Potager gardens have been around for hundreds of years. Never heard of one? Well, that's not surprising. Until recently, they've been planted mostly in Europe, but they are starting to gain popularity here.
"Potage" is a French word for a potted dish, usually a vegetable soup. In the Middle Ages, the soups were a major part of people's diets in France. The potager (poh-tuh-zhay) was the garden that supplied the ingredients.
Today, potager gardens combine the utilitarian nature of the English kitchen garden with the style and beauty of the French. Plants are chosen as much for their functionality as for their color and form. Most potager gardens have a symmetrical or geometric shape, perhaps with a center focal point, such as a tree, a fountain or a large pot of herbs.
Barbara Wilde is an internationally known expert on potager gardens. Originally from Indiana, she lives in France, where she has two country homes, each with 6,000-square-foot potager gardens. She writes about them at frenchgardening.com.
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"In its most simple and primordial form, the potager is simply a vegetable garden," she said in an e-mail interview. "In France, it evolved to include several other distinguishing characteristics, especially in chateau gardens. These potagers were laid out in decorative geometric parterres, rather than simply in rows like a cornfield."
Many have plants that are trained to grow upward, perhaps on a trellis or next to a house. Sometimes the gardens are edged in boxwood or other evergreens. They include flowers — especially cutting flowers — as well as vegetables. They can also include small fruits, aromatic and medicinal plants and herbs.
"In short, a potager is a food garden planted with an eye to beauty as well as function, and designed to furnish a household with all its needs for as close to year-round as possible," Wilde said. "It's as if in France, the vegetable garden gets all dressed up."
And the folks at Bowood Farms in the Central West End think potager gardens are perfect for St. Louisans.
"With the whole eat-local movement and being able to get your own healthy food without paying a premium price … combined with the fact that our lands here in the city especially need to have multiple uses, they are perfect for our area," says Kathie Hoyer of Bowood. "So the garden has to be beautiful; it has to be something where you would like to sit and enjoy yourself. And it has to have an appeal from the inside of the house because you are looking at it all year long."
Hoyer especially likes the spiritual aspect of potager gardens, which were grown by monks in the Middle Ages. "Every time you look at your garden, it feeds you in a spiritual way as well as practical."
HOW TO DO IT
When thinking about starting a potager garden, look first at what kind of foods your family will eat and how much of each you can use. Then think about including plants with staggered growing seasons. "You don't want your garden to be bare," Hoyer says. For instance, you may want to plant something short, such as cabbage, under something taller, such as okra or broccoli. "You want to harvest here and there to make sure it is continually growing. So if you pick your lettuce, plant zinnias in that space."
And then look at the sun your chosen area will get. Vegetables need sun; make sure you have plenty of it.
"The best tip I could give someone wanting to plant a potager garden isn't very glamorous," Wilde says. "It's to prepare the soil with lavish amounts of compost or other organic matter, and to continue to replenish the soil organically … great soil means that the dense plantings will flourish and be pest-resistant."
Once you have a good idea, take pen to paper and sketch out your garden. Keep in mind that a traditional potager garden is geometric with plants to provide interest in all four seasons. Each plot should be raised (either a berm or bounded by a low wall or pavers) and have walking space around it. About 3 or 4 feet deep would be ideal, Hoyer says.
But the best way to plan, she says, is to look at some of the beautiful pictures of chateaus and their gardens. "Once you start reading and thinking about it, you get inspired, and that's what we are trying to do here."