Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Potager

I was recently asked about what a Potager was. Let me start at the beginning.

Potager... pronounced pot-AH-zhay (the 'soft' g sound :)) is a French term, derived from the French word for soup. It basically means a kitchen or vegetable garden, often with flowers interplanted with vegetables. Most potagers are very ornamental… the herbs, vegetables and flowers that grow there are often laid out in formal shapes, and designed to look aesthetically pleasing as well as being useful.

Most potagers have a formal edging around the garden, and paths that weave in and out of the garden beds. The edging can be plants or hardscaping... like bricks or rocks. The paths are usually covered... you might use gravel, crushed shell, mulch, bricks, concrete... anything goes so long as the path is clearly delineated from the garden.

The French potager is comparable to the English cottage or kitchen gardens. The cottage gardens were also usually vegetables and flowers intermingled… and many kitchen gardens were likewise, although most were full of edibles only. Most cottage gardens, however, were not formally laid out the way a potager is.

So, how do you build a potager?

There is no real 'right way' of doing it, you just observe some of the 'rules'.

  1. The garden can be any size... but it is clearly delineated with paths in it. I recommend that the paths be at least every four feet... it is very hard to reach further in, and you do not want to have to walk on your flower beds... it can cause problems later!
  2. Make sure to use a geometric shape. This is not a 'definite' thing... you can use any shape you like... typically the potagers of old were made up of squares, rectangles and circles. Use your imagination though!
  3. A Potager has both flowers and vegetables in it. It is worth remembering that many vegetables actually have flowers of their own. The nasturtium is quite edible, the scarlet runner bean is very attractive. Herbs such as Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) and Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) have beautiful red blooms that attract hummingbirds. Comfrey and borage, yarrow and marigold are all examples of useful and medicinal herbs that can also provide a wealth of flowery elegance to a garden. Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia) and Lavender (Lavandula spp.) also have beautiful flowers. It is worth remembering that you can also use attractive foliage to make a statement in the garden…
  4. Fill it to the brim. A potager garden is full to overflowing with plants... grow vines vertically to add interesting structures and room to your garden!
  5. Don't forget the structures. Most potagers show a little 'structure' in them... a sundial, gazebo, trellis, arbour or gazing ball provide something to look at and enhance a focal point. Fountains come in all shapes and sizes, birdbaths and statues, benches and topiaries... they give a vertical height to the garden, and draw the eye to some attractive point.
  6. Serve all the senses. You must not forget that we have five senses... it is all very well to serve sight and taste... but don't forget touch, scent and sound... use a variety of foliage to create a different ‘feel’ in areas of your garden... allow water to trickle and wind-chimes to ring to help with sound, and the scent is adequately fulfilled with a plethora of scented flowers and foliage... herbs and roses are really good at this! Place Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) or Mint (Mentha spp.) in spots where legs can brush past them… let lavender cascade over the sides of a bed so that when you brush against the foliage you can smell it’s scent…Everyone should draw pleasure from your garden!
  7. Have a place... or a few places... to sit. Try hiding benches in nooks and niches, set a chair out in a space... and allow yourself a patio with a table, so that you can harvest your fresh vegetables and serve them straight away!
  8. Consider height. We have mentioned that structures and trellises give height to a garden… but it should also be noted that trees can help your garden grow upwards too. Carefully consider the spot, making sure it gets the required amount of sun without blocking the rest of your garden. Fruit trees are the best bet... they do not grow too high, their blossoms are a wonder to behold and (if you can beat the squirrels off) you have a harvest from it too!
  9. Don't forget your growing conditions. Don't be foolish enough to plant a garden in a spot where you wont get enough light, or where it floods every time it rains. Conditions like those need special care and consideration. Sometimes, fate happens... my own neighbour has planted a tree right where it will shade my vegetable garden... and my garden was there first. So far, it has been more of an annoyance than a problem, but it has started to give my garden an extra hour of shade it can barely afford. It is time that we did something about the shade from our own trees... I am not a fan of chopping down trees willy-nilly... but we have several dead trees in our garden, plus one that keeps splintering and breaking off limbs. Two trees are under heavy attack from poison ivy, and have the added disadvantage of producing numerous, prickly balls to seed from. Two other trees are of a type that grows spindly and tall... always losing branches. We are considering moving some of these trees to help deal with the problem... leaving the oldest and biggest tree in the back, and planting smaller, fruiting trees to replace those we let go. No decisions have yet been made... but those are our choices!
  10. Don't try to grow things that wont do well in your climate. Be reasonable... start small and grow things you know will be successful... lemons and limes will not grow in zones that have cold winters... you have to house them indoors. Unless you have the space and the time to devote to caring for one... don’t do it ;) Go with a hardy species... the Trifoliate Orange is a hardy orange species that can tolerate cold... and there are other trees, shrubs and plants that cannot be grown in colder temperatures that have similar relatives that will!

