For starters, a kitchen garden or French potager (pronounced puh-ta-zhay), is a special kind of edible garden. The potager has a rich history tracing back to old English and French culinary gardens.
Much like a traditional vegetable garden, a kitchen garden is filled with fruit, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. You could think of it as a celebration of fresh ingredients and delicious home cooked meals.
Both kitchen and traditional gardens offer a sense of satisfaction coupled with tangible rewards for a job well done. Beyond these similarities, there are some distinct differences between the two, however.
A Potager – that is, a kitchen garden – has three main characteristics:
One of the main characteristics of a kitchen garden is accessibility. It should be easy to grab the items you need to your prepare your daily meals. Therefore, a potager should be located as close to your food preparation area as possible.
Imagine you are in the middle of preparing dinner when you suddenly realize “this marinade could use a little more rosemary.” Perhaps you have some rosemary growing in your salad bowl garden, but what if you don’t? Rather than trek out to your main vegetable garden while you have pots simmering on the stove, wouldn’t you rather be able to reach right outside your door to snip a couple sprigs?
Kitchen gardens are usually smaller than traditional gardens. This is because they are usually located close to the house. How close? Ideally, a kitchen garden is placed so that the cook can quickly run out and grab fresh food as needed. By necessity, this usually limits the size available for the garden.
If you only have limited space available to plant a kitchen garden, here is a good rule of thumb to consider.
A regular vegetable garden is about planning for the future, while a kitchen garden is about enjoying today.
Take this into account when you’re planning. The fruits and vegetables you plan to preserve for future use – or crops, such as corn, that take up a lot of space – belong in your traditional garden, not the one beside the house.
This is one of the lessons that I learned from my friend Leona. She was very clear with me that there is a big difference between the foods you eat in the summer and the foods you eat in the winter. Pickles aren’t even put on the table during the summer months. (I couldn’t do that. I like pickles all year!)
Fill your potager with the items you prepare and eat fresh. Containers of fresh herbs, compact cherry tomato plants, or an assortment of leaf lettuce varieties all make great additions to a potager. The pickling cucumbers go in your regular garden but the seedless cucumbers for fresh eating go in your potager.
Think of it as a larger version of the salad bowl garden. From tiny salad bowl gardens in your kitchen to a slightly larger potager near the kitchen door to the traditional vegetable garden with its potatoes and carrots.
A standard vegetable garden is all about utility and production. Some home owners associations and neighbourhood bylaws restrict or ban vegetable gardens because they really aren’t intended to be pretty. Part of the charm of a kitchen garden comes from its ornamental aspect. Due to its proximity to the house, a kitchen garden is harder to tuck out of sight than a traditional garden and so they are usually designed for their beauty.
In fact, that’s the main difference between “a small garden near the house” and a potager. A potager is purposely and carefully designed to be beautiful.
Some herbs, such as lemon thyme, can be used to create a beautiful and fragrant border around plants and containers. Edible flowers, such as violas and daylilies, can be incorporated to add a splash of color. Compact high bush blueberry shrubs are also highly ornamental and make a wonderful, yet functional border.
As you can see, a kitchen garden offers both convenience and beauty in a compact space. If you are outgrowing your salad bowl garden, or you get frustrated with heading down to the main garden for a handful of cherry tomatoes, it might be time to look into designing your own potager.