Creating an American Potager, Part I

The French word “potager” (poh—tah—zhay′) translates to “kitchen garden”, although, colloquially, the term has come to denote an ornamental kitchen garden. Likewise, the French word “parterre” simply means “flower garden”, but, again, common usage of parterre generally refers to formal, symmetrical flower beds hedged by a short border of evergreens and separated by walkways. Potagers are often laid out as parterres, offering an interesting combination of casual and formal.

Image courtesy of ©Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

In America, some of the earliest and best known potagers were constructed in Williamsburg, Virginia. Although the photograph shown here depicts flower beds, the original garden was probably planted with a variety of herbs and vegetables to meet the resident family’s culinary needs.

More recently, the English potager that Rosemary Verey created on her estate, Barnsley House, has revived interest in the potager on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Verey designed a number of potagers for her clients, as well as parterre-style gardens. I recommend her book, Rosemary Verey’s Good Planting Plans, for detailed information and ideas.

By planning her own potager as a decorative garden, rather than just a utilitarian space, Verey was able to place the garden close to the house, where a kitchen garden is most convenient. A true decorative kitchen garden includes flowers, trees and shrubs, as well as herbs and vegetables; and Rosemary Verey was systematic in determining the layout and location for each element.

Since all herbs and vegetables require full sun (with the exception of lettuce, which can be grown in indirect sun), Verey sited her tall, structural elements, such as roses and raspberry shrubs, along the perimeter of the potager. Even her apple trees, which form the centerpiece of each garden square, were grown on dwarf stock and deliberately pruned to prevent shading out the vegetables, herbs and flowers sharing the squares.

Secondary path in Verey’s potager image courtesy of Rosemary Verey’s Making of a Garden

Like most of us, Rosemary Verey was on a budget when laying out plans for her potager. In her book, Rosemary Verey’s Making of a Garden, she describes how she scoured the area for buildings that were going to be demolished in order to pick over the bricks or stones so she could haul them back to Barnsley House to use for her potager walkways. Charmingly, all of her potager pathways are laid out in different patterns and with different materials. She also economized by only making the central pathways wide enough to accommodate a wheelbarrow. Secondary paths were made just 18” wide, in order to save on paving costs while, at the same time, providing more growing room in the planting beds.

According to Verey, the Barnsley House potager was about the size of a tennis court. It also utilized hundreds of miniature boxwoods to form short hedges, delineating the edges of the beds. While boxwoods tend to thrive in Verey’s Zone 7 climate, they are marginally hardy in Zones 5 and 6. They are also expensive to purchase en masse and are frequently infested with Boxwood Psyllids in our hardiness zones, which cause the leaves to cup and curl. In Part II of Creating an American Potager, we’ll consider design possibilities for the potager, including and beyond the traditional parterre.

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