A beginner’s guide to growing a productive kitchen garden (potager garden)

A beginner's guide to potager gardens

Kitchen gardens, also known as potager gardens are smaller style plots that follow principles of garden design to create an area that is ornamental and productive. This type of garden grows seasonal produce and flowers and has a flow to it that is different from a garden with ruler straight rows and unsightly muddy walkways. This post will introduce the concept of the potager garden and why it can be beneficial on your homestead.

There is just something so much tastier about a vegetable when you’ve grown it yourself. Even if it’s small. Even if it’s misshapen. Even if months have past and it still doesn’t meet the amount the recipe dictates. If all you’ve managed to do is save its seeds after a growing season, then that is ok too.

Kitchen gardens are not new but they are becoming increasingly popular, especially to those that maintain much larger vegie gardens.

Kitchen gardens, also known as potager gardens are smaller style plots that follow principles of garden design to create an area that is ornamental and productive. This type of garden grows seasonal produce and flowers and has a flow to it that is different from a garden with ruler straight rows and unsightly muddy walkways.

This post will introduce the concept of the potager garden and why it can be beneficial on your homestead.

Why potager gardens are useful on homesteads

Once upon a time kitchen gardens and market gardens were a necessity in homes worldwide. With the arrival of the first supermarkets these garden spaces became almost obsolete and as housing blocks grew smaller and smaller, and supermarkets stayed more and more open, kitchen gardens made their sad way out the door.

The farming and homesteading movement has created a surge in being able to grow and raise our own food and an increased importance in food security in recent years only continues to push the relevance of kitchen gardens.

Potager gardens are really useful for homesteaders. You may be a larger scale grower of commercial fruit and veg but still want something small for the family.

Or, you may have great soil and space for a larger market garden that serve your community and helps bring in a bit of additional income, but the vegetables, fruit or herbs grown are not as varied as what you need.

Whatever the reason, a potager garden is smaller to manage and maintain, but will still need some work.

person watering plants

Traditionally, the kitchen garden was used to grow everything necessary to stockpile and store food away for the winter months. The kitchen garden selection should be what you need to grab for dinner on the day. That’s basically the meaning of the word.

At its heart, ‘potager’ (pronounced ‘poe-ta-zhay’) is the French word for ‘kitchen garden’. Taken literally, the phrase translates as ‘for the soup pot’. It derives from the process of gathering pot herbs for the soup or ‘potage’. And this practice of growing fresh seasonal crops with flowers and herbs is a tradition that stretches way back. 

Where some will grow staples such as herbs, onions, cabbage, or potatoes, others may rely on the main garden for larger produce. There is no reason as a homesteader you cannot have both, and there are benefits to structuring your food production in this way.

Picking the right spot for the garden

Unfortunately just because you may be lucky enough to have the space in your garden for a growing bed, doesn’t necessarily mean things will grow. There is the penultimate mixture of water, soil, rain, wind, sun and shade that will help determine what will grow and how successful it will be.

Whilst there is such a thing as a green thumb, more often than not there needs to be a much greater focus and understanding in knowing your environment and what you’d like to plant.

Depending on what you’re growing, some vegetables (such as tomatoes, capsicum, chilli, and zucchini) need a full days’ worth of sun. Others, such as leafy greens (lettuce, rocket, and kale) can survive off three or four hours of sunlight at day.

photo of man standing surrounded by green leaf plants

Then there is the question of whether you’re going to build raised beds or simply grow in the ground. For plants that need good drainage (peas, potatoes, cucumbers, eggplant), a planter box can be an effective way of ensuring successful growth. They’re also great for preventing pests from attacking your crop. Including your pets.

From little things, big things grow!

The first question new growers are often faced with when starting a kitchen garden is whether to plant seeds or seedlings. There are benefits to both, depending on what you are starting. Onion for example, is sometimes better in sets (young onion bulbs) but you can start them as seedlings.

Growing from seedlings and small started plants is easier, but growing from seeds is much cheaper. You have to wait a bit longer if starting from seed, but it’s still just as productive and fun.

