Greenish yellow quinces, ripening in the sun, are covered in delicate, bronze felt. It’s a good crop on a healthy, strongly growing tree, more than can be said for some of the apple trees, competing for water and nutrients with the closely mown grass*.
The cabbages, chard and courgettes are some of the best grown vegetables I’ve seen in a Paris park or garden. The soil looks rich and dark, as it should be after over four hundred years of cultivation. Jardin Catherine Labouré is part of an old kitchen garden belonging to the adjoining convent of the Daughters of Charity, now managed by the city council and open to the public since the 1970s. There are many good things about this garden, but also much sleeping potential.
The high stone wall which encloses the garden absorbs the traffic noise from nearby roads, so this is a peaceful place. The garden retains some of the features of a traditional, productive potager; a few gnarled, old fruit trees, a long grape arbour, pretty stone-built tool sheds with tiled roofs. There’s a sense of continuity and the echo of a long history.
The main part of the garden (roughly 5,000 square meters) has a simple four square pattern, divided by wide gravel paths. Two of the quarters have been cut short and screened with planting to form attractive play areas for younger and older children. The rest of one of these quarters is occupied by a well-tended, if somewhat disorganized, vegetable plot. The remaining three ‘quarters’ are given over to lawns, with a scattering of widely spaced, young fruit trees. The grass is thriving (the sprinklers were running when I visited this morning) but the fruit trees are not.
(Click on any of the small pictures for a larger image).
Historically a larger potager, of which Jardin Catherine Labouré is part, supplied fruit and vegetables to the Hospice for Incurables, run by the Daughters of Charity from its foundation in 1635. Taken over by the state hospital service in the nineteenth century, the hospital has now been moved into new premises and the original Hospice buildings have been restored and redeveloped, for housing and offices. Later extensions, which had sprawled over half the original potager have been removed and a new 3,500 square meter Jardin du Potager has been established, connected by a gateway in the wall to Jardin Catherine Labouré. The new garden is mostly given over to lawn laid in rectangular blocks between gravel paths, evoking the practical layout of a kitchen garden. There’s a fine row of young walnut trees, some rather scrubby crab apples and several ginkgoes. Not an obvious choice for a potager.
Discounting the area given over to play space in Jardin Catherine Labouré, and to gravel paths, the two gardens together have a cultivable area of roughly 5,000 square meters. The current vegetable garden (maintained by a community association and used for children’s gardening sessions) amounts to some 250 square meters or one twentieth of the total. There’s not much public green space in this quartier so some lawn is important but even so…. This is a green space with potential!
*Why are the fruit trees struggling? Close mown grass remains in a perpetual state of young growth and never reduces its demands for water and nutrients, (unlike rough turf left to flower and senesce) so a fruit tree planted in mown grass needs a clear zone around its trunk plus regular feeding and watering until it is well established. A mature tree with extensive roots can compete successfully with the grass, which is why people assume that fruit trees can be planted in turf and be left to their own devices.