How to Design a Potager Garden

, written by Ann Marie Hendry gb flag

A potager garden with flowers and vegetables combined

People often say to me that they’d love to grow their own food at home, but that a vegetable plot would look out of place in their garden. They imagine ruler-straight rows and unsightly muddy gaps where plants have been dug up, but I always tell them that they can have their cake (well, veg) and eat it too – the answer is to create a potager.

Principles for Creating a Beautiful Potager Garden

A potager is simply a vegetable plot which follows the principles of garden design to create an area which is not only ornamental, but productive too. The main points to consider are rhythm, line, colour and texture, and it’s important to introduce a focal point to bring the whole design together.

Arch of bean flowers at the centre of a potager garden

That focal point can be anything you like – a container overflowing with ornamental kale, an obelisk or archway dripping with beans, a towering globe artichoke – and pathways or lines of plants can be used to help draw the eye toward it. Rhythm is best achieved with repetition of the same plant at intervals within the design, so if you’re growing lots of a particular type of vegetable or herb, instead of having one large clump of them, dot them around as accents or use them as edging. This has the added advantage of helping to confuse insect pests so they are less likely to attack your crops.

Edging beds or vegetable plot boundaries with low lavender or box hedges, cordon-trained berrying plants or step-over apple trees provides valuable permanent structure in the garden and helps to achieve the sense of rhythm within the design. Alternatively, you could use kitchen favourites such as cut-and-come-again lettuces or compact curly-leaved parsley to make them easier to harvest regularly.

Choosing Plants and Varieties for Potagers

Colour is an obvious consideration in an ornamental vegetable garden, and thanks to both nature and selective breeding there are an infinite number of colour combinations to choose from. Contrasting colours can create a real sense of drama – think of the white midribs and green leaves of Swiss chard, or try placing red cabbage next to the common green cabbage. Ornamental plants, which are usually included in a potager, can really come into their own here – orange calendula, pink echinacea, golden sunflowers, electric blue cornflowers, and nasturtiums in yellow, orange and red. Many are useful companion plants, and they are certainly much-appreciated for their nectar by insects, which encourages pollination of all of the crops. See our article on Flowers for Vegetable Gardens for further inspiration.

Cabbages and flowers

The texture of plants is often overlooked, but it is an important component of design. As with colour, contrasting shapes give the best effect – the thin, upright leaves of chives look great next to the oval leaves and more rounded habit of sage, and the feathery leaves of carrots or fennel are the perfect foil for wrinkly kale.

Potager Garden Layout

Shapes for the beds themselves can be varied – square, rectangular, triangular, L-shaped or even cross-shaped – and the possibilities for the patterns within are just about limitless. Forget about traditional rows and let your imagination fly – diagonals, zigzags and circles all work well, and chequerboard patterns can look quite striking – one of my own favourite combinations for this is alternate red and green varieties of lettuce. Formal, geometric, and symmetrical designs help to create a sense of order, and the gardens of the French Renaissance provide a particular wealth of design ideas in this style. Celtic patterns can be a useful starting point too, but try not to make the design too complicated – simple is best, particularly in a small space. If you plan to include herbs, you will find further inspiration in our two part article on Planning a New Herb Garden.

L-shaped potager garden beds

As a contrast, cottage gardens in the UK traditionally mixed flowers with vegetables in an informal style of romantic abundance which is little affected when vegetables are harvested, as close planting means that the neighbouring plants tend to spread to fill any gaps.

Don’t forget the non-plant components of the garden – paths can be made of just about any material, but gravel, brick and bark all look good and are fairly low-maintenance. Plant supports, plant pots, rainwater barrels and composters can all be attractive too, and needn’t cost a fortune. Recycled and hand-made products have a charm all of their own, and instead of hiding them away at the back of the shed, why not make them an integral part of your design for your beautiful, delicious potager?

Of course, the best thing about a potager is that most of the crops need to be rotated annually, so every year you get the fun of creating a new design! Our Garden Planner can help here – all the photographs from this article are from people who have planned their gardens using it and the automatic crop rotation features can be a great help. Whatever method you use, a well-planned potager garden is sure to please not only the eye but the taste buds too!

By Ann Marie Hendry. Photographs from Rodney Deal, Gretta Bredin and Karen Dale.

Pests, Beneficial Insects and Plant Diseases

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Garden Planning Apps

If you need help designing your vegetable garden, try our Vegetable Garden Planner (for PC & Mac) or if you'd prefer an app for your mobile or tablet device, our iPad & iPhone app Garden Plan Pro is available on the App Store here.
Garden Planning Apps and Software

Vegetable Garden Pest Warnings

Want to Receive Alerts When Pests are Heading Your Way?

If you've seen any pests or beneficial insects in your garden in the past few days please report them to The Big Bug Hunt and help create a warning system to alert you when bugs are heading your way.

