Plant a Potager, Eat Like a King

Ron Kushner, for the Shuttle
Different gardeners have different ideas of what constitutes a small kitchen garden: Above, Ron’s backyard potager in early spring; above, the one at the Chateau de Villandry in France.

Potager (“pote-ah-zhay”) is a French word meaning “kitchen garden.” It comes from an old French word for “soup” and, as might be expected, is normally a decorative but functional vegetable garden, close to the kitchen for ease of access. Traditionally, not only vegetables are grown but also herbs, flowers and even fruit trees. There are many different styles, from formal to a relaxed kind of cottage garden.

The original grand potagers can be experienced in France, with the most famous examples at Versailles, Vaux-Le-Vicomte, Chateau de Villandry and Fontainbleau. Today, they come in all shapes and sizes, generally enclosed with a hedge or wall, with every square foot of available space providing beauty along with function.

Originally, these gardens began in monasteries. Intimate spaces surrounded by high walls protected the plants from predators and weather. Size is generally not an issue but the feeling is small with a sense of enclosure and reduced scale. The traditional neat rows with blocks of square and rectangular growing spaces are easily duplicated with the raised beds so popular with organic gardeners. 

Maintenance is almost always done with hand tools, without machinery. Quietness is the order of the day! 

Every gardener must decide on what to create — pure harvest function, beauty and texture or a blend of both.

The construction of walls in most urban and suburban properties is not realistic due to the size of available real estate, zoning restrictions and, of course, cost considerations. However, the feeling of a walled garden can be created with border plantings; trellised kiwis, grapes or other vines; wood, reed or bamboo fencing; and espaliered fruit trees. Vertical supports and trellises can also be used as a type of wall to support climbing vegetables like cucumbers, melons and squash. These vegetables can be intermingled with flowering vines such as candy corn vine, Brazilian firecracker, climbing nasturtiums, morning glories and others. These combinations are stunning and will attract hummingbirds and many pollinators.

A potager can be created around a deck or patio or any other small outdoor space adjacent to the house. Obviously, there must be sun — without at least six hours a day of sunshine, your potager is doomed! (You could adjust for shade-loving plants, which is still possible, but not a subject for this column.)

The potager can be simply a 2-foot- wide space around the deck or patio. It can be planted directly into the soil or in raised beds of wood, brick or stone. In the event that ground is not available, use grow boxes on the deck itself. These could be rectangular “Earth Boxes” or containers of various sizes. Remember, the containers will be overflowing with vegetables, flowers and herbs during the growing season and the structures that hold them will not as visible as when they are empty and not yet planted.

Vary your plantings so the space contains vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruit in any combination and with varying heights throughout the design.

My own deck is hexagonal and I created a total of six 2-foot-wide raised beds along each section, resulting in 48 square feet of planting area — enough to grow in one season: four tomato plants, melons, four pepper plants, zucchini, cucumbers, oregano, parsley, dill, cilantro, marigolds, nasturtiums, alyssum, strawberries and three varieties of lettuce.

Be creative with your planting but realistic about your available space. Sketch out your planting area and plan what is to go where. Keep track of your successes (and failures). Next year, amend your design accordingly.

With minimum effort and maintenance, you should enjoy a season-long harvest, a pretty border and much enjoyable time spent in your own potager!

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