The Permacultivator - Journal of Cool Climate Permaculture
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The Potager Garden

Janine Amery introduces this style of French kitchen garden.

"The garden could hardly be called a garden; it was large, wild and not too well kept. It was not a proud ornamental garden, but it symbolised more than anything else the French provincial life." Marcel Boulestin - Myself, My Two Countries

Many people may have heard of a Potager garden but have you considered growing one? They are ideal for people with only a small yard (ie. townhouse, villa), those who only want a small amount of work or those who only want to grow easy, small or salad vegetables but, of course, potager gardens can be grown on a grand scale as well.

Potager gardens can be traced back to the times of the Renaissance and the 16th century. Many of the French chateau would have them with elaborate low, clipped box hedges for edging or they could be found as part of a monastic garden.

The Perigord region of France is said to be the origin but most, if not all, French farmhouses boast a kitchen garden. Often they are untidy, overgrown and can look weedy, but look closely and you have many meals in that untidy mess. Normally they are not too far away from the house as opposed to the large garden of vegies that may be further away for growing larger things like potato, artichokes, cauliflower etc.

A potager can be as big or small as you like but the produce should be accessible from the edges so it doesn’t need to be too big (mine is 15 feet by 15 feet). Make it like any normal vegie garden, raised with sleepers, old timber, brick, stone etc. for edging, with plenty of chook, sheep poo and cover the lot in old hay. Many old potagers will have a ‘standard’ in the middle as a focal point and to help with the micro climate. These can vary depending on your tastes; edible flowers (roses), large aromatics or herbs (rosemary, bay, juniper-kept small), scarlet runner beans up a tipi shape or even berries (currants and gooseberries are perfect). Plant your garden with oodles of greens of the ‘cut and come again’ varieties: mustards, spinach, lettuce etc: about 7-8 varieties, especially for those salad eaters (we’ve all heard of ‘mesclun’ that the yuppies love), at least 10 varieties of tomatoes, celery, carrot seedlings (mini round are good if you can get them), zucchini in the corners, capsicum, chili, radish and a couple of melon (or pumpkin) in another corner (trained away naturally). Don’t plant to any set order or in nice rows but put them anywhere. In the gaps plant all the herbs you like plus a few unusual ones, don’t just put one parsley plant - if you like it grow half a dozen, the same goes for chives, sage, tarragon, basil, thyme, marjoram, oregano, opal basil, chervil, fennel (put him in near the middle), mint and dill. Add some marigolds, nasturtium, heartsease, garlic, strawberries and keep the water up to it. Before you know it your garden will be providing you with lovely summer salads, edible flowers and more herbs than you can use. With a potato patch and some larger vegies (leeks, caulies, cabbage, beans, peas) down the back you’ve all you need. The potager will get overgrown, I don’t stake or train anything and never get any bugs etc but I do hide a saucer of beer to tempt any snails or slugs that want to eat.

Since I have been growing my potager I have noticed my style of cooking leaning to the basic French peasant food which uses all the above mentioned vegetables and herbs. I am now researching varieties that are popular in the home gardens in France and Nth Italy as we have very similar climates.

By growing everything mixed together there is very little water loss, many plants complement each other, herbs and strawberries cover the bare mulch, birds don’t seem to be as destructive and many more pluses. I don’t companion plant as we have found many things just work well together. Come winter many things die back, don’t worry; if anything goes to seed (lettuce, tomato, chives, parsley etc) don’t worry, this is the joy of a potager. Next spring just keep adding the poo and hay and plant in the gaps, but many things will grow back. By growing all the time many herbs will live through autumn (or at least not die at the first frost). I replant lettuces as I harvest using all kinds of seasonal variety for year round salads (all survived in the snow in past years) and in ’96 we harvested tomatoes up till mid June, some even grew back.

You can really grow anything in a potager, there are no rules, just remember that the big things will crowd the smaller things and your thyme might have to hide under the cauliflower leaves etc by the time they grow to full size.

J21 Autumn 98