Gardeners tend to be so rooted in their own patch that they forget to look at what others are doing. When I say “they,” I mean “I.”
So the other day, when visiting Ireland, I jumped at the chance to see the garden of Tanguy de Toulgoet, who represents the curious traveler’s jackpot: He brings the rich traditions of the French edible garden to the fertile soil of the Emerald Isle. For 18 years he has been one breed of Celt — a Breton — in the land of another, and it seems to suit him. From an intensively cultivated one-acre smallholding, he and his wife, Isabelle, and their two daughters live well off the land. Homegrown vegetables, fruit, herbs, fowl, eggs, honey and more find their way to the country table of their pretty, white-gabled house in the Irish county of Laois.
Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the Washington Post Garden Book and Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden.
(Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post) - Tanguy de Toulgoet employs French practices for edible gardening on his property in Ireland and offers day courses to visitors.
Even in its winter bareness, the garden is both productive and instructive, and what strikes me as interesting is that it is not a flower garden, an herb garden, an orchard or a veggie plot, but all of those things in one. Tanguy refers to it as a potager, which is the French term for an eclectic kitchen garden. But described thus, the terraced beds provide an extraordinary horticultural melange. He pulls apart a raised bed of greens to unearth a potato that formed last summer but now is ready for a winter stew. Elsewhere, he unearths a celeriac, and in another spot he pulls back the ground to reveal a blanched endive. He covers it again for safe keeping. It’s as if he is foraging in a wilderness of his own planting.
Tanguy, who turned 48 on the day I visited, has been growing vegetables since he was a kid. He says he prefers to describe his practices as sustainable rather than organic. You might also call them holistic, because he combines traditional French methods with a reliance on “biodynamics,” including herbal concoctions that feed and medicate his plants. For crop rotation, he groups plants by “their organs,” that is, he will put root crops — potatoes and parsnips, for example — in one area; leafy plants in another; fruiters like tomatoes or strawberries in a third, and flowers in a fourth.
He says it is a mistake to put too much compost in the soil — the plants get large but “soft” and become targets for feeding caterpillars and other pests.
He has a lot of flowers: flowers to draw pollinators, to feed the bees and to provide the raw material for his tonics, which might be made from comfrey, yarrow, valerian, winter and summer savory and hyssop. After cutting these herbs in season, he presses them for three weeks and makes a tea that is then sprayed on plants as a fungicide or pesticide, or just a general plant tonic. “I use them to cure other plants.”
He takes the cork out of a clay bottle and invites me to take a whiff. There is no smell, which is pretty amazing considering he made the contents six months ago — a black herbal tea infused with thyme, rosemary and savory. The savory is an effective whitefly repellent and the thyme is an antibacterial, he says. The dried clumps of burdock sit on the garden beds and act as a natural fungicide because the common weed is rich in copper, he says.