The French potager garden is aesthetically beautiful, fragrant, and nurturing. It’s the chef’s dream and the homemaker’s delight. It’s a far cry from the formal French gardens of Versailles. The French potager garden blends beauty and utility in a gardening tradition that goes back to medieval times in rural France when the garden was the true center of the home and the bounty of the hearth.
“Potager” is loosely translated to “soup pot,” and that’s the spirit of the potager garden. Providing a concerted blend of vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers, these gardens integrate all plants together in harmony, so you end up with flowers to stave off pests (and to pretty-up the kitchen table!), fruits for breakfasts, and vegetables and herbs to go in that soup pot. At its heart, the potager garden is a kitchen garden, supplying all foods and herbs for family meals and sharing a deep connection with the kitchen.
Unlike many gardens of America, the French potager garden is not just a place to plant in the far reaches of the yard, where we tend to forget about them and let them rot and turn to weeds. The potager garden is a place to spend time, to enjoy beauty, and to fill our kitchen tables.
Jennifer Bartley, author of “Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An American Potager Handbook,” says “The French see a vegetable garden much as an artist views a canvas—a way to paint a landscape with the colors and textures of plants, whether you eat them or not.” Not only is the potager garden a family’s source of food, but it is a source of aesthetic beauty, expression, and relaxation.
There are elements that make a garden “potager” in style. First of all, the garden must exist in some kind of enclosure. Either a natural or hardscaped barrier is essential to protect the garden from pests.
Second, the potager garden features pathways and raised beds. Pathways are important so that you don’t trample and impact the soil near your plants. Instead, create pathways in the garden that are wide enough for a wheelbarrow. Mulch the pathways so they don’t get muddy after rain storms. Raised beds are another essential element of the potager garden, as they allow for better control of soil content, are easier to weed, and save you from back pain resulting from having to repeatedly bend over. Raised beds are not planters. They have open bottoms, which allow roots to grow further into the ground for more nutrients.
A potager garden is the heart of the kitchen, a boon to health, and a beautiful, expressive place to spend time outdoors. Some potager gardens have dining areas, and others have decorative accents, such as fountains and statues that add an artistic and personal touch. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, follow the potager garden tradition of planting all throughout the year, and enjoy a cooler-season crop. This way, your garden will be beautiful and bountiful all year.
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