I’m reading a really cute book called “French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France” — by American author Richard Goodman who enthusiastically grows a vegetable garden in rural France – and I just can’t help but dream of gardening there and creating my own French-inspired potager garden. You may ask, what is a potager garden? And how is if different from other gardens? “Potager” is the word the French use for kitchen garden and it means ‘the soup pot.’
Potager gardens have been used by the French for hundred of years, and this romantic style of gardening differs dramatically from the traditional vegetable gardening. French kitchen gardens are purposefully pretty, colorful and incorporate fruit and flowers. Ideally, a potager is located just outside your home and is easily accessible, so collecting your fresh produce for cooking is quick and efficient. (Not the case for Richard, who travels beyond his French village by car and forges a river just to get to his garden!)
A Cottage Garden with Veggies
Potager gardening blends both beauty and functionality. Planting vegetables, fruits and herbs alongside edible and non-edible flowers creates a space that is both lovely to look at and practical. The various plants in a French kitchen are grown in small groupings, making the beds look more attractive and lush than those in a traditional vegetable garden – which are often seen with vegetables planted in straight rows and can look barren after a harvest.
A potager garden is always interesting to look at as plants and the veggies, herbs, fruits and flowers intermingle in the space. Often visitors don’t even realize that a bountiful harvest is planted right in front of them. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden describes a potager as “comparable to that of the English cottage garden, except that it is centered on vegetables rather than flowers.” It’s a kitchen garden that’s attractive and perfect for small outdoor spaces.
So how do you get started creating your own potager garden?
Pick a convenient and sunny location.
French kitchen gardens are typically close to the home so perhaps an area near the kitchen or the BBQ area would be an ideal spot for your potager garden. You want it to be somewhere easily accessible so that you will use your produce as it ripens. Also make sure your garden location gets lots of sun, as veggies almost always need lots of it.
Design and shape your beds.
Creating a boundary around your garden can help to define your kitchen garden and add charm. Use any available space to build a raised garden bed or two by the patio or designate a space near house. If your potager garden is a new space, you can simply use plantings such as Boxwood to outline your garden. Create borders from natural materials like woven willow, or rustic hardscape materials like brick or stone. Then add paths to use so you can easily water your plants and reach them when they’re reading to pick.
Put your green thumb to work.
Making your space beautiful is the fun part. Deciding what to plant and where to plant it will become a work in progress. Make sure to mix it up, so vegetables, herbs and flowers grow together. Research what plants work well together to help attract bees and other helpful pollinators to your garden. This will help to create a balanced ecosystem that will allow your garden to thrive and produce better blooms.
Add lovely focal features.
Every pretty potager garden needs a focal feature or two to add character. A focal feature in a potager garden can be as simple as an urn of leafy greens to a tower of beans or peas, to a brightly blooming rose bush of cheerful cosmos to help attract pollinators to your garden. Add vertical accents made of natural materials, like a few charming willow obelisks.
Be creative with your design.
Sometimes sketching out your design first can help you see the overall view of your garden before you begin planting any seeds. When starting out, think about keeping your design layout simple but remember you are not restricted to a square box. Be free to explore arranging your shapes just include pathways to allow access to all parts of the garden. When potager gardening, think about planting your plants in groups instead of rows. Use fruit bearing plants as edging plants and herbs as accents. Having a design or sketch will also serve as a good record of how and what your planted from year to year.
A potager garden may be a new concept to you, but it has been used for centuries by many. Once you develop your new garden, I think you’ll find that it offers but a functional and beautiful space that you can enjoy all season long … and may remind you of France – even if you never had a garden there!