Gardeners in Hardiness Zones 5 and 6 need to be creative in designing a potager. No cute little boxwood hedges lining the beds for us—they probably won’t make it through the first tough winter. Also, maintaining the hedge is a job in itself: Rosemary Verey delegated the task to one of her gardening assistants. Better that we consider some inexpensive, low-maintenance alternatives to boxwood. If you’re located in Zone 6, a lavender hedge might be attractive. For Zones 5 or 6, consider Teucrium chamaedrys (Wall Germander) or Nepeta racemosa ‘Blue Wonder’ (‘Blue Wonder’ Catmint), both of which are appropriately sized for border hedges and have attractive leaves all season. If you insist on having some winter interest, try planting a low, clump forming ornamental grass to provide golden foliage until the grasses are ready to be cut back in spring. Regardless of your choice, anticipate several years of making divisions or taking cuttings to economically supply enough hedge plants.
Living hedges aren’t the only way of visually segregating planting beds from pathways in a potager. An American potager with grass walkways can be just as attractive, or more so, than paved or gravel walkways, and certainly less expensive. Grass walkways can take a beating from cart or wheelbarrow traffic when initially preparing the beds with amendments and any fresh soil, but, once the beds are established, cart contents are likely to be trays of plants and not sacks of humus. The following photographs are intended to provide ideas for alternatives to the traditional parterre-style potager.
The first two photographs come from a 1992 article in Horticulture, “Work in Progress”. Farmer and gardener Nan Beeson has laid out her garden as a series of well-separated squares edged in 6 x 6 timbers to provide both visual division and a useful mowing strip. At the center of the squares is a diamond-shaped raised planting box, serving as a focal point and as an architectural element. The central planter box also offers variation in height, a necessary feature for a visually attractive garden. Large-scale plants and/or structures are important for preventing a garden from resembling a miniature golf course. No matter how interesting the colors or shapes of the plants, a garden where no plant is taller than two feet is instantly boring and repetitious.
The next photograph, also from Horticulture (1993), “Partners in Planting”, shows a wide lawn divided by a T-shaped reproduction of a dry stream bed lined in stone (or possibly concrete poured to mimic stone—a less expensive alternative). The trellis at the beginning of the bed, as well as the mature evergreens and trees in the background, provide visual height and structure, while the bed itself forms a long vista drawing our attention to the tall, dramatic backdrop. Although this particular bed has been set out with stones, low shrubs and perennials, there is no reason this shape and location couldn’t form the basis of an elegant potager. In a bed wider than four feet, the occasional discreet stepping stone could provide interior access.
The last photograph, from a 1992 Horticulture article on Oatlands garden in Virginia, shows how a terrace adjacent to the house can incorporate beds for the potager. A round glass outdoor dining table—with or without an umbrella—and a few casual chairs would provide a delightful way to relax surrounded by both edibles and ornamentals. A similar approach to design can be seen in the chapter “An Outdoor Dining Room” in Rosemary Verey’s Good Planting Plans. The Oatlands garden layout is closest in feeling to a formal potager; but, as the other photographs suggest, an American potager doesn’t need to subscribe to classical European design in order to be aesthetically successful. Harmony within the overall landscape, and a design in keeping with the age and style of the home, is most important in deciding on how and where to place the potager.
As a final note on potager design, I recommend this article for an example of a successful potager in Maine. Note the designer’s thought process in establishing the garden, as well as her effective use of attractive living and non-living materials to visually segregate and screen the potager. The author uses raised beds for her plants, and that will be one of the topics in Part III of this series as we look at the mechanics of planning and planting the garden.