Creating an American Potager, Part III

So far in this series, we’ve discussed the traditions of the potager, Rosemary Verey’s deservedly popular interpretation of the concept, design alternatives for gardeners in climates less hospitable than Verey’s Zone 7, and possible American interpretations of the classic potager. In this final segment, we’ll be focusing on the mechanics of the garden, a subject that includes some further design possibilities.

If you read Marcia Macdonald’s excellent article on her personal potager that I referenced in Part II, you’ll know that an important part of her decision-making process was being realistic in calculating how much time she could spend each week tending the potager (in her case, she estimated that she could devote three hours per week). Therefore, she limited the size of her potager to 32 square feet, excluding two exterior ornamental borders. So, in planning for the potager, consider how much time you have, or want to allocate, each week to keeping the garden attractive and productive during the growing season.

Walking the garden every couple of days is one of the best ways to keep the garden healthy. You can’t attend to problems and pests you don’t observe. I used to walk the garden first thing in the morning, with a cup of coffee in one hand and a trug in the other hand so I could quickly pull up any newly developed weeds while checking on the general progress of the plants.

The next thing to consider in planning the potager is the type of produce you hope to consume and when you’d like that produce to be available. Do you really want to plant all your lettuce at once—no matter how attractive it may look—or would you prefer a continual harvest of lettuce? Also, consider how your lettuce section will look once all the heads have been harvested:  Will it be bare ground, covered with weeds, or do you have a warm-season vegetable ready for succession planting where your cool-season lettuce formerly grew?

How are you going to site tomatoes and runner beans to keep their height from looking awkward? (Hint:  Wooden and wrought iron structures become garden architecture, while wire and netting look too utilitarian.) How will you accommodate companion planting? Although potagers take advantage of intercropping to reduce insect pests, a half-dozen tomatoes planted together doesn’t necessarily minimize disease or take advantage of helpful root exudates from possible companion plants without careful planning.

Raised beds image courtesy of Popular Mechanics

Another aspect to consider before starting your potager is the preparation time in establishing the garden. The soil of a potager is typically prepared in a manner similar to French Intensive Gardening, which allows for plants to be spaced more closely due to extremely friable, somewhat mounded soil that is never compacted by foot traffic. Whether your potager will be at ground level or in raised beds, you never want your edible plants to be more than 2 feet away from where you can tend and harvest the plants unless you provide stepping stones or smaller, secondary walkways for access. Two feet is about the maximum comfortable reach for caretaking and harvesting. If planting at ground level, each bed will need to be double dug (see here and here). If planting in raised beds, you may only need to single dig below the height of the raised bed, depending on the condition of your existing soil. (Raised beds also allow you to create “walkways” out of two 6 x 6 timbers, side by side, to extend the depth of the bed beyond 2 feet.)

Personally, my favorite approach to some of the issues raised above is a “mixed border” design—incorporating annuals, shrubs and perennials with the edibles—such as Nan Beeson’s garden design allows, or to use a modified Square Foot Garden, named and conceptually developed by Mal Bartholomew. Bartholomew’s book on square foot gardening remains a classic, and it’s still the most useful reference for how many radishes, carrots, tomatoes, or whatever can be planted into one square foot of intensely friable soil.

Square foot garden beds image courtesy of Allen Centennial Gardens

The square foot garden concept allows you to have an attractive looking garden all summer while still being a little bit lazy with housekeeping. One of the critical concepts of square foot gardening is to shade out weeds through crop cover. This means that you can plant out a “square” of lettuce—that will be harvested early—next to a tomato plant—that actually requires two “squares”—knowing that the tomato’s growth will eventually disguise the bare soil where your lettuce once grew. Or you can crowd together some annuals early in the season, and then re-plant some of them in a bare space later on. By using a “mixed border” concept you can plant perennial ornamental grasses next to determinate tomatoes, knowing that the main growth of the ornamental grass comes at about the same time that you’re ready to harvest your tomatoes. (Determinates, such as cherry tomatoes, produce a crop that ripens all at once, unlike indeterminates, that keep on producing as long as the weather cooperates and the plant remains healthy.)

Finally, in considering the layout and design of the potager, plan for some permanent structure by selecting strategically placed shrubs to mark boundaries, provide screening, or just to add visual interest. And don’t forget to keep a journal of your potager plans to record layout diagrams, succession planting timetables, seed requirements, and any changes or additions you want to make. A journal can definitely help to make time spent in the potager more productive and more enjoyable.

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