Literally translated from French to English it means 'Vegetable Garden'. What it means throughout history however is more along the lines of a functional and beautiful 'Kitchen Garden' where one would find all the necessary ingredients for the potage -- for the soup pot. They were not just plain rows of tomato cages, however, they were symmetrical formal gardens, laid out in geometric shapes, with edible herbs, flowers, fruits and vegetables, mixed in with ornamental flowers and plants.
The history of these wonderful gardens goes back many years, they were common in France about 1000 years ago, when growing the families food and medicine was more common. At the Palace of Versailles in France, the Potager du roi (The King's Kitchen Garden - King Louis XIV), came in existence in the late 1600s. Another wonderful example of an amazing, elaborate traditional decorative vegetable potager garden is at the Chateau de Villandry, where the original potager was created during the Renaissance.
"The kitchen garden satisfies both requirements, a thing of beauty and a joy for dinner."
What Would You Find in a Potager Garden?
Historically, potager gardens would be located right next to the house, for ease of harvesting ingredients for that nights dinner. They were also very ornamental, symmetrical and artistic, a thing of beauty, not the typical straight rowed vegetable gardens that are so common now, think beds laid out in geometric shapes with a mix of textures and colors.
A Potager Garden would include vegetables, medicinal and culinary herbs, edible and ornamental flowers and fruits, all planted in a way that is both functional and beautiful.
"The French always had a garden close to the house, the French always made the connection. It no longer became fashionable to see the kitchen garden from the estate, they hid it. It's had disastrous culinary results (talking about the English landscape movement)."
-Jennifer Bartley, interview by Hobby Farms
A Potager Garden and a Separate Vegetable Garden?
I don't see a Potager Garden in the same formal way it was done in France during the Renaissance, while I still aim for beauty and a mix of vegetables, herbs and flowers, I lean more toward a Cottage Garden style of Potager, I'll show you my work in progress a little later below.
I love the idea of a functional and beautiful garden that's close to the house and kitchen. It makes dinner after a long day at work easy to harvest for. While we also have a rather large (90' x 30') traditional, or utilitarian, rowed vegetable market garden, I get great joy and food out of our closer to the house Potager. I also usually choose to put the most colorful vegetables we grow in the Potager.
What's the Goal of a Potager Garden?
Beauty and functionality! Whatever you want it to be!
The goal of a Potager is to have a mixed garden, mostly filled with edible flowers, herbs and veggies, but have it be aesthetically pleasing to the eye, usually arranged in different geometric shapes, rather than the typical straight rows of the more common backyard vegetable garden.
This is a lovely example of a mix of plants and geometric shapes providing a more aesthetically pleasing garden, rather than rows of just vegetables.
How to Design Your Potager
There are no rules, you're designing a functional, beautiful garden with a mix of vegetables, flowers and herbs. Some tips and ideas from the 3-year evolution of our own Potager (see farther below for ours).
1. Pick your spot
Think about how the sun hits your property: it's path, obstructions and shade casted by your home (a Potager is typically located closer to the house, or in front of it!). Don't shy away from a spot you love because some of it may be shaded though, there are plenty of beautiful edible and ornamental plants that do well in partial shade.
Plants that do well in partial shade:Vegetables: Root Vegetables (think about the bulls blood beet, it's leaves are a wonderful red even in low-light conditions and are edible as baby size and mature size and onion plant flowers are gorgeous). Swiss Chard (they come in a variety of lovely colors), Lettuce (there are green, red and spotted varieties), Garlic (I love the look of garlic, especially in the Potager if you leave the "scape" or flower stalk to open (hardneck varieties produce this 'false' flower), Kale (there's a lovely red variety, as well as many different leaf shapes available), Sorrel (there is a great variety with green leaves that have red veins that look amazing in clumps together in the garden), Cabbage, Spinach. Herbs: mint, chervil, cilantro/coriander, parsley, chamomile, dill, lemon balm, comfry. Flowers/Greenery: lambs ear, candytuft, coral bells, foxglove, begonia, sweet alyssum, salvia, impatiens, hosta, ferns. (this is just a partial list)
The lovely flowers of the garlic plant (left) and onion plant (right)
2. Think about your needs and personal style.
The Potager exists in many different variations, from ultra-formal (that will require more time to get established and possibly more maintenance), to a mix of informal with formal lines (think about the raised beds above, which were placed in a geometric pattern, making the garden more aesthetically pleasing), and then peek below at my 'cottage garden' inspired Potager that uses curved raised-in-place soil as the planting beds.
3. What does your family eat, what flowers do you like and which herbs are you familiar enough with that you use now or will try using?
There's no point installing a new garden then filling it with things you won't eat or use, or flowers you don't like. The same advice can be given for a standard vegetable garden, write down what you eat now and don't grow anything you won't eat. The exception I see with the Potager, is growing things that you like how they look, or work well with your design, even if you don't consume them they bring you value in being pleasing to your eye.
4. Functional walkways.
The easiest way to mimic a classic Potager garden look is to pick a central shape and place your beds around it, with stone/gravel/dirt pathways in between. You could make one central circular garden bed then place square raised beds in a pattern around it. One thing I'll recommend here (that I've neglected and regretted in many of my gardens), it to ensure you make the pathways wide enough to be comfortable not just when walking but also when tending to the garden.
5. Have fun and mix in beautiful plants with those that are typically not as eye-appealing.
This is where the Potager wins my heart over my traditional 'sea-of-green' straight rows of my bigger vegetable garden. In the Potager the point is to mix in 'prettier' plants with ones that are a little more 'boring'. Like surrounding your onions or garlic with flowers or interesting lettuce plants. Mixing colorful zinnias with some of my herbs is a favorite of mine, like dill, which gets as tall as the zinnias but doesn't send out its pretty seed head until later in the season.
Our potager has been evolving over the past 3 years. It started as a bare plot right off our back door:
I wanted to leave that tree, for some shade and because the previous owner of our home planted it as a seedling over 30 years ago! What we decided on was a big circle with curved beds:
What you're seeing here is our attempt to mitigate the crazy weeds up here, we formed the raised beds then put cardboard down followed by wood chips.
Since that initial install, the beds have remained the same, and we've been constantly battling weeds, but what I plant in there has evolved into a nice mix of perennial vegetables (rhubarb and perennial green onions), fruit (blueberry and honey berry), and perennial and re-seeding flowers (calendula and lavender). And each spring I add in annual herbs and flowers and the most colorful vegetables we grow (dwarf tomatoes, purple kale, bulls blood beets, purple and green cabbage, and unusual cucumber varieties that we don't grow in bulk in the main vegetable garden, and so on).
This is the first year we had a go at the Potager garden, as you can see it had ALOT of weeds that year. In the walkways we placed grass clippings to help suppress some of them and by the tree is a lot of lettuce. This was taken early in the season, but you can tell it was still a pretty significant work in progress! And still is!
Here's another shot of the grass clippings we had hope would win our battle with the weeds, they didn't by the way. What you can see here is the fence we've been adding to each year, its just wood stakes and small branches from brush we've cut down around the property.
One of the parts I'm most proud of is my lavender hedge! We're in zone 4B here and typically aren't supposed to be able to grow lavender, but mine's been going strong for 3 years now: