There are countless different types of gardens and garden designs to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start. If you love to cook with fresh, seasonal ingredients, then a French-inspired potager garden might be the perfect choice for you. Read on to learn more about this beautiful kitchen garden style, and how to create your own.
What is a Potager Garden?
“Potager” refers to a French garden style that translates to “for the soup pot”. This is a historic garden type that has been used since the 15th century. If you’re a history buff who likes to cook and garden, then the potager is a dream come true.
The purpose of the potager garden is to eat year-round (or as close to year-round as possible) from your garden and have it be a place of beauty and enjoyment for all the senses. Think of it as an ornamental vegetable garden.
Plants for this garden are chosen for productivity, and generally with the plan to eat them fresh. They’re not set out in traditional rows, with one variety lumped all together. Instead, the garden is put together in a way that looks pretty while still providing ample food for the household.
Plan Before You Plant
Before you start getting your hands dirty, it’s important to make a plan for your potager garden. There are several aspects to consider in your plan.
Most vegetable, flower, herb, and fruit plants need ample sunlight, so choose a sunny spot to create your garden. Potager gardens make good use of space, so it doesn’t have to be an overly large design.
Shape and Structure
Decide what shape you want your garden to be. Potager gardens are known for their beauty and their productivity. Most potager gardens use geometrical shapes in the design—triangles, circles, squares, semicircles create a feast for the eyes.
They also use space-saving focal points like trellises, fences, and arbors to grow climbing vine vegetables, fruits and flowers. Pole beans (haricots verts), grapevines, and climbing roses are just a few options you can incorporate into your design.
Find out your region’s agricultural growing zone. This is vital information to help you determine the plant varieties that will thrive in your garden.
What kind of soil do you have? Get the soil in your garden area tested so you know whether you need to augment it for optimum growth potential. It’s always a good idea to mix some compost into the soil as well, so that the plants you’re growing for your nutritious meals also get the nutrients they need to grow.
Potager Garden Principles
There are several main principles needed to create the perfect potager garden.
The potager garden generally has boundaries. These can be natural, like using sunflowers, dwarf fruit trees, boxwood or berry bushes. Alternatively, the boundaries can use already existing walls or fences. You can also use fences to grow vining plants to save more space and add appeal.
Close to the House and the Kitchen
This garden’s main tenet is to provide vegetables for the soup pot within easy reach of the kitchen. If your garden is far from your kitchen or home, it’s not as convenient to step out from the house and gather provisions for the meal you’re preparing. Therefore, it’s ideal to plant the garden as close to the kitchen as possible.
Create a Focal Point
Since potager gardens are all about beauty, most of them have a focal point. There are many wonderful options to choose from.
Set out a bird bath or decorative garden pedestal as a pollinator pit stop, laden with overripe fruit or salted sponges. This is a great way to create beauty while also providing food, water, and a resting spot for pollinators—the gardener’s greatest helpers.
Arbors or archways of grapes, trailing roses, jasmine, or honeysuckle add beautiful scents to your garden, and again, the pollinators love them. Or, place an old wooden ladder in the middle and grow pumpkins and ornamental gourds on them, placing the fruits on the ladder steps to support them.
A beautiful dogwood or hawthorn tree can provide a delightful focal point as well as a bit of shade. Perhaps you could set a space for some tables and chairs beneath the tree to enjoy dining al fresco right in the garden. If you need a little more parsley on your potato salad, it could be just an arm’s reach away.
A quaint garden shed at the end of the garden creates a cozy feeling. You can store your tools in there, or use it as an artist’s studio or home office space if you are so inclined.
Trellises exploding with edible plants are graceful focal points as well. They promote a feeling of abundance, and are great space savers.
Beauty and functionality are in harmony with a traditional potager garden style. Play with plants’ colors and textures, paying attention to add a variety of fruits, flowers, and foliage. This will help you create an elegant space that provides something for all the senses. Plant ornamental or perennial plants that add texture (like globe thistles), or color (like lobelia) with edibles that are also brightly colored.
Plant blues and purples near the front of the garden beds. Reds, oranges and yellows are easier to spot, and can therefore be placed near the back.
Decorative statues are also common—and welcome—in potager gardens. Fountains, birdbaths, sculptures, and sundials are just a few options you could incorporate. If you’ve chosen a particular theme for your garden (French, Italian, Medieval, etc.), then choose statuary that will complement that aesthetic.
Raised Garden Beds
Raised beds are an essential part of a potager garden. These make it easier to plant and harvest; they also create enough growing space for the plants themselves. When planning your garden beds, geometrical shapes are your guides; mix them up. The general rule of thumb is to create symmetry and make sure your beds are no more than 4 feet wide, so you can easily reach from one side to the next.
Pathways are not only visually appealing, but are functional too—just like the ideal potager garden. It’s suggested that you make pathways wide enough to fit a wheelbarrow through (3-4 feet wide) and pave them in some way, either with mulch, small pebble gravel, or bricks to make those paths more permanent.
Don’t Plant the Same Species Together
Not only does this add variety and eye appeal, but it can actually save your harvest from harmful insects. If you plant all your cabbages together and get a cabbage worm infestation, then it’s likely all your plants will be affected. However, if they are planted in different places around the garden, some might be saved.
Let Some Go To Flower
Garlic and onions have beautiful, unusual-looking flowers when they go to seed. You might want to allow some of them to do so, along with herbs like fennel or dill.
Rotate the Beds Annually
In all gardens, it’s recommended that you rotate the garden beds every year. This is actually pretty easy within the principles of the potager garden, which is to harvest fresh, and either replant or rotate crops depending on the season and growing condition. It also gives you the opportunity to redesign your garden plantings every year, which is fun!
How to Choose The Ideal Plants
So now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the principles of the potager garden, you might ask yourself which are the best plants to choose. This will be different for every gardener. The most important thing is to create a list of what you and your family like to eat, which herbs you use regularly in your cooking( or in your home apothecary), and which flowers you love to look at.
It is important that you enjoy your garden, so grow what you love. Just keep your planting zone in mind, as well as what is available locally.
Since the potager is a historic garden type it is a nice idea to use heirloom plants as a way to nod to the past, and at the same time keep these varieties available for the future generations. My friend once gave me some heirloom beans that are said to have been carried on the Trail of Tears, and I have always found a space for them in my garden.
I also like to plant varieties that my grandfather—who was an avid gardener—cultivated. It’s a nice way to remember those who came before us and honor those who, as in my case, taught us how to garden.
Why go for plain old green cabbage when you could try brightly colored purple, or textured savoy? Or try some heirloom tomato varieties that are scrumptious and come in colors like white, pink and purple.
Do you like eggplant? There are white varieties as well as purple and black, ranging in size from a few inches in diameter, to enormous. Rainbow chard, heirloom carrots, purple potatoes… there are so many varieties to choose from. You can add color in every corner of your garden by incorporating some lesser-known heirloom varieties in amongst favorite staples.
Companion planting is the practice of planting a variety of crops in close proximity to achieve, pest control, pollination, habitat for beneficial creatures, maximum use of space, and otherwise increase crop productivity. Herbs like dill, fennel, mint, and basil, as well as flowers such as borage, comfrey, calendula, and lavender all serve specific purposes, and have countless uses in your home.
Check out our guide to companion planting to help you choose the herbs and flowers that are best suited to your garden dreams.
This guide should get you well on your way to planning and planting your very own potager garden so you can enjoy the bounty it provides. Happy gardening!