This type of analogy applies to plants in general though I think. When I was getting the lilly pilly hedging, I remember the owner of the nursery said that the larger the tree (the costlier to buy conversely) but also the easier/quicker/better it is getting it into the ground.

Seedlings and smaller young plants need a lot more labour from you, whereas getting something much more mature means the labour has been done by the grower, and you have a much stabler and stronger plant that will likely take to its new home much better.

Once you’ve made that decision, you then have to decide what you’re going to grow. To help with this, there are certain crops that are generally easier to grow, and make a great place to start.

food healthy macro lettuce

For 2022, I bought myself a Diggers Club Gardening Membership and this has been brilliant in educating me about my climate and zoning and what is best to plant in which season. You also get free seedlings each year, and email notifications if something you’re after returns to stock.

Something like this is recommended to ensure you remain seasonal in your planting and planning and also are getting the right variation for your garden.

As a start, I would recommend starting with something easy. Potato’s, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, zucchini and lettuce are very easy to grow.

Then there are the staples of every kitchen garden. I am always harvesting herbs, lettuce and tomato from the garden, as they grow in abundance and are used in almost every meal.

Size doesn’t matter

I write this from the perspective of a homesteader with ample space, but you don’t have to be a homesteader nor have a huge amount of space for a potager garden.

There are plenty of options for people who don’t have a lot of space to still have a kitchen garden. Consider growing your garden up the wall, or hang your herbs from the ceiling. My sister used to live in an upstairs apartment (with a business below) and she had a small verandah where she had an herb wall.

six potted plants close up photo

There is an abundance of plants that will thrive on a vertical wall. Not only is it a great way to ensure they receive plenty of sunlight, it can also keep them protected from harsh elements.

Principles for creating a beautiful potager garden

Potager gardens should have a focal point – something like a container overflowing with strawberries or an archway strewn with grapes, or beans or snow peas! Pathways or lines can be created in the garden design through a walkway, encouraging not only the seasonal growth of fruit and veg, but also providing a serene and beautiful place for you to wander and explore.

Plants can be used to help bring colour and design together. Rhythm is achieved by repeating the same plant along the hedging – such as with marigolds or calendula – which have the secondary benefit of providing beneficial bugs to the garden as well as their beautiful flowers.

The other benefit of planting like this ensures that if you get a bug infestation, you won’t necessarily lose the entire crop and will still have sections within the garden immune to whatever has attacked it.

green and red tomato fruit

Edging beds or vegetable plot boundaries with low lavender or box hedges, 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 favorites such as lettuces or compact curly-leaved parsley to make them easier to harvest regularly. This is where planting your favourite herbs is handy.

Potager garden layout

This is limited entirely to your imagination! Potager gardens can be vegetables only, or vegetables and beneficial flowers, or vegetables and fruit orchards – you name it, you can do it!

Shapes for the raised beds can be as varied as you wish. Forget about traditional rows and let your imagination soar. Whether you prefer circular shapes, or squares or diagonals or zig-zags the layout of your potager is based on your preference and your use of your garden.

Don’t forget about the non-plant components of the garden too – paths can be made from any material and potager gardens themselves are perfect projects for upcycling recycled and repurposed materials from other building or DIY projects.

white and brown wooden signage

Just remember, however you design your garden has to work for you. Whether you have drip irrigation or hand water your garden will have an impact on your design.

Because the potager garden does need annual crop rotation (which you should be doing with seasonal planting), you need to make sure your design is simple enough to accommodate changes you need to make, but also that it is fit for purpose.

Whatever method you use, a well-planned potager garden is sure to please not only the eye, but the taste buds too!

I would consider my current garden a kitchen garden, as I grow seasonally and use a mixture of vegetables, herbs and flowers, but it most certainly isn’t laid out like a proper or traditional potager garden. One day when we move out to our bigger land, I’d love to have a market garden on a larger scale, and a kitchen garden just for us.

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