In the Garden:
Easily accessible, well-defined beds and a mixture of vegetables, flowers, and fruits are hallmarks of a potager.
Creating an Idyllic Food Garden
Recent surveys show that interest in growing vegetables is increasing, second only to creating patio areas. This pleases me because I believe that growing at least some of your own food is immensely satisfying. Having been raised in a household where if you didn't grow it, you didn't eat, planting and harvesting vegetables is almost second nature. Thankfully, however, there isn't quite the same pressure on me now to have a large "production" garden, so that has allowed me to indulge in a more decorative style, otherwise known as a potager.
What is a Potager and Why Would You Want One?
Potager (pronounced pot-ah-zhay) is the French word for "kitchen garden," derived from its role in providing the ingredients for potage, or soup. Over the years the term has come to imply a garden area of vegetables, flowers, herbs, and fruits laid out in a symmetrical pattern of paths with formal beds in various geometric shapes. Often the area is surrounded by a fence or hedge, and usually it includes focal points and features such as arches, arbors, seating, topiary, espalier, fountains, and so forth. Falling within that broad definition is everything from the large, intricate kitchen garden at Villandry in France to the most informal of cottage gardens.
Certainly the traditional method of planting row upon row of vegetables has its own beauty, but what's really behind the burgeoning popularity of the potager is the sense of order coupled with a mixture of plants and architectural features. The downside to the potager is that some productivity will be forfeited, and there's greater chance for mistakes. Most often, though, I think you'll find the risks worth the rewards. Plus, it finally puts to rest the argument that food gardens are necessarily an eyesore in the landscape.
It should not come as a surprise that the British provide us with some of the best examples of the potager. It was several trips to England that provided my own inspiration. Besides seeing such well-known ones as Rosemary Verey's Barnsley House, and Hadspen in Somerset, there were wonderful ones in the yards of ordinary people.
Failures and Successes
Using a part of the area that had long been the family food garden, I delineated a space about 30 by 30 feet, enclosed it with a picket fence, created nine mounded, square beds intersected with mulched paths, plus some long, narrow beds around the edges. I then added some inexpensive metal arbors on line with the kitchen door, as well as wooden tuteurs to support pole beans and add height to the garden. The overall look fairly well approximated the hoped-for effect in my imagination. Over a couple of years, I began to get a sense of what worked and what didn't. Unfortunately, two years of assorted crises left little time for garden maintenance, and the area became a weedy, grassy nightmare.
Eventually, I decided that although the overall concept was good, the execution had some flaws. When there was time to redo the area, I created definite hard edges for my beds with red cedar boards. Instead of mulched paths, I went with 5/8-inch pea gravel underlaid with landscape fabric. A cedar arbor, added as a focal point and planted with hardy kiwi, is large enough for a small table and two chairs with a large pottery shard-covered bowl turned into a water feature nearby.
Large, spreading plants, such as watermelons and winter squash, have to be grown in another, more spacious area, but my potager provides me with more than enough harvest of most crops. One of the things I like best about it is the ease of maintenance. Because the beds were amended with lots of compost and are never walked upon, the soil remains loose, friable, and easily worked.
The potager is far from perfect, but this garden area provides me with a great deal of satisfaction. Partly, it's because of the way the evening sun highlights it as I work in the cool of the day; but at the core, I believe it's because of how it combines orderliness with beauty, sustenance, and a place to relax and enjoy being in the garden.
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