How to Design a Potager Garden

Jeanne Grunert
woman carrying vegetables

You can learn how to design a potager garden and recreate the kitchen gardens of Europe right in your own backyard. Potager gardens offer both a useful mixture of vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers as well as a beautiful garden area. Hailing back to the Baroque and Renaissance era, potager gardens are actually an offshoot of peasant gardens and today serve the same purpose; providing both a pleasing and useful mixture of plants for household needs.

The History of Potager Gardens

The word "potager" in French simply means "kitchen garden" or "vegetable." The potager garden is a garden space set aside to grow a mixture of edibles. Paths lined with brick or soft turf separate the garden beds. Potager gardens typically have narrow beds to make it easy to plant, tend and harvest vegetables. Think of them like beautiful vegetables gardens.

The first potager gardens were humble peasant gardens planted for utilitarian purposes. Nearly every home in olden times had a small space outside the door set aside to grow vegetables and herbs. Simple potager gardens included plenty of herbs, used both medicinally and to season foods. Certain herbs, such as violets and lavender, were grown to use for strewing, or spreading underfoot on the cottage floor. When people walked over the herbs, they crushed them and released the scent, which was useful to mask unpleasant odors. Root crops and other staple foods were also grown in the potager garden along with fruit, which provided a welcome sweet treat during harvest season.

The Rise of the Formal Potager Garden

Although kitchen gardens were common among all social classes in Europe, it wasn't until the Renaissance and Baroque eras that the formal garden design called the Potager Garden appeared in France. During this time, France reigned as the epitome of power throughout Europe. Think of Louis XIV, the "Sun King," the Court of Versaille, and the ornate villas, chateaux and other estates built during this era. A simple peasant kitchen garden would not do. Instead, garden designers created elaborate formal potager gardens with lines similar to the formal pleasure gardens created throughout Europe at this time. Gardens featured geometric patterns with beds set apart by low hedges of lavender, boxwood or flowering violets. The emphasis was equally on form as well as function.

How to Design a Potager Garden

Today, modern potager gardens blend both the formal and the simple, and hearken more to the humble peasant gardens tucked behind thatched-roof cottages. You can learn how to design a potager garden in a few simple steps.

Measure the Area

Potager gardens rely upon balance, symmetry and proportion to offset the often jumbled nature of the plantings. Measure the area you plan to use for your potager garden. Traditional potager gardens are behind the home, tucked out of site, but in the suburbs, modern homesteaders often include potager gardens instead of a front lawn to use sunny spaces more efficiently.

Once you've measured the area, take a piece of graph paper and a pencil. Use a ruler and mark out the area you've measured, counting one square of graph paper as one inch of garden space. A simple potager garden design plan may include a four-square garden. Four square garden beds are included in the corners with pathways leading among them. Traditionally, either a round bed or a square center bed is the focal point of the center of the potager garden. A fruit tree may also be planted near the center.

Be sure to make your pathways wide enough so you can push your wheelbarrow through easily. Like any vegetable garden, potager gardens should be enhanced with liberal applications of compost and manure before and after the growing season to replenish the soil. Healthy soils encourage healthy plants, which in turn produce abundant vegetables for your table.

Plants to Include

Potager gardens are ideal for people who wish to grow heirloom vegetables. The entire design echoes times past; what better way to enhance the design than to include a pleasant mixture of heirloom tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, beans, lettuces, chard, herbs and flowers?

Grow what you love, and don't be afraid to mix beautiful ornamental plants with edibles. Keep taller plants such as tomatoes near the back of the garden beds, and use beautiful edible plants such as kale, cabbage or radicchio to outline the pathways. You can also plant flowering herbs such as calendula and lavender along the pathways. They'll attract bees and other pollinators, provide spots of color, and offer their flowers for medicinal or aromatic preparations. Potager gardens often include vegetables with unusual colors, such as red leaf lettuce or multi-hued Swiss chard "Bright Lights" to add color and beauty. Experiment with your favorites and create color schemes in each bed.

Many potager gardens include fruit, and if you do use the four square with round center plan, a strawberry pyramid is ideal in the center space. You can purchase kits to build pyramid-shaped, multi-layered strawberry beds. Another idea instead of a round bed in the center of the potager garden layout is to include a dwarf fruit trees, such as a pear or apple tree. Since many fruit trees require another pollinator nearby, you may also want to plant fruit trees in each of the four corners of the garden or at least in one or two other locations to ensure pollination and a good fruit crop.

More Potager Garden Ideas

It's always helpful to look at photographs of beautiful gardens for inspiration and design ideas. Some places to view photos of potager gardens include:

How to Design a Potager Garden