I've always been a fan of garden design, especially the vegetable garden.
Don't act surprised.
Just because we put walkways and yard art in our flower gardens doesn't mean we can't put a little flair in our vegetable gardens too. No one knows this better than France in the 16th century. It was around this time that potager gardens were making their mark and their popularity has stood the test of time.
Thirty years ago, our vegetable garden was huge. We grew everything we could think of that we liked to eat, and lots of it. If we had 50 tomato plants, all the better. Twelve rows of corn wasn't enough because we usually ended up sharing much of it with raccoons. We grew potatoes, pumpkins, onions, garlic, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, several varieties of hot and sweet peppers, beans for snapping and beans for shelling as well as plantings of peas both in the spring and in the fall. As soon as the spinach and lettuce gave way to midsummer heat, in went something else, usually fast growing green beans, radishes or even more lettuce and spinach. In addition to the huge vegetable garden, there was a good size herb garden and a few wooden raised beds we used for fun things to grow, like 'Slo-bolt' cilantro and Florence fennel. We don't even like fennel, so I usually gave it away. Having a garden wasn't just for eating. It was for the fun of growing.
Because of the size of the garden, not to mention the time it took to maintain the plants and keep down weeds, there was no extra time for fancy designs. We planted in rows or hills because that's what our parents did. The basement shelves were filled with jars of preserved vegetables that were meant to get us through the winter.
But like our lives, gardens change. The kids grow up and move out on their own. We are a bit older and not as energetic, and the result in the landscape is smaller gardens. Last week I mentioned the changes in the flower gardens, taking out high-maintenance perennials and replacing them with colorful shrubs and lower maintenance plants.
The same thing goes for the vegetable garden. But although the garden has to get smaller, it doesn't have to be boring.
Enter the potager.
Here in the U.S., we call them kitchen gardens, but the potager is more than that. By growing just enough vegetables to use through the season and maybe a little more for the freezer, we have the opportunity to add a bit of decoration to the garden as well.
Potager gardens aren't just for growing plants. My potager has a brick walkway that runs through its center from front to back. The garden is basically split into two sections, and if I want, I can plant only one side during a summer season and pile compost and fertilizer on the other side in preparation for next season.
Brick pavers are commonly used in potagers but wooden raised beds can be used to separate the growing areas into sections. Raised beds aren't a necessity in a potager. Garden sections can be separated with gravel walks or pathways covered with straw, mulch or fancy stepping stones. Some potagers beds are lawn areas that get mowed, which is a tidy-looking design. The idea is to organize the sections into various sizes and shapes to give the garden structure and versatility.
It's up to you if want your design to be symmetrical. I prefer beds of different sizes, which are randomly organized throughout the entire garden. Except for the center walkway, garden paths are layers of newspaper covered with straw so they can be changed around next season if I want.
Structure also is important in a potager, but remember that it should be functional. Wooden teepees make great structures for growing pole beans. Vining plants can be grown upwards on a sturdy trellis, obelisk or fence. Add a small fountain or a birdbath to attract birds that will be happy to clear your plants of insects. Build a brick or stone pedestal in the center of the garden and on top it place a sundial or armillary.
When the garden is divided into smaller sections, it is not only easier to add compost to the beds, but it is much easier to control weeds. Don't think by making the garden smaller you have to give up your favorite plants. It is amazing how much will fit into a smaller garden space. Not to mention that it is a more pleasant place to work.