The French term potager means ‘providing vegetables for the pot.’
Food gardening has been on the rise in America for the last decade for obvious reasons: homegrown food is better tasting, is the freshest possible, saves money and is safe from undue chemicals.
First Lady Michelle Obama’s Get Moving Initiative, which started in 2009 with the White House Kitchen Garden, has taken root. Health-conscious millennials especially seem to be concerned with where their food comes from and its quality. Planting and nurturing a garden is educational for children, gratified to see the miracle of growth and the results of their labor.
Kitchen gardens, of course, are not new. Victory gardens during WWII showed American resourcefulness, frugality and independence. The French term potager means “providing vegetables for the pot.” The French raised this gardening practice to an art form, taking practical edible plants and dressing them up in such decorative landscape designs that they became stylish. Blending that same beauty with practicality today makes these handsome gardens focal points in the landscape.
Vegetable gardens need never be tucked back into a faraway utilitarian space again. In the same way that we are seeing outdoor kitchens proliferate, why not grow the raw materials for your backyard entertaining right there in pluck-able range? Play up their color and form. Mix them with edible flowers and herbs. Plant them in raised beds that are interesting design shapes in their own right.
Many annual vegetables that fill the kitchen garden are only growing from May-October. Their plots will become bare spots after the harvest, so care must be taken in choosing the permanent, fixed elements — fences, walls, trellises, arbors, raised beds, paths and decorative objects — so that pleasing design is visible even when the garden is at rest. Add vertical structure to increase planting space and year-round visual interest. Rustic teepees support beans and produce uniform cukes with no flat side. A sturdy arbor could showcase grapes. If you are a dedicated pruner, try your hand at espalier, training fruit trees such as apple or pear against a wall or fence for easy picking.
You can have so much fun playing with geometric shapes, figuring out how to blend form and function in hardscape and plantings. Design possibilities are endless. Work a checkerboard of pavers into the edge of your patio with herbs in the alternating soil squares. The pavers form the stepping stones through your herb garden for easy access.
Close proximity is important for many reasons. Besides the ease of harvest, seeing changes daily is entertaining and helps you keep an eye on the plants’ needs. Objects like ladders or wheels can be placed flat and then planted with various herbs.
A simple four-square garden bisected with pathways creates small, organized spaces for the plants as well as convenient work space around them. Plant a circle of chives and place a bee skep on a pedestal as a focal point in the center to channel Colonial Williamsburg, or repurpose a fun found object from a thrift store as a sculptural attraction.
A long, rectangular bed like the one at right is easy to fit near any patio or deck. Poll your family and prioritize their favorites. Staples of my family’s kitchen garden include tomatoes and squash. My grandchildren want at least one of our tomato plants to be cherry tomatoes. We keep plastic bowls at the ready and eat most of our pickings on the spot like popcorn.
Children love root crops, so do try to include carrots or beets or potatoes. It might also be fun to include Virginia peanuts (which would do best if started indoors), onions or garlic. When planted in a raised bed, these foods are easy to harvest, and kids love to see what is unearthed. Besides watching cucumbers grow, we enjoy pickling projects, so canning is a great byproduct recreation.
Prepping the bed before planting is very important. Determine the pH of the soil. Vegetables prefer soil with a pH of 6.0-7.5. Improve and amend your soil with wellrotted manure and compost. Raised beds are ideal. They drain well, make the garden orderly, and can be filled with the best soil.
Lay out the design of the bed. You can frame raised beds with wood, brick or pavers. Once you have established the design, dig out a few inches of the bed space, loosening the existing soil. Then fill in with organic matter. This should give you a deep, loose, healthy soil.
Pathways in the potager can be any material — mulch, brick, pavers, grass, gravel or stone. We chose oyster shells because they are native to the East Coast of Virginia, and we like the stark-white element in our design. Remember that plants grow and may spill out onto pathways, so allow enough width when planning your path. You may want to put picket fencing along the front side of the garden, lined with rabbit wire, to form more of an enclosure if you have bold deer. You may want to have your dog stand guard.
When you get experienced with vegetable gardening, try double cropping. Plant coolweather vegetables such as English peas March 1, and so have an early harvest of this delectable dish. St. Patty’s Day is a good time to remember potato planting for “Yukon Gold” or a tasty old variety, “Irish Cobbler,” if you can find it; by the 4th of July, they will be ready to dig.
Other cool-weather plants such as broccoli and cabbages can also be planted earlier. Cloches, little bell-shaped greenhouses, are classic accessories to help individual plants get an early start on the season. When a cool-weather crop has been harvested, plant warm-weather veggies or put pots of herbs in their places to cover the bare spots.
Cost-saving herbs and veggies will have you snapping Instagram-worthy foodie pictures most of the year. You can be the lord of your own farm-to-table domain right there in one locale.