A True French Potager from:

A Cottage Garden from :

It is worth googling for Potager, Kitchen Garden, Cottage Garden and Victorian Kitchen Garden to have a good look at all the beautiful gardens out there! I especially recommend looking at google images!

Happy Gardening!!

Monday, April 24, 2006

Garden Adventures

This Sunday, we had a chance to work in the garden.

After a day of nothing but rain the day before, the garden was a sopping wet, humid, lush place to work... and pleasantly warm!
The two days of rain before had led to huge amounts of growth, in just a few days.
Our next door neighbour had mowed his lawn only Wednesday, and by Sunday, it desperately needed it again... but it was too wet!!

We decided that the path was going to be first in the line for clean up. Winter weed growth covered it, and it was beginning to look like it too needed mowing!



A little later in the day, the weather had managed to stay warm and dry long enough for the grass to dry out. Dh got on the riding mower, first to take the WAGONFUL (and I mean riding mower sized wagon) of weeds down to the hill bottom to dump them out (we're trying to level the ground out there), and secondly to mow the grass and the weeds down the hill. We have an especially bad problem with Japanese Knotweed down there, and it was taller than the kids!
Dh found a visitor there, who visits us fairly frequently!

This is Beau...
and this is DS being scared of him!
We tentatively identified the turtle as a male... he is an Eastern Box Turtle not a tortoise! We call him Beau after an old pet of Dh's and he is quite the regular visitor... he has lived around here for over 14 years!

Monday, April 17, 2006

Poetry Section

A Prayer in Spring

Robert Frost

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers in the flowers today;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid-air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfill.

Making a Garden

The weather has been wonderful... maybe even too good... I already sport three mosquito bites on my leg as a result!
The trees are beautifully dressed in their lime green clothes and a little rain in the form of a few thunderstorms has managed to set everything growing well. Well enough, that today is the 'last frost date' for my area and now I can plant some of those seeds I bought... if I can find where I hid them!
My herbs are fairing well... the comfrey is beginning to sport a couple of flowers... the bumble bees love them! I had to use the leaves when I wounded my leg trying to do some gardening though!
Motherwort is springing up in all kinds of unexpected places and I know that the betony is showing a few leaves as is the marshmallow.

The valerian is already in bud... and one of our old garden roses actually has a flower!! It has the most exquisite scent!

I am also please to report a plethora of flowers on the two pawpaw trees... now if only we could figure out how to keep out the animals from the fruit!

So, last week I decided it was time to make my square foot garden...

I started with some bricks, a couple of bags of compost, a bale of peat moss and a bag of vermiculite, oh and some weed block!

The weed block is placed over the area to be covered and the bricks are used to outline the garden.

I start to surround the garden with bricks, building a small wall... one side at a time, until all four are made, the back higher than the front.

Having done the sides, I fill the square with the mixture... 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 vermiculite... or Mel's Mix. (see Square Foot Gardening for details).

And then I mix them together to get something that looks a lot like potting mix!

And just to put it in perspective... this is how it looks integrated into the herb garden already there.
Not exactly the 'potager'... but close!

Once the garden is built, I change my mind... the back 'wall' appears to be trying to fall down, so I change the way the bricks lie around the outside. Or rather, my DH does! I am not entirely happy with the result... being convinced that the rain will wash my garden away... but I am not finished yet!

And here it is complete with a grid!