Form as well as function
You can transform your vegetable area this Summer by thinking of the concept of the Potager Garden. This style is a combination of the English cottage garden where both edible and non-edibles co-exist with the French love of geometry and romantic flair.
The Potager garden had its zenith in 17th Century France where vegetable gardens became more formal and introduced a stronger aesthetic of formal paths, geometric shapes and the choosing of plants for their colour and form, not just their everyday edible function. Herbs rubbed shoulders with Roses, Tomatoes with Marigolds. The word ‘Potager’ simply means vegetable or kitchen garden.
The essence of the Potager is that your vegetable area becomes a beautiful structure in itself and walking into the area becomes an experience of both funcundity and order, of simplicity and abundance.
How to design your Potager Garden
Decide on a geometric structure. This can be a wagon wheel shaped collection of beds, or any geometric shape you can think of. Keep the area quite simple as the plants will give a dynamic look.
The important thing is that you follow some of the basic principles.
Normally the beds are raised for ease of access as well as giving the area crisper edges and more three dimensionality of space. The edges of the beds can be box hedging, Corten steel, sleepers, or gravel boards lined on the outside with willow screening.
Paths are quite narrow allowing easy access to the plants from all sides and the paths need to be made from a hard surface to keep mowing and strimming away from the area. Also the paths increase the sense of formality and clean lines. They can be gravel which makes that delicious sound under foot, paving or even membrane and bark.
You can use archways to create an entrance to the area which gives the experience a note of specialness- like walking through a magic door into a fertile and dreamlike world of edibles and splashes of colour.
A greenhouse with attached cold frames can become the centre of the area. You can spend a bit more and get a beautifully made one, say with a brick wall base of 80cm and even a wooden frame. It will last a life time and every time you look, it will give you enormous pleasure (rather than a cheap glass and plastic one). The garden can expand from this hub with a series of geometrically arranged raised beds, straight shingled paths and a host of colourful vegetables and flowers. It can become an alter for your worship of abundant and beautiful nature!
Another aspect of Potager design is making sure you have verticality. This can be achieved through planting- tall Fennels and Angelicas, Sunflowers and Corn, or through metal pyramids and cane wigwams which you can grow beans, sweet peas or climbing roses which can cascade down.
Edges are important. In the beds themselves or along the edges of the paths you can grow Lavender, Calendula and Catmint. Camomile can be grown between the pavers which when you can gently tread upon to release their scent.
Colour is vital and you don’t need just flowers to produce this. Choose unusual vegetables like red stalked Ruby Chard, Barecole Redbar and Lettace Lolla Rossa with their red and green ‘oak’ leaf. Purple Ruffles Basil and the deep dark green of crinkly kale (which my wife cooks with olive oil, salt and Parmesan cheese in the oven). Normal crinkles, Parsely is great in rows and can even outlast a cold winter if sheltered.
Other wonderful plants are Amaranthus caudates, Lablab purprens and Borage plus you can throw in some traditional cottage plants that can dot the area with colour like Poppies and Cornflowers.
Fruit can and should be incorporated into the scheme, with raised beds of Strawberries (whose beds can also serve as a launch pad for Tulips in mid spring), Apples and Pears can be espaliered along the path and larger Apple trees and dwarf Cherry and Peach trees can be planted along back walls or along sheds. Raspberries, Gooseberries and Blackberry cultivars can be planted so they weave into the tapestry of vegetable and ornamental planting.
You can also create a garden within a garden by making a ‘Witch’s Garden’ which is a bed or series of beds just for herbs. I’ll give a list of herbs here as some of them you might not have tried. Lemon verbena, Chamomile, Hibiscus, Bergamont, Dill, Aloe, Rue, Angelica, Catnip as well as all the tried and tested ones. Herbs like purple Sage and Chives can be grown as you would ornamentals, for their foliage and shapes
You can compliment these structures by adding a formal hedge or topiary which contrasts with the wildness of some of the larger unruly vegetables like beans and tomatoes. They will look slightly surreal growing right out from the middle of a bed of carrots and potatoes and will keep your garden looking good in Winter!
Make sure there is a tap to hand with a hose that doesn’t tangle up and surround the area with chicken wire if there is any threat of rabbits or deer. Keep spreading plants like mint in a pot (pots are great to give a bit of ‘weight’ to the area as well as introduce round shapes if you have gone for long, rectangular beds). Make sure the area is in as much full sun as possible, with wind breaks where needed and before you commit to the design draw it out on paper and go into your house and imagine what it will look like from different windows. Whenever I do any design I go to the different view points within the house.
So go for mixing up your garden and see what happens. It is the ultimate multi culture, where herbs and flowers for cutting, fat pumpkins, delicate chives and luxurious Roses on pyramids all weave together and yet are separated by simple geometric lines – a combination of abundance and order which can become a metaphor for your life itself!