In Search of a ‘Practical’ Potager

After my last post ((G7 Woes in the Pearl) I wanted to write about something less stormy. Something that wouldn’t lead to popping Advils.  The Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago off Sicily’s north-east coast, seemed like just the thing.  (The volcanoes – apart from Stromboli –  have been inactive for a very long time.)  I had spent a couple of days there on my first trip to Sicily almost 15 years ago.  But as I was going through my old photos and notes, a strange thing happened.  I began to long to visit the islands again.  Given that I’m going to Sicily in May, these weren’t just pie in the sky longings. After a few days of this I took Oscar Wilde’s advice and gave in to temptation and booked a room on one of the islands.  The new itinerary felt great and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it in the first place. But now I had a problem.  There was no point writing about a place I was soon going to, so what was I going to write about?

On a boat ride around the Aeolian Islands almost 15 years ago.

The answer came in my email Inbox.  A reader was planning to create a potager and wanted to know if I had any suggestions for gardens to visit in the Veneto that might give her some ideas.  She stressed that she was interested in PRACTICAL potagers.  My full reply is in the Comments section of the Welcome page, essentially that I didn’t think she would find much of practical use in that region.  On the upside I thanked her giving me the topic for my next post and with the wind howling and the snow gusting, I went looking for all the potagers I’ve visited over the years. I didn’t expect to find much that was practical for a Canadian gardener, but I felt sure it would be a lovely antidote to what was going on outside my window.

I started with the Veneto, the region the reader was interested in, but as I had expected found nothing there that had anything even remotely connected to a vegetable garden.

Entrance to the gardens of Villa Pisani, along the Brenta Canal, not far from Venice.  No lowly veggies here.

Then I headed west to Italy’s lake district – Lakes Garda, Como and Maggiore.  Lots more gardens there, but again not a single vegetable garden.

The ‘Japanese Garden’ of Giardino Melzi on Lake Como.

I went all the way over to Liguria, Italy’s most westerly region.  Go any further and you’re in France.

La Cervara, Portofino, Liguria.

Then I headed south, to Tuscany, the birthplace of the classic Italian Renaissance garden. While not the first, Villa Gamberaia, on the outskirts of Florence, is considered by many to be the most ‘perfect’.

The ‘Hidden Garden’ of Villa Gamberaia.  On the upper terrace to the left is a lovely lemon parterre.  But no veggies.

I was beginning to despair.  Then I remembered another garden I’d visited in Florence.  I’d forgotten about it – probably because it wasn’t a favourite.  Despite the gardeners’ hard work, the focus here was clearly on the statuary rather than the plants.

Villa Pietra was created not by a gardener or even a plant lover, but by an antiquarian.

But it did have an orto (or-toe).  Although, as you’ll see, despite some very serious vegetables, it is not a very ‘practical’ orto.

The monumental entrance to the vegetable garden of Villa Pietra.

I might be missing something but I don’t see anything here that would be of practical use to a Canadian gardener.

A young woman picks fava beans for a gala dinner in the villa that evening.

Continuing south I came across a few veggie gardens.

The orto of the Abbey of Passignano, Tuscany.

A private veggie garden in the hilltop village of Monticchiello in the south-east corner of Tuscany.

But the pickings were very slim, something I will have to remedy when I go back to Tuscany this fall.

Continuing south things didn’t get any better.

Ninfa, Italy’s most romantic garden, is designed to look as if it is on the verge of collapse. Compelling, but definitely not a place for someone looking for inspiration for a veggie garden.

Italians love vegetables.  And they love growing their own.  Just walk around any part of Toronto where Italians have settled.  When space is small, they even plant vegetables in their front yards.  To the consternation of neighbours who think that sort of thing -especially tomatoes plants with their ungainly stakes – should be relegated to the back yard.  I was flummoxed.  Why did I have so few photos of vegetable gardens in Italy?

I figured the Amalfi Coast, for all its stunning, natural beauty, was hardly the place to look for veggie gardens.

Along the Amalfi Coast, where land is scarce, terraces have been carved over the centuries up the mountainsides.

Still, I found a few.

One of the loveliest potagers I’ve seen in Italy is along the path to Villa Cimbrone in Ravello.

It also has one of the loveliest views.

I looked through thousands of photos from my trips to Italy searching for potagers, even impractical potagers. Then one day, in one of those moments when you don’t think you’re thinking about something, the light bulb or the penny or whatever your personal Eureka moment is, hit me.  Potager is a French word.  Even though I spend less time in France and had probably visited far fewer gardens there than in Italy, I had visited numerous French vegetable gardens.   And I had hundreds of photos of these gardens!  What was going on?  Do the French celebrate their potagers more than the Italians their orti?  I have no idea.  But I will try to find out.

Like many veggie gardens in France, the potager of the Val Joanis winery in Provence is both beautiful and full of practical ideas.  Even for a Canadian gardener.

In the meantime I have to end this post now because I’m leaving for the Rivieras – French and Italian – in a few hours.  This is an experiment.  My first ‘March break’ in many years.  I’m a little worried because I see a lot of rain in the forecasts for both Nice and Ventimiglia.  But at least there is no snow.

Every potager needs a shed. Val Joanis.





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