How to Design a Potager Garden

Potager gardening is characterized by planting in groups, not rows.

A potager garden with raised beds.
Ideally, a potager garden should be something you're able to see and walk through every day.

David Burton / Getty

If you like to grow squash, beans, and tomatoes in a few neat rows in a plot tucked away in the corner of your backyard, you need to meet Jennifer Bartley. She can help you turn the pleasure of a simple home vegetable garden into sheer joy.

The way to do that is to transform your vegetable garden into a potager (pronounced po-toe-jay), said Bartley, a landscape architect in Grantville, Ohio. "A potager is the French word for kitchen garden. It literally means 'for the soup pot.'"

What Is a Potager Garden?

The French potager, she said, is different from American suburban vegetable gardens in several ways. "The French mix up herbs, edible flowers, non-edible flowers, fruits and vegetables and grow them together in a beautiful way," explained Bartey, author of "Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An American Potager Handbook" (Timber Press, 2006).

With a potager, she emphasized, you plant and replant throughout the season. Whatever is fresh and can be gathered in the season, that's what you are bringing into the house and cooking with. "The other thing is that historically the potagers were right outside the chateau where you could view them or you could just walk outside and have everything close at hand."

What Makes Them Unique?

If it sounds like the French approach to vegetable gardening involves a philosophy about bringing beauty to a food garden rather than seeing that garden as serving only a utilitarian purpose, that's because it does. Bartley calls it an attitude about gardening. "The beauty of the garden and having the garden closer to the house and more seasonal than we are used to makes the potager much more of a connection to the garden and the table than the typical vegetable garden," Bartley enthused. The French, said Bartley, 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.

That's a lot different, she said, from the Midwest where she grew up outside of Columbus, Ohio. "Typically, when we would think of doing a kitchen garden or a vegetable garden, we would think of doing it in the fields around us." In suburban America, she said, homeowners tend to go to the remotest parts of their yards to plant their vegetables. "We're sort of like trying to hide the vegetable garden from view," she said. "We plant things in rows, and we never go there. Then it becomes overgrown with weeds. That’s not exactly a garden!"

The Principles of Potager Gardening

When Bartley designs a potager, she follows a six basic guidelines:

1. Create Some Kind of Enclosure

Bartley's idea of an enclosure is a border that can range from natural plantings to hardscapes. As examples of a natural enclosure, she suggested shrubs such as currants or elderberries or raspberries. These serve a useful as well as a functional purpose because you can eat the fruit the plants produce. Even a boxwood by itself can create a bit of an enclosure, Bartley added. An enclosure could even be what Bartley calls "a borrowed enclosure," which she said in urban areas could be existing walls or even other buildings.

2. Plant the Potager Close to the House

"Make it part of your garden and put it in where you can see it from the house and see things growing." The idea, she said, is to "make the potager part of your everyday life where you are seeing it all of the time, walking by it and enjoying it."

3. Include Blooming Plants

Grow different perennials and annuals among your herbs and vegetables. The flowers will attract beneficial insects to the vegetable plants. You can expand on this idea by planting shrubs and trees that are designed into the potager that will also help attract beneficial insects. As an example, she suggested a well-placed rose shrub that climbs a fence. A bonus to blooming plants is that you can bring cut flowers or flowering branches indoors and put them in vases.

4. Grow in Raised Beds

A section of a potager garden with raised beds
Raised beds help to create a good soil for vegetables and make for natural pathways for the potager garden. Jennifer R. Bartley

Many areas don't have soil that is ideal for gardening, Bartley pointed out. Raised beds that extend just a foot or so off the ground can solve this problem, she said, especially if first you dig down a little bit to improve the drainage of the original soil. Then you can create a well-drained loamy soil that's good for growing vegetables. The raised bed can be a simple mound or you could border the area with wood or stone. Keep the raised beds to a width of no more than four feet so that you can easily reach across them to plant and harvest. Raised beds have another advantage — they create natural pathways.

5. Plan for Pathways

Pathways will keep you from tramping down and compacting the soil where you are growing vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers. Make sure your pathways are wide enough to push a wheelbarrow along them (three feet is a good width, Bartley suggested). Also be sure to mulch pathways to keep them from becoming muddy after storms or from irrigating your garden.

6. Add Beauty for All Seasons

Brantley points out that in her Zone 5 garden, it's too cold to grow edibles or cut flowers during the winter. Because she wants her potager to look good during the cold gray months, she adds ornamental structures. These are easy to feature in any potager and can include hardscapes such as trellises, evergreens such as boxwoods and even the deciduous border.

Finding the Value of a Potager Garden

A backyard potager garden
Being able to look at your window and see the potager garden is one of this garden style's many treats. Jennifer R. Bartley

Bartley traces her interest in potagers to childhood memories of picking elderberries and raspberries in a ravine near her house. She said she got away from that connection to nature in moves around the country, but when she moved back to the Columbus area, she came home in more ways than one. Her interest in things that people could eat and things they could gather from the landscape were rekindled, and she decided to go back to school and study landscape architecture at Ohio State.

"I knew I wanted to study the walled garden," she said. "I thought it would lead me to England, but it led me to France." She was especially impressed with Villandry, one of the most famous French chateaus, and a potager that has been copied many times over. "I was greatly inspired by those gardens that I saw in France, and as part of my thesis I designed some potagers for some chefs here."

In adapting the French approach to vegetable gardens, there's one additional guideline American gardens should embrace, Bartley said, and it's this: keep it simple. "The potager does not have to be this overwhelming thing. It can just be something that you have right outside the back door that's source simple."

After all, she pointed out, the potager should be an oasis, a healing place. "Some of the first potagers in France were in fact monastery gardens, places of respite and healing," she said. "These gardens were like 'the Garden of Eden' and were a bit of paradise on Earth."

Best of all, there could be one right outside your kitchen window.

Photos from "Designing the New Kitchen Garden" © Copyright 2006 by Jennifer R. Bartley used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. Published by Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.