How to Design a Potager, or Kitchen Garden, in Your Backyard
A kitchen garden combines vegetables and ornamental plants in beautiful ways for a space that’s both charming and useful. Often called a potager from the French ‘jardin potage,’ or ‘soup garden,’ this style has been a part of historic estates, country homes, and informal cottage gardens throughout history in France and in many other cultures. “What’s so enchanting about a potager is that there’s an element of strong architectural form, such as tightly clipped boxwoods, combined with loose, billowing flowers in bloom, which creates an appealing contrast,” says Linda Vater, author of The Elegant & Edible Garden: Design a Dream Kitchen Garden to Fit Your Personality, Desires and Lifestyle, and host of a popular YouTube gardening channel. “A potager engages all your senses. It should be visually appealing but also have elements of texture and fragrance to create fairytale appeal and a sense of peace.”
How to Design a Potager Garden
Any size plot works for a kitchen garden. If you’re new to gardening, it’s best to start small and understand the time commitment before excavating your whole side yard so that you won’t get frustrated and feel overwhelmed. After all, this is supposed to be enjoyable! You can plant a potager in a collection of window boxes, containers or pots on your patio or balcony, too, if that’s the only space available, says Vater. Pots also can be placed strategically throughout garden beds to add height; this allows you to move them, if necessary, to accommodate changing patterns of sunlight as the season progresses.
Choose the right location.
While a potager is traditionally placed near the door closest to the kitchen, you need to consider the environment in your own garden. Vegetables require full sun, which is 6 or more hours of direct sunlight per day. Decide where your potager will get the right exposure, then plan accordingly, even if it means the garden is placed farther away from the house. But make sure water is accessible, too, so you’re not struggling with thirsty plants during a July heatwave.
Plant lots of different herbs.
Herbs are an excellent foundation for your potager, says Vater. Many perennial herbs, such as lavender, thyme, sage, and oregano, are easy to grow and will return year after year. Allow your herbs to flower, which attracts pollinators that are necessary for edibles, such as squash, to develop fruit.
Herbs are incredibly versatile, too. Plants such as dill and sage make gorgeous bouquets for the kitchen counter, lavender can be floated in drinks or used to add fragrance to your bathwater, and chamomile can be steeped fresh or dried for a soothing tea. Herbal topiaries are yet another way to infuse texture, charm and interest to your potager.
Add pretty, easy-care edibles.
Many edibles are lovely in their own right, such as rainbow-hued Swiss chard, the deep blue-green leaves of Tuscan kale, and colorful lettuces. Easy-to-grow vegetables to consider include cayenne peppers, which can be used fresh or dried; cherry tomatoes, which come in a variety of colors; and tiny eggplants, which are suited for containers. In fact, many new vegetables have been developed to be more compact for growing in containers. Another option is to create a themed garden, such as a spaghetti garden with tomatoes and basil or a cocktail garden with garnishes such as mint and rosemary.
Mingle ornamental plants throughout your potager garden.
Both annual and perennial flowers have a place in a potager. Pansies and nasturtiums are lovely annuals, and they’re edible, too. Perennials and shrubs such as roses, lavender, salvia, coneflowers, and black-eyed Susans attract pollinators and add color, texture, and fragrance. You also can add cutting garden favorites such as larkspur, cosmos, zinnia, dahlias, sunflowers, mums, and asters for color throughout the season.
Define the space.
Your potager should have a sense of enclosure, which can be accomplished with a framework of raised beds, fencing, or a border of clipped boxwood hedges. The idea is to provide a feeling of intimacy, protection, and privacy, as well as to divide the garden into manageable space for maintenance, reinforce the idea of garden “rooms,” and define the tone of the space, says Vater. Enclosures also transform your potager into a welcoming spot to relax or entertain guests.
Paths not only allow you to wander through the garden to admire the changing views, but they’re also necessary so you can kneel down to weed or harvest your vegetables and herbs. A path doesn’t have to be wide, but it does need to leave enough space so you can reach in and work with your plants without stepping into the bed and compacting the soil or wrenching your back, says Vater.
Incorporate garden structures.
Garden structures such as a tuteurs, trellises, or arbors offer a focal point in the garden but also provide surfaces for plants to climb. “If you don’t have a lot of space, you have to grow upward, not out,” says Vater. These structures offer support for vegetables such as adorable little pattypan squashes, climbing beans such as the heirloom scarlet runners, nasturtiums of all colors, and rambling roses. There needn’t be a separation of edible and ornamental plants; in fact, a potager is most delightful when these plantings are intertwined.
Whether you’re a new gardener or have been digging in the dirt for years, don’t be afraid to experiment. It’s also helpful to jot a few notes in a garden journal or snap some photos of your garden to remember when certain plants budded or bloomed or what did particularly well (or not so well!) this year.
Finally, be patient: Plants will die, despite your best efforts, because nature is fickle. But it’s all so worth it! “A garden is a dynamic space that stirs creativity and feeds the soul,” says Vater. “It takes time to develop and constantly changes and evolves, which is part of the journey.”