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.
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.
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.
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.