Potager Gardens Have Been Around for Centuries: How to Continue the Old Tradition of Growing

Written by Women Who Farm

May 23, 2017

A potager garden literally translates 'for the soup pot'. Vegetables, fruits, and both medicinal and edible herbs are grown together with the main incentive to feed the family. These traditional kitchen gardens date back to France nearly a thousand years ago when it was common for people to grow their own food and medicine.

Being both beautiful and practical, it is well suited for small yards. The design structure uses both accessible bed space, as well as being close to the home. The idea is that you can step into your garden, with bare toes to grab dinner's ingredients or throw the last of the dish water on the compost.

It was the third year of trying to plant a garden without success when I planned out my very first potager garden. That year I grew my best cauliflower and had medicinal flowers growing amongst everything. While there isn't one strict method for planting a potager, there is one overarching theme: aesthetic beauty alongside edibility.


Principals of a Traditional Potager Garden

If you plan to grow a potager garden, instead of arranging your beds in a grid, consider using the space for both beauty and function. Perhaps some beds are verticle, while others are horizontal. Use the fence line as a trellis, or a hot spot for espalier fruit trees. However you design it, take some time to figure out the best use of your space. Keep your pathways tight, enough to fit a wheelbarrow, and consider how the sun will move in your garden. Knowing where the sun hits first is great for heat loving vegetables.

For myself, I like to plan my garden on paper first. I map out the raised beds and when it is time, I use stakes and strings, to map out the design on land. The beds for growing are flipped using a shovel and I like to add heaps of horse manure. No need for heavy equipment, it is fine to mix it in with shovels.

Make sure to plan a focal piece in the center of your garden. A small bird bath, or pool is both beautiful and helpful for pollinator insects needing a drink. Instead of planting herbs in one area, consider planting a bit everywhere especially on difficult to grow spaces, like the edges of beds.

Espalier fruit trees make sense when you have a small amount of land and don't want to pick fruit on a ladder. You can plant multiple dwarf varieties and get a really great harvest in a short period of time using less space. Not only do they function perfectly in the kitchen garden, they are beautiful as well.

A Lovely Crop of Apples on an Espalier Fruit Tree.


Herbs in the Potager Garden

Both medicinal and edible herbs can be grown in the potager garden. I like comfrey, lemon balm, mint, and onions at the base of all the fruit trees. Plant creeping thyme in your walkways for an aromatic effect.

It makes sense to grow many useful herbs that can help the process of healing.  Calendula, chickweed, and plantain are excellent for the skin. They can be combined to make healing salves. Lemon balm tea calms the nervous system and comfrey makes a skin poultice. Make sure to plant your favourite herbs you love to cook with.

Italian herbs and spices - winter savory, laurel, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme basil tarragon Vector illustration

Eat From the Land, Eat Local

A truly nourishing meal is cooked using ingredients that I have grown. The recipes that are inspired by a seasonal garden can be life changing. I have come know that oregano, roasted eggplant and oil combined is one of the very best parts about summer. And basil at the base of tomatoes is for both ease of harvest and for the aroma of the greenhouse. So when you plan a potager, most of all, grow things you love and eat.

Successive harvests and year-round eating from the garden sounds seemingly simple. Yet it is a skill we have lost. We can all re-learn these old skills through our efforts. Over time we learn the seeds and when to plant them. It becomes intuitive as we move along. In my region, I know it is almost too late to plant carrots in August, and daikon radishes grow better in the fall.


Traditional Old School Planting

A part of traditional gardening is putting back into the earth whatever we took. Taking care of the soil, we compost. We try to keep bare soil to the minimum. Where there are no plants, instead of weeding, we mulch or add a ground cover. We are able to grow food without chemical fertilizer.

The biggest teaching that the potager garden teaches us is that what we consume into our body is more than just through the mouth. We feed ourselves through our eyes, our noses, and our touch. These senses are just as necessary as taste. In the potager garden, we can grow for all senses.

If you want to learn more about what plants grow well together, check out this article: Secrets from a Grower: Companion Planting that Works and Other Perennial Ideas. 

Group of handful of crops seeds in aerial view

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