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Comments

 
"Loved this article! I have a 400 square foot veg/herb garden in my side yard (visible from the main street as my house sits on a large suburban corner lot) so I try to make it pretty as well as practical. I have been entertaining the idea of a potager over the past several months and this has been the final "push" I needed to go ahead with my design plan. Thanks for the further inspiration! GardenMuse"
Denise on Saturday 31 December 2011
"I love the idea of a potager garden and have had one in the past. However, with the average garden these days being about 30ft square it is not that easy to fit one in. would you have any other ideas for such a small space that needs to accommodate everyone in the family?"
Lyngard on Saturday 31 December 2011
"I agree with the English cottage garden style of mixing favorite flowers with edibles... what I grew up around in Essex, and what I practice in all the places I have lived since. Such a shame, I think, to leave neat and tidy rows; I'd rather have an organized "mess of things" where there's always flowers and bees and birds! For the very small spaces, I have often succeeded with large containers in which I combined vegetables and flowers, one tall, the other short growing or creeping, and replacing them through the season as the flowers die off or the peas finish. In a small, almost tiny spot in the front yard, I've got garlic growing around the roses and calendulas. Because we have freezing weather overnight without snow, both the miniature roses and calendulas are blooming, and garlic loves to grow all winter long in California! "
Laura Olney on Saturday 31 December 2011
"I guess I never really knew what a Potager garden was but now I do! Thanks for setting me straight. I think a Potager Garden is exactly what I'm looking to do. Great article. Here's one for my New Year's resolution list! :)"
Nate Armstrong on Thursday 5 January 2012
"I would love to have you identify and layout your garden for us on this post."
Trish on Saturday 7 January 2012
"I wanted to add some comments on the term Potage. I love this idea of garden design and wanted to install a garden that marries aesthetic design with crop production. I wanted to include vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers and ornamentals. I did a lot of research and found out that what I wanted was an ornamental vegetable garden. In my research I learned Potage (pronounced poe-ta-zhay) or a year round kitchen garden whose purpose is to supply the kitchen with fresh vegetables and herbs. Initially developed by French monks, the potager kitchen garden became popular in the 16th century in France. The traditional potager garden contains symmetrical geometrical garden beds with the vegetables planted in patterns or groups rather than in rows, often with flowers, fruit and herbs intermingled. The most famous Potager is the Gardens of Chateau de Villa dry in France. Potage has come to embrace two styles of edible gardens ? modest on one hand and grand on the other ? as well as various sorts in between. Similarly, English kitchen gardens were those in which grew anything that could be placed on your kitchen table, ranging from cut flowers to fruits and vegetables. Ornamental vegetable gardens can be formal gardens with symmetrical designs and neatly delineated beds, or they can be informal, cottage style gardens with sweeping drifts, intermingled plants, and a colorful, playful exuberance. The garden can be as small as a window box or as large as the space accommodates. "
Eileen on Saturday 7 January 2012
"Beautiful description, Eileen. Isn't it interesting how creative people are some of the most organized? We thrive on organized disorder -- everything in its place and often in the deign of our own choosing rather than the traditional. I love your information, and it reminds me that I probably shouldn't use the word "mess," as it denotes disorder. My miniature roses are in a square, the dill extends on one side, next to garlic, and in the summer, they ran into two large tomato plants with calendulas growing in between them! Sounds like a mess, but it is ordered and I just love the contrast in color and use!"
Laura Olney on Saturday 7 January 2012
"Lyngard, you might want to consider 'square foot gardening' as a way of maximising your growing space - take a look at this article: http://www.growveg.com/growblogpost.aspx?id=148. And thanks to Eileen for providing a little bit of the history of the potager. Good luck to everyone thinking about trying out this style of gardening this year!"
Ann Marie on Saturday 7 January 2012
"Lynard, you may want to consider the function of the home landscape. Why not integrate edibles in with landscape plantings. Why not have beauty and utility? Some ideas; Ground Covers ? Dwarf Rosemary, Thyme, Sweet Potatoes, Strawberries Herbaceous Border ? Artichoke, Basil, Kale, Sage, Rhubarb Shrub Border ? Almonds, Apple (dwarf), Blueberry, Bush Plum Hedges ? Rosemary, Apricot, (dwarf), Elderberry, Peach If edibles in the landscape interest you check out some of these books and authors; Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy or look for books by Robert Kourik, Edible Estates by Fritz Haeg, and The Edible Front Yard by Ivette Soler. These will inspire you to use your space more productively. I have artichokes, asparagus, rhubarb, blueberries and strawberries in my herbaceous border with my flowering perennials. I have pots of herbs and annuals flanked with lemon grass and horseradish. Laura, yes some people might say they are a ?mess? but like you I think they are beautiful. "
Eileen on Sunday 8 January 2012
"What I love most about vegie gardening (besides eating and sharing the food) is enjoying just looking at it This article was great for giving me some other ideas. Thanks."
Elaine on Wednesday 11 January 2012
"I found all these comments very helpful in planning my potager garden in my small front garden. My problem is that I live alongside very hungry deer who regularly feast on my garden. Does anyone know of a deer repellent that can be sprayed on vegetables?"
Kris Martin on Saturday 23 February 2013
"Hi Kris. I wouldn't advise spraying a repellent on your vegetables - after all, if it's so horrible that hungry deer don't want to eat them, do you? The best way to avoid having your crops eaten by deer is to exclude them completely (the deer, not your vegetables!), which means a tall fence I'm afraid. Some people even build two parallel tall fences with a gap between to dissuade the deer from jumping over. It's hard to imagine how this would fit in a potager style garden, but I'm sure with some ingenuity it could work. I was recently asked a similar question, and found the following websites which you might find useful: http://www.deer-departed.com/deer-resistant-vegetables.html http://nwfarmsandfood.com/index.php/deer-resistant-vegetables I hope that helps!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Saturday 23 February 2013
"Wow... the first sentence was a turn-off... People who'd love to grow their own food, but a vegetable garden would be 'out of place'. If a person's desire to grow food is dependent on it looking like the grounds of Downton Abbey, then maybe they'd be better off just shopping down at Trader Joe's....."
Phil on Tuesday 29 March 2016
"Hi Kris, you can use the deer fence to grow runner beans as well as training espaliered fruit trees and berries. Be creative and make it part of the design. A low level solar powered electric fence that you bait with peanut butter may also act as a great deterrent. Liquid Fence is a great deterrent but stinks to high heaven. Non toxic to humans and pets and will not affect the taste of food. Train the deer with it on first planting not after they have started grazing. "
Peggy Bowers on Tuesday 20 December 2016

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