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Swiss watching

Lausanne offers what most Scottish gardeners have sadly lacked this year – burgeoning, healthy plants.

All over the city, I kept finding unexpected gems round the corner. Our son, Eric, and his partner, Tania, had recently moved into a garden flat and, a keen cook, he quickly filled the patio with an impressive selection of herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. He had also confirmed with the owners that he could dig up the lawn to plant courgettes, squashes and French beans, so he was all set to lay on delicious meals, straight from the garden. Given the cost of everything in Switzerland, including, it seems, the right to breathe fresh air, this was very worthwhile.

Shortly after arriving, we visited the botanic gardens and enjoyed an interesting and well presented exhibition illustrating the different strategies plants use to disseminate their seed. As we approached the gardens, we came upon the Jarden familiaux, one of the best laid-out allotments I've seen. Not only that, but I found it refreshing to see no elaborate arrangements for security: theft or vandalism can't be a major problem.

Lausanne is built into the side of a hill, so, like everywhere else in the city, the plots were terraced, consisting of lots of narrow beds linked together by permanent paths and steps. The plotholders had chests for storing tools, but no sheds, so water was provided by standpipes, rather than the more environmentally-friendly water butts we're used to.

One other tiny criticism was the dearth of good composting arrangements. Discreetly hidden away in some, but not all, plots, cylindrical wire units served as composters. Although the wonderful temperature – it was 30C when we were there – ensured speedy composting, the material would inevitably dry out and nutrients would be washed away in the winter. At least there's something we do better in Scotland.

More importantly, these gardens looked good and were very well laid out. There was little sign of the dull lines of worthy crops. The potager style of planting prevailed: plant varieties were tastefully mixed, interspersed with flowers that were often grown for cutting. This type of gardening confuses pests and encourages beneficial insects and pollinators.

There was another delightful contrast to our plots. Instead of sheds providing shelter against the elements, pergolas and arbours offered shade from the blazing sun and made ideal supports for grape vines, kiwis and some roses. It can't be bad sitting back and enjoying a sun-ripened grape or two.

Grape vines were sometimes trained along wires and were interspersed with familiar and not so familiar fruits: currants, rhubarb – believe it or not, strawberries, nectarines and figs. I was surprised to see so many raspberries thriving in this hot sunny environment.

Much more predictable were tomatoes of all shapes and sizes. Few of us can grow more than bush tomatoes outside in Scotland, and vast, juicy beefsteak tomatoes are the stuff of fantasy. In the Lausanne allotments, every plot was crammed with these tasty fruits and there was no sign of blight damage.

Another pleasant surprise greeted us as we were about to board a ferry for a trip up Lake Geneva to the impressively intact medieval castle of Chillon. As part of the 2012 Taste of Lausanne, the local authority had transformed the lake waterfront. No gaudy bedding plants here. Manor Foods, a large Lausanne department store, had sponsored a checkerboard display of 20 plots, each carefully and sympathetically planted with fruit, veg and aromatic herbs.

As this planting in the Jardin des associations clearly showed, edibles can be every bit as attractive as ornamentals. Each bed was colour-co-ordinated. Medium-sized virtually black-leaved leafed Cavolo nero kale with long, narrow, frizzy edges contrasted with lower-growing broad, pale green cabbage leaves. Meanwhile, this was complemented by red Rubine sprouts and reddish cabbages, with the perimeter defined by orange-scented thyme.

This low-growing planting contrasted well with its neighbour. A tall central frame supported scarlet flowering runner beans with nearby aubergines that were growing well outdoors. Some herbs demonstrated the subtlety you find in the shape and texture of similarly coloured leaves of different species. The narrow-leaved green and dappled creams of painted sage sat well with the slightly broader leaves and the cream edgings of pineapple mint. Meanwhile the pale lemon flowers of African marigolds blended in nicely, while also acting as a magnet for insects.

Lush chard leaves demonstrated their versatility in differently coloured bed designs. The traditional white stemmed leaves were frequently used, but the yellow-stemmed form featured in another bed alongside nasturtiums, celery, basil, calenduala and tagetes. Yet again, red-stemmed chard neighboured tall, feathery fennel, capsicums, Moroccan mint, painted sage and orange tagetes.

I was pleased to see that throughout the display, the planting was organised to attract beneficial and pollinating insects. The organisers insisted on using progressive, organic methods in this refreshingly unusual promotion of the beauties of veg.

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