Maybe this should be Step 1 for most people, but I knew that my potager would be in our back yard, which is nearly 4 acres and mostly in full sun. I know that a trend right now is locating vegetable gardens in front yards, but ours is dotted with black walnut trees which would inhibit the growth of many plants. Vegetables and herbs need full sun and they’ll get plenty in my back yard.
Happily, there is a water hydrant sitting all alone about 80 feet from the back door. Access to water is a major factor that should be considered when choosing the site for a potager, or any garden, so my choice of the back yard was pretty obvious. But, there was still decision-making involved. My first sketches had the hydrant just inside the fence to the left of the main entrance, which would be in the center of the 50’ span (the garden is 50′ x 62′.) I put out stakes with white flags on top, marking the four corners and the entrance. I’ve learned that “living” with a proposed space, viewing it from all angles, and observing it over time can eliminate potential problems. In this case I didn’t have to observe for very long because soon after I watched the neighbor’s field bordering our property being sprayed. Since I’m not planning on a solid fence, chemical drift could be a big issue. I shifted the plan northward so the hydrant was now in the southeast corner of the fence. For those of you who are detail folks, in the photo you are looking west and I am standing on the deck to take the photo.
It looked good, until we received 10” of rain over a two-day period. Did I mention that behind the house there is a slight slope downward toward the west? There is also a slight slope downward on the south property line. There is more slope from the woods in the back, downward toward the house. With that rain, there was a creek rushing through the backyard that definitely would have flooded the flower border I plan to create along the potager fence that will face the house, and possibly part of the potager itself. And, I looked at the slope and realized that mulch, and possibly even I on my little rolling stool might just slide right down. There was just too much slope.
I moved stakes and measured again and again, and finally determined that having the hydrant within the fence just wasn’t going to be feasible without major earth-moving or building retaining walls. That really wasn’t in the budget or my design vision, so I pushed the garden westward, where the ground was more level. I also rotated the entire plan so the 50’ span ran east-west, so less distance was exposed to that south edge field spray, and the 62’ span ran north-south, giving me more flower border to view from the deck and house windows.
If you look closely, you can see the white flags marking the corners, and the lonely water line (attached to the wooden post in front of the bare area.)
I did some revisions to the bed placement so I was happy with the rotated design, moved all the stakes and flags and lived with the new location for a few weeks. There will have to be a little leveling, but no retaining walls. It might require purchasing more garden hose for watering, but that’s a lot cheaper than drowning an entire border or major bulldozing.
In choosing your site, you may need to also consider the shade from trees or existing buildings. Tree roots can also be a major factor, since they suck up moisture and nutrients. And buildings can produce not only shade, but major run-off during storms.
The sketch below was an earlier, pre-rotation version. Originally, the Cottage and greenhouse were located on the left. However, one beautiful evening as I sat on the deck contemplating my new potager, I realized they would block my view of the sunsets. So, they were moved to the right (north side) and that is where they will stay.
Because I had wide-open space, I was able to use whatever design I wanted. If I were fitting a potager into a smaller space, with existing structures it might require breaking it up into segments, incorporating curves to adjust for sidewalks, or constructing beds in a variety of shapes. I’ve seen potagers that had pie-wedge-shaped beds, semi-circles, and curving “snakes” as well as some with a series of diagonal rows. You can find lots of inspiration if you search “potager images” on your favorite search engine.