is a little bit different but when his garden was judged in 2019 he had different varieties each of salad, garlic, carrot, onions, cabbage, radish, potato, peas, cauliflower, beetroots, courgettes, pumpkins, cucumbers, maize, beans, celery, turnip, fennel, parsnips, spinach, leeks, asparagus, sweet potatoes, exotic vegetables such as chayote and yuca potato and twenty varieties of tomato.

Impressive when the limestone bed rock is never far from the surface, the soil is claylike and heavy to work and the summers are very dry with up to 50 days without rain. Mr Patry has not used any pesticides or other chemicals since he began, but has tried and tested many ways to improve the soil:

“I have a compost bin for kitchen waste which is closed against rats and a compost bin for garden waste. I bring in manure from a local cattle farm and donkey manure from a farm belonging to my sister-in-law. I mulch as much as I can, using a mixture of different elements.

“This includes straw from a local farm, fallen leaves from the trees plus BRF, a type of woodchip which I make using a wood chipper machine from fresh small branches which helps build up the fertility of the soil. I put down a 30cm layer of mulch in the autumn, which I have to clear away temporarily in the spring to let the soil dry out before I plant. One of my aims is to work the soil as little as possible, but because it is so heavy, it has to be dug over from time to time.”

He says that though he uses natural methods, he would not say he practises permaculture: “It is a very complex word and refers to gardens where a mixture of different types of plants are grown together. I am more conventional and plant in rows. Each gardener has to find the solutions that suit his own requirements and landscape as every garden is different.

“I cannot avoid watering in the summer, so finding the best way to water has been very important. I collect rainwater and I have installed a drip system to use as little as possible but save my crops.”

He says gardening is a never ending learning curve and he is always keen to experiment with new methods:

“I have tried growing potatoes in different ways. One is to grow them under layers of mulch instead of mounding up the soil. First the tubers are planted in the soil and then I lay down a layer of leaves, a layer of straw and a layer of grass cuttings and after that I don’t touch it.”

Most of the varieties he chooses are local, ancient or adapted to his type of soil, and many are grown from his own seed, but he does also experiment with a few exotic plants. One is commonly called in French “Poire de Terre” or yacón or Ground Apple and is a root vegetable which he says is delicious: “It has big leaves and small yellow flowers and the root is a little like a sweet potato as it is sweet and crunchy and can be eaten cooked or raw.”

He has tried out many methods to keep pests away: “I companion plant with marigolds to keep whitefly off tomatoes. I also have woodland, meadows, garden flowers and bird nesting boxes in the trees which means there is a natural biodiversity which results in less need for any pesticides. However, sometimes a disease comes along or conditions are poor and a plant that might have flourished the year before, dies off or has a very poor harvest.”

He bought a poly tunnel some years ago, but up to now, he has only put up the structure and never put on the cover. He uses the uprights as supports for his plants. This year, though he says he plans, at last to complete the project: “It will mean learning a whole new way of working. I plant broad beans every November and they grow the following spring. I always need to treat them for blackfly but I have read that if you grow them in a poly tunnel it is much more difficult to get rid of them. So you have to choose carefully what and when you put under cover.

“Gardening is very, very complicated. But I am passionate about it. I am living close to nature and on a very small scale I can do something to respect the natural world and redress the abuse it is suffering.”

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