Beginning a new garden is so exciting. I’ve always believed that, just as in travel, half the joy is in the planning. I spent hours daydreaming of the garden I would create once I no longer had a business stealing away all my time and energy. I poured over books and magazines, recalled gardens I’d admired, and changed my mind a million times. I want my new garden for growing vegetables, herbs, small fruits, and my favorite flowers. After a while it was settled in my mind. It would definitely be a potager.
I’m not sure when I became enamored with the concept and design of a potager, a French-inspired kitchen garden that is as ornamental as it is functional. Maybe it began with a visit to the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles. Marie Antoinette’s little farm house may have been where she pretended to be a country maid, but the beautiful little vegetable garden there (shown above) is still a vivid memory.
When Rosemary Verey showed me her delightful potager (above) I couldn’t help thinking how much more fun it would be to weed there than in a standard American “row after endless row” plan.
The potager above is one I visited at La Chatonnaire. I liked it, but I found I prefer more standard geometric shapes as my basic design. My thinking certainly became more defined with a visit to what is probably the most impressive potager in the world, Villandry. While I knew I didn’t want something on that scale, (Villandry requires 9 full-time gardeners to maintain its 2.5 acres of perfection, requiring a quarter of a million plants each year!) I did want the formality of geometric shapes, laid out in a straightforward manner. I began to pay more attention to the numerous kitchen gardens in Germany and Italy when I visited my daughters, noticing how intensive the crops were planted. And I took lots of pictures at the potager at Ballymaloe Cook’s Garden in Ireland. (below)
Whatever the inspiration, a potager seemed exactly right, not only for my wishes and design esthetic, but also because I happen to live in a home with a Mansard roof, which is also a French design. Maybe it was destiny.
While I loved the Cook’s Garden at my farm (shown above in early spring) there were some basic flaws in the design that needed to be corrected in my new plan. First of all, as I age I can no longer bend over at the waist to garden, so I want as much as possible in raised beds. I use a rolling stool, so all paths must be wide enough (2’) to accommodate it. There are times when a garden cart or wheelbarrow would be required, so the main axis paths need to be wider. Plus, I like being able to walk down the major paths with a friend beside me, so I decided on 4’. I’d made some of the beds at the old garden too long and too wide to be able to plant, weed, or harvest without stepping into the beds. Some of the beds were almost too small to be effective either for plants or a wise use of space. The beds in my new potager will all be 6’ x 3’ or 6’ x 6’. I can easily reach that far, even if I have to momentarily perch on the bed’s edge.
The beds will be raised, built of 2” x 8” lumber. Some of the beds in my old garden were only 2” x 4” or 2” by 6”, not deep enough. Originally, some of the beds had only 1” wide boards, which were not sturdy enough, didn’t last long, and definitely were not conducive to perching, even momentarily.
So, with the basics determined, I began sketching various designs on graph paper. There is probably a computer program that would make this quicker, but I enjoyed spending long winter evenings devising different layouts. Eventually I had a plan that accommodated all the crops I intended to grow, but then I did the math and discovered that the new garden would actually encompass more mass than the Cook’s Garden, The Cottage Garden, The Butterfly Garden, the Folklore Garden and the Enchanted Forest combined! Yikes! This was supposed to be the garden of my dreams, where the chores were manageable so I wouldn’t always feel weeks behind, where I could take my morning cup of tea and wander the paths with a smile, rather than a clipboard to record the to-do list. Another, down-sized revision was required.
Succession cropping would allow me to reduce the number of beds, after all, one of the main principles of a potager is to eat fresh and seasonal. Potagers with raised beds allow close cropping. Many small plantings are made of each vegetable so one can pick just what is needed for each meal, and nothing goes to waste. I also scaled down the quantities of some crops. Even though I’ll have time to do more preserving, I’m not feeding a large family any longer, or needing large crops of herbs for workshop projects or events at the farm. The new design is 50’ x 62’, and I’m hoping that will be not too small that I’m frustrated, or not too large so that I’m overwhelmed, but just right.