Homes

Intensive gardening: pack planting

Often a vegetable plot will occupy most of a small section and is planted so tightly, it’s hard to imagine how the gardener can walk between the rows.

These delicate purple blooms are a great contrast to the gnarly old concrete container Herbs and veges mix well together in this pot.

These delicate purple blooms are a great contrast to the gnarly old concrete container Herbs and veges mix well together in this pot.

Whenever you think you’ve come up with something rather clever, you can pretty much guarantee the French will have done it decades, if not centuries, before. Such is the case with pack planting, or what is more romantically described as the French intensive style of gardening. Not that I thought I’d discovered it, but I hadn’t realised it had started well over a century ago. In France, obviously.

Above: Flowers have been added to these gardens to enhance the aesthetics, and protect vegetables from pests.

The story is that it began in the 1890s on two acres of land just outside Paris. Crops were planted in about 40cm of horse manure, and so close together that their leaves touched their neighbours’.

A Kiwi version of intensive planting; a slightly more casual approach than the French.

I’ve always liked the idea of planting things far too close together and I’m a great proponent of horse poo, too, having been successfully using some kindly provided by our neighbours’ pony.

To make sure I was on the right track, I started reading up about it on various French gardening sites. How can you not take notice of the people who invented the bikini, denim, spirit level  and little black dress?

The French are past masters at getting the most out of their gardens, and most properties have vegetable gardens that, whatever their size, are jam-packed with food. Often a vegetable plot will occupy most of a small section and is planted so tightly, it’s hard to imagine how the gardener can walk between the rows.

It’s not unusual for a tiny potager to provide fresh vegetables for a family of four. Even more amazing is that they’re often immaculate and look as if someone has just this second put down the trowel.

The intensive method works for a number of reasons, and one is that French gardeners feed their soil with plenty of manure and compost.

Another one of their secrets is known as double digging.

First, mark the space for your garden bed and spread fertiliser (the French also favour horse poo) onto the topsoil. Then dig a trench across the bed about 30cm deep, putting the soil neatly to one side for later use.

Above: Flowers have been added to these gardens to enhance the aesthetics, and protect vegetables from pests.

Loosen the soil in the bottom of the trench to the depth of a further 30cm. Dig another trench next door in the same way, putting the topsoil into the original trench. Continue this process until you reach the far side of the bed, and then use the topsoil from the first trench to fill in the last. It sounds labour intensive but so, probably, was inventing the spirit level, and look how well that turned out.

Then there are planting secrets. Apart from planting everything very close together, French gardeners practice succession planting and interplanting. Before a crop is harvested, they start another one between the rows.

Then, as soon as one crop has been taken out of the ground, they have seedlings ready to go in. Some French gardeners are also inclined to broadcast, or throw, the seeds of small salad greens over the entire bed, allowing them to grow up in any tiny spaces that remain.

Another attractive element is that the French are unlikely to take to their gardens with rotary hoes and the like. This has generated a range of well-designed hand tools. Each task, and sometimes each crop, can have its own, dedicated tools.

Time consuming this method may be, but it produces about four times the amount of food as traditional methods, and uses half as much water.

I’ve figured out it’d save me at least four trips a week to the supermarket, which equates to four hours. Four hours in the vege garden goes a very long way. Now all I need is a pony.

GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING

Forget soap and chocolates this Mother’s Day – and put together a gift that shows how much effort you put in. I’ve made one for myself since I don’t have kids, and the gift element was not so much in the item, but in the time out I allowed myself for making it.

You don’t need to be crafty – I’m talking about a simple container full of plants. You could spend a few dollars or a few hundred, but the end result will be the same – a gorgeous addition to the front steps or porch that will last a lot longer than chocolates. Suitable pots can be found at hardware stores, garden centres, design shops and charity stores. Plain terracotta pots are inexpensive and, if you want, you can dress them up with a paint finish and a necklet of rope, paua or shells. Large ones are heavy, so if your mum is frail or elderly, or both, choose carefully – three small pots may be easier to move than one big one.

A set of three pots makes a simple, easy decoration.

You’ll find mass-produced pots at reasonable prices, and artisan versions with a heftier price tag. Tin buckets and watering cans – old or new – look fabulous planted up with small astelia, abelia “Snow Showers”, lavender, convolvulus and other plants with silver foliage.

If your mum doesn’t have a herb garden, this is the perfect opportunity to give her one – in a pot. Parsley, thyme, oregano and chives make a good mix, but any perennial herbs will do.

Make sure your container has holes in the bottom – if it doesn’t, deal to it with an electric drill. Throw some stones or scoria in to assist drainage, add soil, water crystals, a fertiliser tablet and plants, and you’re done. She’ll have the benefit of your hard work, and you’ll have a couple of hours of easy, therapeutic gardening.

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