Tranquillity is a row of fat lettuces

Anna Pavord finds peace among the vegetables of an old-fashioned potager in Northamptonshire

Don't listen to anyone who tells you that it's not worth growing garden peas because the frozen ones are so good. They aren't. They are just less bad than frozen runner beans or frozen Brussels sprouts. I have just picked the first peas of the season, a basketful of `Feltham First', the pods squeaking with succulence. When you buy frozen, you miss out, too, on the pleasures of podding. If yoga makes you feel like a prat, try shelling peas. It's just as soothing and twice as useful.

But vegetable gardens generally have that calming effect on me. Tranquillity is a row of fat lettuces like cabbage roses, with fernish fronds of carrot waving between them. Peace is the fat, flat spread of a courgette plant, shading the dampness of the earth around it with its huge leaves. Harmony is a fountain of black Italian kale, shooting up between red-stemmed chard.

Consequently, I was so chilled out in the kitchen garden at the Old Rectory, Sudborough, Northamptonshire, that I practically stopped moving altogether. Only some gentle coughs from a posse of old ladies penned up on the narrow path behind me got me on the move again. The object of contemplation was a small, well trained `Victoria' plum in a triangular bed, with a scarf of flowering thyme wrapped loosely round the base of its trunk. Purple leaved-beetroot, crisp, pale, snail-free `Iceberg' lettuces, soft bronze butterhead lettuces and frothy carrot tops filled in the corners.

The centre-piece of the neighbouring bed was a lemon tree, growing in a wooden tub that had been filled with tightly curled parsley and purple- leaved basil. Round the tub were purple-leaved plants of the Brussels sprout `Rubine' (no caterpillars), curly kale and celery. Next door, in a square bed edged with box, was a tall wigwam of sweet peas, guarded by an outer ring of purple orach and wispy green fennel.

What do you do about snails, I asked Annie Huntingdon, who started work on this vegetable garden about 10 years ago. "This," she said, plucking one from its quiet reverie under a `Ragged Jack' kale and crunching it with her foot on the path. It's a swift death. And it softens the colour of the red brick, which is all to the good.

The vegetables are laid out potager-fashion, in geometric beds edged with box and germander. The central path, bordered with lavender, passes under a big metal arbour, which has a `Felicite Perpetue' rose planted against each of its four supports. More height comes from picture-book standard roses, such as David Austin's soft pink `Heritage', and `Francois Juranville' - a rambler by nature. It makes a big, generous-headed standard, with salmon-pink flowers set against coppery foliage. This is a good season for it. If it's dry, it gets badly mildewed.

One of the huge advantages of growing vegetables potager-style is that you have only a small area to deal with at a time. When the Huntingtons first took over at the Old Rectory, the vegetable garden was one big mud- bath. Dividing the area up made it seem a less frightening proposition. By cleverly fudging the lines, they turned an awkward shape into a pattern that simulates symmetry, four sets of four beds, with the rose arbour at the centre.

Enclosure adds to the sense of serenity. The Huntingtons had one brick wall to help them on their way. The other screens are their own creations: espalier pears carefully tied to parallel wires, a long arbour made by the local blacksmith and covered in vine, actinidia and claret-coloured rambler roses, a high hedge separating the potager from the rest of the garden (comfortable mixed borders in fashionable, sharp yellow and blue, a round rose garden, a pond, a wilderness).

Within the larger surrounds, the potager then further protects itself within a series of smaller boundaries, with little box and germander hedges round the individual plots. The box is drawn up into low, fat pyramids at the corners. Within these frames, you can start painting with your plants. Mrs Huntington gets seed from France and America, as well as England. This year, for the first time, she is growing lima beans from the States.

The most difficult trick is to keep a sequence of plants coming on to fill in the gaps left by the ones you eat. The thought that you might grow vegetables only for show is too degenerate to contemplate. For this you need a greenhouse or a bit of side ground (the Huntingtons have both) where you can keep a supply of different young lettuce plants, oriental greens such as mizuna, and radicchio coming on. You can also sow carrot seed in a length of guttering, then slide the whole line into place when the seeds have sprouted. Carrots are slow to germinate and this trick cuts down the time you look at bare ground in the potager itself.

This particular potager worked well because the combinations of vegetables in the beds were bold and simple: sweet corn underplanted with a grid of lettuce, yellow-flowered courgettes guarded by four sentinel tomatoes set in the corners of the beds, the fabulous black Italian kale interplanted with splendid ragged-leaved kales, some with white midribs, some with purple.

The Huntingtons had also given thought to the way the pattern on the flat was broken up by verticals, sometimes a wigwam of runner beans surrounded by a stockade of shallots, sometimes by deep terracotta pots planted with standard vines, which were especially pretty. Sweet peas, such as `Mrs Bernard Jones' and `Jilly', smothered wigwams, planted round with marjoram. Sweet peas also covered the hazel arches thrown over the path between the corner of one bed and another. Serenity. Catch it here.

The garden at The Old Rectory, Sudborough, Northamptonshire (01832 733247) is open tomorrow (2pm-6pm), also Sundays 6 and 13 July and 17 August (2pm- 6pm) Admission pounds 2.50. The Huntingtons welcome visitors at other times, but only by appointment. For a taste of America, send for Johnny's seed catalogue, Foss Hill Road, Albion, Maine, US 04910-9731, (001 207 437 4301).

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