A Mélange of French Accents

Early this summer, while weighing options for additions to our vegetable garden, I recalled some sage advice from Louisa Jones, a garden writer who has spent the past three decades living and working the soil in Provence: “One person’s weed is another person’s treasure. Nowhere is this truer than for flowers that thrive in the vegetable garden.”

Flowers in today’s vegetable gardens are grown either mixed in with the vegetables or in a section of their own, each choice of site having its own advantages and drawbacks. As companion plants flowers bring practical benefits as well as beauty to the garden. The danger is that the flowering plant may overpower or draw too many nutrients from the nearby vegetables.

In her not so new book, The Art of French Vegetable Gardening, Louisa discusses the benefits of companion planting — the intermingling of herbs and flowers with fruits and vegetables, making up the essence of the ornamental vegetable or kitchen garden, known as the potager.

While opinions vary regarding exactly where flowers belong in the potager, she states the essential elements found in every potager are a mélange of marigolds, nasturtiums and borage. So I thought I would add a few time-tested French accents to the vegetable garden. Luckily I was able to find all three in neighboring nurseries.

Here are a few planting guidelines from Louisa Jones:

  • Place your marigolds next to the tomatoes, they discourage nematodes in the soil;
  • Pot marigolds (calendula, the most commonly cultivated and used member of the genus) deter beetles among asparagus and work against nematodes among carrots, tomatoes and beets.
  • Marigolds (tagetes, often have maroon highlights) of the old fashioned kind are said to ward off insect pests and nematodes and stimulate growth of beans, cucumber, eggplant, melons, potatoes, pumpkins and tomatoes.
  • Borage improves the flavor of cucurbits (squashes, melons, gourds, pumpkin, cucumber, watermelon, canteloupe) and tomatoes and its roots loosen the soil. Borage also increases deer resistance among strawberries, and protects cabbage plants from common pests. Its intense blue flowers add color to salads.
  • Nasturtiums set among cabbage family plants, celery, cucumbers, deters beetles and aphids and improves the flavor of cucumber, radishes and zucchini. They add bright color and peppery flavor to salads and mix well with artichokes.

Not only was Louisa’s advice ecologically sound, the herbs and flowers she recommended added color, texture and enhanced the appearance of the garden immensely. I would recommend companion planting early in the season, in May. That way, the companion plants have a chance to grow ahead of the scorching July and August temperatures.

Once the marigolds, nasturtiums and borage were in place, I could not stop. I added Hidcote lavender, a beehive, bronze fennel, Nigra hollyhocks, sunflowers, and artichokes.

Voila! A potager is born.

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