An 18th Century New Orleans Potager

Its been a long time since my last blog. Research and writing continues apace. I can only blame the hectic holiday season and my work schedule during December. Now on Mardi Gras Day, 2013 I finally have enough to fill a good entry. I would like to welcome the new friends of the 1718 Tricentennial Facebook page. Please tell your friends about it. To quote David Bowie, as of now, “we’ve got five years”. I plan to make the best of them and get this Project afloat big time in the next twelve months or so. So when all the 2018 Superbowl fans return for the big party, all will be ready. Our mythical Frere Gerard is visiting the Houmas right now, and will soon be telling tales and cooking fish from the bayou country. But in the meantime, may I present . .


Finally, after about a year and a half in our original quarters (really no more than a shack), we were able to get larger quarters in the former barracks at the corner of Rue Chartres and Rue St. Ann. These are directly across the street from where the new church and new presbytere are to be located. The larger space also allows for a real chapel to be installed as well as an adequately sized kitchen. As the winter of 1724-25 waned, I approached Pere Raphael and asked that I be allowed to place the potager directly behind the proposed site of the presbytere in the rear of the square that had been reserved for our use. I reasoned that since plans for the new parsonage were already being drawn up, it would be counter-productive to dig a garden on the river side of Rue Chartres and only have to dig a brand new one on the opposite side in a season or two. FrereGerard1Pere Raphael commended me on my foresight and ordered me begin as soon as the weather allowed. Together we paced off a large plot bounded by the Rues St. Ann, Royal, and what was to become the central Rue d’Orleans. The front of the property facing the Rue Chartres, of course was left open for the soon-to-be Presbytere. I set to work at once observing the sun’s path across the property and laying out the garden plan. In late winter, right before Ash Wednesday, I moved some of city’s many orange trees to the line of the garden along Rue d’Orleans and turned the corner at Royal to finish the line and mark the potager’s western boundary. Interspersed between the established trees, I planted some plums and sassafras as well. On the eastern (Rue St. Ann) edge, I planted a low hedge, so as not to interfere with the morning sun. As Lent began to merge with Eastertide, it was now time to decide what to plant and where to plant it. As the winter progressed, I had the entire space dug over, weeded, dug again, manured, hoed and chopped up and made ready for the seeds and sets.

As a boy in the monastery at Charleville, the friars had put me to work in the kitchen and garden. The two are natural companions and complement the production of one to the other. As all things within convent walls, not much space or use is given to the ornament of the place (excepting the church, of course). And while various fancy foods and dishes are prepared in our kitchens, they are mostly reserved for traveling noble guests, local dignitaries, and high feast-days. So, now as the one in charge of the garden and kitchen,I made it a point to make both serve their proper, everyday roles. Of primary concern in laying out a potager is accessibility. After all, one cannot go tromping through the lettuces to get to the beans, or through the potatoes to dig a cabbage or a few onions. So paths through the potager are of prime importance. The actual vegetable “beds” should be no wider than one can reach into halfway, so as to harvest the dinner’s  ingredients without disturbing the other plants. Another chief consideration of plant placement is the nature of the vegetable plant itself. For instance, the high stalks of the Indian maize should not block the sun from the low growing plants like cabbages, lettuce, strawberries, etc. With all of this in mind, I set out our first potager as follows:

My first decision (after the orange trees) was to build out some arbors on the northern end, along Rue Royal, to plant the vines. Since winter was still officially here, I also decided to plant a couple of bay laurel and pecan trees at proper points in the potager. Henceforth, I will refer to the plan by the cardinal directions of the compass. If you are not in New Orleans, having our grapevines planted along Rue Royale will not mean much to you in your planning. So, leaving about 3 feet between the grape arbors and the first vegetable bed, I planted six rows of maize on the eastern side of the potager, Following the native practice of planting the “three sisters” together, between the corn stalks I planted some Indian beans (“snap” or green beans). These would use the corn stalks to climb upon. Finally, between the rows, I sowed the seeds for some melons and summer squash.

The next bed, or central one, would be devoted to onions, garlic, potatoes, and carrots, surrounded along the edges by lettuces and chard.

The last bed on the northern side contained the planting of radish,shallots, sweet potatoes, spinach.

The main ground of the potager between the northern beds and the kitchen walls themselves, I decided, in honor of our Saviour, to lay out in a cruciform. Making the arms of the cross all equal in length and width, rather than crucifix, the narrow cross (about three feet wide) will be the herb garden. Within the northern pointing arm, I am planting rosemary and tarragon.

Frere Gerard's Potager
Frere Gerard’s Potager

The arm pointing south will hold my parsley and sage. The east facing arm contains the thyme and fennel. Finally the western arm holds my medicinal herbs.

Now all that remains to be planted are the four quarters of the cross. In the NW corner of the NW quarter, I planted a fig tree. The rest of the NW quarter were rows of peas and celery. The NE quarter is being planted with a variety of lettuces and greens. Mache lettuce from home, along with arugula, turnips, beets, and endives. Enclosing the lettuce plot are the artichokes. In the SE quarter I decided to experiment with those native plants called peppers. Finally, another fig tree in the SW corner along with some strawberries, raspberries, and pineapples. As always in a living gardens these spring and summer plants will replaced  as August wanes into September with winter squashes, broccoli, more cabbages, those little tiny cabbages from Brussels, and whatever other fall plantings are allowed by our generous warm climate.

Now as April fades into May and Pentecost approaches, our new potager has taken form. Planted in such a way as to allow one to reach into every bed at least halfway, so as not to disturb the soil. The paths between all the sections of the potager are all 2 to 3 feet wide and will soon be graveled. On a fine day at the end of April, 1725. Pere Raphael and the community joined me in a Blessing ceremony. So now we only await God’s blessing and the magic of His natural creation to do their work, and our kitchen will now be provided with a steady stream of good, fresh food. The sun warms the soil, and the gentle spring rains nourish the ground, and – pardon the pun – the Capuchin friars have, with the grace of Our Lord, set the first permanent roots of their presbytere and potager.


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