Kitchen Gardening: Planting a Potager

Kitchen gardening for maximum food in minimum space

The flourishing summer garden

Kitchen gardening for maximum food in minimum space

The potager originated in 12th-century France, the word “potager” coming from the French word for soup-potage. Potagers were often found in monasteries, tended to by the monks. They were initially designed as a small formal vegetable plot, the objective being to grow the maximum amount of food in the minimum amount of space without losing the esthetic quality of the garden.

The potager was usually based on a square design, divided into beds of differing shapes to accommodate a variety of crops. Attractive obelisks were often used as features, providing support for climbing vegetables such as pole beans. The periphery of the garden was edged with a diversity of plants. Mixing flowers, vegetables and herbs together created a sense of abundance and provided esthetic pleasure, in addition to attracting wildlife to the garden for pollination and pest control.

On grander estates the potager would be a larger affair, most likely inside a walled kitchen garden. A crew of gardeners would be employed to keep seasonal fruits and vegetables supplying the domestic needs of the estate. The potager was considered an important part of the household – the grander the garden the better the family lived, and the more impressed visitors were!

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Potagers were filled with crops of early vegetables, followed by later plantings. Spring crops of potatoes, peas and lettuce were followed by summer plantings of kale or cabbage. Onions, chicories and chard happily co-existed alongside teepees of beans, perhaps even intertwined with sweet peas.

After a trip to the United Kingdom visiting different heritage gardens, I returned and redesigned my food garden as a potager, taking into account all the principles outlined above. The raised beds and pathways were levelled and the garden was divided into four equal squares. The soil was amended over the winter with manure, leaves, seaweed and compost, and in spring we began by planting an early crop of peas, along two 6-m (20-feet) rows of bamboo teepees.

Potager at Hadspen House, Somerset
Potager at Hadspen House, in Castle Cary, Somerset, England

My potager is laid out as a 15-by-15 m (50-by-50 ft.) square, bordered by a bed of perennial vegetables such as asparagus, seakale, artichokes and onions. Culinary and medicinal herbs grow in a border along one side of the garden, and flowering plants spill out from a border parallel to a “berry walk” of raspberries, loganberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries and strawberries. I planted a repeat-blooming fragrant pink Rosa rugosa ‘Roseraie de l’Hay’ in the middle of my garden, but an obelisk of beans or a birdbath underplanted with herbs would fill the centre nicely as well.

There is access into the garden on all four sides along pathways cribbed with wood and lined with 3/8-inch screenings that compact down to create a smooth surface that can be raked. Pathways can also be made from bricks and paving stones – or anything, really – just as long as they are wide enough to allow wheelbarrows to maneuver easily.

Layout of kitchen garden
Kitchen-garden layout at the start of the season

In summer the garden overflows with salad greens, tomatoes, vegetables, herbs, fruits and berries. Just as potagers of old, modern-day gardens do not have to lack appeal. By sowing crops in straight rows, you can harvest more in less space and keep track of growth better. By varying colours and textures you can create spectacular effects.

Lettuces can be closely planted and harvested as “cut-and-come-again” greens from spring through summer. Eventually they go to seed and masses of colourful seedheads take over. Lettuces are self-pollinating, so there is little need to worry about isolation distances. I grow an unrelated food plant between rows just to make sure they don’t accidentally cross-pollinate.

My belief is that we cannot be food secure without saving food seeds, so being a seed-saving gardener I only grow open-pollinated varieties. I select the healthiest plants which are “true to type” and let them go to seed. In the process I not only save a fortune, but also help protect plant genetic diversity, keeping the food crops our ancestors worked hard to preserve alive for future generations.