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Going potty

27 July 2022
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The humble potager is a popular, if not fully understood, way of designing a decorative home garden. Words Diana Noonan

‘Potager’ is a word that tends to be brandished about with gay abandon and very little true understanding of what it actually means. It is often the horticultural style that gardeners default to when they don’t really know what else to call their creations, or are simply not sure where to begin with their blank canvas. But ‘potager’ is an accepted – and well-defined – style of growing, and it comes with its own long history and set of gardening rules. Above all, it is an attractive, achievable and exciting way to manage a home garden.


‘Potager’ (or ‘jardin potager’ to give it its full title) is a French term that translates to ‘kitchen garden’ or ‘garden of vegetables suitable for the pot’. It dates back to the Middle Ages when the monks of French monasteries were growing the sorts of vegetables that would supply the ingredients for their staple potage (thick soup). These early gardeners were not people with a great deal of time on their hands, so potagers were more gardens of necessity rather than ornamental in style. ‘Necessity’ in the Middle
Ages, however, was also about medicine and alcohol, so potagers tended to comprise medicinal plants and those that were suited to fermenting. They also sported flowers that might be seen to ward off pests.

Religious design

Monastic potagers were traditionally a group of four gardens that were laid out in the shape of a cross and often sheltered by high monastic walls. Of course, nothing remains the same where style is concerned, so the concept of the ‘simple potager’ was adapted as time went on.

Grand scale

In 16th-century France, the potager grew in stature and popularity until it eventually found itself a feature of very grand renaissance and baroque gardens. One of the best examples can still be seen today in the kitchen garden at Château de Villandry, close to the Loire River. It is here that the potager was so highly regarded that it was actually reflected in the décor of what has come to be known as the ‘potager bedroom’. Floral fabric adorns bedclothes and curtains, and the room’s parquet flooring mimics the geometric layout of the garden.

The ‘king’s vegetable garden’, just a few steps from the Palace of Versailles, took the humble potager to even greater heights. Built on what was once a swamp, it boasted deep beds filled with manure from the French king’s stables, and an underground heating system. Separated into rooms by walls, and incorporating stone and terracing that trapped warmth, strawberries and lettuces were available in the depths of winter. The garden is still in working order today...

As the potager style moved into other areas of Europe, it was adapted to suit different tastes. In England, it is reflected in the walled gardens of grand houses, where a more informal take on the potager allows cascading perennials to ruffle rigid edges.

Why go potty?

In many ways, a potager is the perfect domestic garden. It allows for the production of fruit, vegetables and herbs, but also flowers for pleasure and picking. Well defined, it brings satisfying shape to a section but is not so complicated that it requires a landscape gardener to design it. While it can be as productive as desired, it will also muddle along without becoming unruly thanks to its defined borders and established paths. Anything you may like to add by way of infrastructure, especially if it is rustic – a climbing frame, an obelisk or a woven willow hurdle – will only add to its appeal. But, to begin with, the essentials must be in place.

However you decide to create your own potager, be prepared to work at it, because although this garden style is relatively low maintenance once established, it will not completely look after itself. It does, however, have the power to bring beauty and food to a garden of any size. And what’s even better is that it will never look out of place, even in your front yard!

Get the potager look

An enclosed space Enclose your potager with garden walls, espaliered fruit trees or a hedge. Within the enclosure, define your beds with lowgrowing hedges of well-clipped buxus or lavender. If you can’t wait, use an attractive garden edging of wood or brick.

Defined beds

Garden beds can be any shape (rectangular, square, or even diamond or triangular), but their hallmark is symmetry. Design your garden on paper, then use a tape measure, twine and pegs to get everything perfect before you even think about starting to dig. Unless you have an army of gardeners in waiting, start small – potagers aren’t meant to be a chore.


While potager pathways must be functional (allow enough space for a wheelbarrow for ease of maintenance and harvest), they must also be aesthetically pleasing. Choose natural, organic materials such as stone chip, bark mulch, crushed shell or brick.


Planting a potager is a work of art. Plan it carefully, with symmetry, colour and texture uppermost in your mind, while always holding practicality in the background. Think in terms of planting in blocks or rows of single or alternating colour – you have so many to choose from with vegetables alone. Set off a row of blue leeks with another of deep-red winter cabbage; contrast bright purple-sprouting broccoli with vivid yellow courgette flowers. Use texture, too (think crinkly cavolo nero and shiny silver beet), and utilise varying heights, such as climbing runner beans behind a row of frilly lettuces. Use companion plantings of bright marigolds or dwarf cosmos to divide up beds, and make feature statements such as a central display of standard rosemary. You are, literally, painting with plants.

Spacing & timing

Because you will be harvesting from your potager, it pays to plant as closely together as garden health allows (too close, and fungal disease can be a problem). Close planting means that an unattractive space created when a vegetable is harvested will be less noticeable. In general, it is best to harvest a complete group of edibles before planting the next (empty space in a potager is more acceptable than plants of the same variety at various stages of maturity).

Think seasonally

A potager is not only functional, it is pleasing to the eye – and that must be the case in all seasons. There is never any shortage of vegetables to provide this. In spring, flowering bulbs can make an even more colourful focal point. In winter, pansy, primula and ornamental kale can rise to the occasion. Early-producing herbs, such as chives and chervil, can be left to go to flower for a late spring or early summer display.

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