For simple beauty, plan a potager

If you have a computer with Internet access, I dare you to Google the word ”potager.”

What you will find are photos of some of the most gorgeous gardens you could ever imagine, even though the word potager is simply a French term for a simple, ornamental kitchen garden. The design of a potager is whatever your imagination can conceive, which is probably why I love them so much.

Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to tour many different types of gardens, but the simple potager has always been my favorite. Probably because it is not formal, nor does it take a lot of hard work and expensive materials.

It is simply a well-designed garden that contains separate beds of various shapes and structures of different sizes to give the garden dimension.

It usually contains both flowers and vegetables, but also on display are bean tepees, lattice trellises for growing vines upward rather than out, obelisks and sculptures because art belongs in a garden, a short rustic fence and natural walkways between the beds, which are square, rectangular, L-shaped and round.

Although it is completely manmade, a potager always looks as though it is part of the landscape, blending with its surroundings, but nonetheless, a complete surprise to anyone viewing the garden for the first time.

If you dream of a potager garden, the best advice I can give is to take your time. Sometimes the best part of gardening is the anticipation of what’s to come.

Plan out the shapes and sizes of the garden beds and keep in mind that most vegetables and flowers require six to eight hours of sunlight each day. Mark your beds with a flexible hose, which can be moved around when you change your mind – and you will.

Prepare the soil with as much amendments as you can find. Compost, aged manure, decomposed leaves and grass clippings will work the first season. Decide what sort of edging you want for the beds.

For a more formal look, boxwood hedges kept trimmed short are attractive, although it takes many plants and they are somewhat expensive. I prefer useful plants, such as colorful lettuces, Alpine strawberries and dependable herbs like chives or basil. Border plants can even be changed throughout the growing season. For example, plant radishes all around the perimeter of the garden beds and once they are harvested, replace them with marigolds.

Or you can build raised beds that don’t need borders at all. Simple wooden structures that hold garden soil are the most common, but others will use concrete landscaping blocks or wooden ties, paving bricks set on edge with the pointed sides going the same direction or even wooden logs that have been cut short and lined alongside each other. You can even mix it up a bit using different edgings for different beds, or simple pull the soil into a rectangular mound and don’t use any edging at all.

I prefer to keep my garden beds no wider than four feet. This allows easy access for reaching into the bed from either side without having to walk into the bed itself. Staying off the soil and avoiding tamping it down where the plants are growing keeps the soil light and easy to work. Continue to add amendments each season and before long, you won’t need anything more than your hands to dig and plant.

Another thing to consider when planning a potager is the walkways, or rather, the aisles between the garden beds. Beds can be arranged wide enough for a mower and simply let the grass grow between them. If you prefer something more rustic, you can put down paths of organic mulch. You could try the good-old newspaper layers and straw or mulch, which will keep the weeds down for one season, but the procedure will have to be repeated every one to two years as the organic matter decompose. You also could use paving bricks or gravel, but weeds will continue to grow in those areas.

There is no garden that won’t require a bit of maintenance, whether it’s keeping the weeds from growing in the walkways or replacing structures as the weather beats them up every few years, but a potager garden with individual beds makes it easy to keep the weeds under control where the plants are actually growing.

We’ve built and rebuilt several raised garden beds over the years and I can verify that it takes only minutes a day to pluck the weeds from around the plants.