Building a Potager

Jay White
Graduate Student, Texas A&M University

Are you plagued with heavy clay soils? If so, a potager (or kitchen garden) may be the solution you are looking for. 'Potager' comes from the French term 'jardin potager,' which simply means 'kitchen garden'. The French are not the only ones that have developed this concept. Kitchen gardens have been popular in many European countries for centuries. Texas and the American South have their own variations. Some are very elaborate and some are very humble. However, they all share some common elements. The potager should provide all of the vegetables, herbs and cut flowers for a household as well as various smaller fruit trees and berrying plants. The potager is generally located close to the house and is arranged in a geometric layout. In fact, many potagers often resemble a parterre (a landscape area that is quite formal in patterns created from plants of various colors and/or textures, colored gravel or stone, and possibly with edges and hedging of wood, rock or brick). The potager is intended to be both attractive and practical. Annual and perennial flowers are grown right along with the vegetables. Plants in the potager are often selected as much for their form and texture as they are for their nutritional value.

a potager at the Antique Rose Emporium, Independence, TX
A potager or kitchen garden at the Antique Rose Emporium, Independence, TX

Other common elements of a potager include perimeter fencing, raised beds and paved walk paths. These features provide the gardener with very useful tools for improving their soil, reducing the mud problems associated with wet clays and controlling weeds.

Most gardeners are familiar with the problems associated with clay soil. Clay soils do not drain well. They are difficult to till and they are sticky when wet. They also make a clean harvest of sweet potatoes and most other root crops almost impossible. Clay soils also make weeds more difficult to control. Weeds that have anything more than surface roots are much more difficult to remove from clay. All of these issues can be greatly reduced in the potager.

The two biggest advantages of a potager in our area are definitely the raised beds and the paved walk paths. These combined features can greatly enhance the gardening experience in areas with less than ideal soils.

Raised beds - Raised beds allow you to either improve your existing soil or remove it from the equation entirely. If you wish to stop trying to grow in clay all together, you can create own growing medium with readily available organic materials. There are many 'recipes' out there that detail which ingredients give you a super rich growing medium. Creating theses mixes will make your garden more productive and require less water, work and inorganic fertilizers than a traditional row garden. One downside to his method is cost. Building the soil in a planting area of any size can be very expensive. A cheaper way to improve the soil in your raised bed is to continually amend your soil with readily available organic materials. Many types of compost or 'garden mixes' can often be purchased in bulk (or made at home) at your local landscape supply. This is generally much cheaper than buying the bagged ingredients. Mixing these additives into your soil over two or three growing seasons will generally provide you with a well drained, nutrient rich growing medium. Crops in these amended soils can be grown much closer together than what is recommended for a row crop. Close plantings will choke out many weed species. If a few weeds do pop up, they are easily removed from the loose soil.

Paved Walk Paths With traditional row gardens, weeds often begin their encroachment in the unplanted areas between the rows. If the rows of the potager are properly paved, weeds will be almost non-existent. If a few weeds do find a way to germinate, they can be easily pulled or sprayed without fear of over spray on your vegetables. The paths provide a comfortable place to work and provide structure that encourages you to 'stroll' through your garden.

Structure of the geometric potager taking shape'
Structure of the geometric potager taking shape

There are many types of paving available for the potager. One of the most common and effective is decomposed granite. Decomposed granite is easy to install. The easiest way install it is to excavate the area between your raised beds to about six inches below what you want the finished grade of your path to be. Once this is done shovel in the granite. Next, use a screed board to level and then water in to help the granite settle. A six inch layer of decomposed granite is almost as effective in the path as concrete. It is cheaper and easier to install and it also provides excellent drainage. Decomposed granite is attractive and durable and it provides an excellent base for pea gravel, flagstone or bricks.

Clay soils present many challenges. A potager will alleviate many of them. The time and expense required to build the potager will be returned to you in spades. Your garden will be more attractive, more productive and more accessible. The potager will also require less work, water and herbicides. Like fine cooking, the potager is something that the French got completely right!

Read more about this potager and many other topics on my blog, 'The Masters of Horticulture'.

Return to HortUpdate - May 2010 Index