Potager to Plate: Year-round vegetables from your kitchen garden to your table
You love the idea of going out to your kitchen garden every day, gathering vegetables for dinner. They’re fresh and crispy, beautiful to look at, and taste better than you ever dreamed vegetables could taste. You make bountiful, fresh meals for your friends and family from your kitchen garden. You are basking in the beauty of garden to table, your very own garden, tended and nurtured by you.
Then there’s reality: You’ve never planted a vegetable garden and have no idea how to go about it. You think you don’t have the space or the expertise. It would be too big a job, too much of a commitment. You don’t have the time. Oh well. Sigh.
I used to feel that way too. Then I discovered French-style potager gardens. These are year-round gardens, meant to supply your kitchen on a daily basis. They can be small, only a few short rows, or even a few one-foot squares. They can be planted in raised beds or even in pots. They can also be as large as you can manage.
The premise of these gardens it that, throughout the year, at the same time you are harvesting what is in season at the moment, you are also planting something for the coming season.
My husband and I grew our first potager, in the front yard of our very modest house in Vacaville in the 1970s, protecting it from the neighborhood dogs with a chicken wire fence. After digging up half the lawn in early spring, we planted the space with seeds of peas, radishes, carrots and lettuces. As the weather warmed in May, we ate the last of our spring vegetables, replanting the same space with summer squash, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and string beans. We picked all spring and summer long, and our table was never bereft of fresh vegetables. In late summer, we planted a few pumpkin seeds, and even though we were still picking tomatoes and peppers, we planted lettuces, carrots and radishes again, plus broccoli and cauliflower, ensuring that we’d have vegetables in fall and through the winter.
My current potager garden, at 3,600 square feet, is considerably larger than my first one, and supplies vegetables to plenty of friends and family as well. It’s not so much the size of the garden that matters as the principle of it: to supply your kitchen yearround with fresh vegetables.
Here are some guidelines and suggestions to get you inspired and to get your garden under way.
Once you have decided that you want a kitchen garden and that you have the basic elements necessary for one—at least a half day of sunlight, water and either ground to cultivate and plant or a place for containers or raised beds—the choices of what to plant, where and how much are mostly personal. A classic potager contains herbs, annual vegetables and a few cutting flowers. Ideally, it also has some perennial vegetables such as asparagus and artichokes.
A SIMPLE 9- by 12-FOOT POTAGER
This simple 9- by 12-foot potager plan includes herbs, salad greens, summer vegetables and fall pumpkins, and is adequate to provide a family of four with fresh vegetables year-round. The garden can be started any time of the year that the ground can be worked; in other words, when the earth is not frozen. Avoid planting within two months before a hard frost, or when the ground is muddy. A potager can be launched in spring with a first planting of peas, lettuces, carrots and potatoes. It can be started in early summer with green bean seeds, tomato and pepper seedlings, summer squashes, pumpkins and some zinnias. In late summer the garden can be planted with lettuces, leeks, radishes and turnips.
PREPARING THE SITE
Regardless of which season you choose to start your garden, allow time to free your garden site from currently growing weeds. You must also allot time for the weed seeds to germinate in the soil so that you can remove them. The latter is very important, for if you plant your garden with vegetable and flower seeds without first ridding it of existing weed seeds, your seeds and the weed seeds will germinate at the same time. Then you will have a great deal of work freeing the tiny vegetable and flower seedlings that are intermixed with the weed seedlings. I have learned this the hard way, watching my beautiful rows of delicate lettuces being taken over by rapidly growing cheeseweeds, pigweeds and wild grasses, and have saved them only by aggressive and time-consuming hoeing.
If the ground is soft enough, turn it over with a shovel or powered tiller to a depth of one foot or so. Smooth the ground, breaking down any big clods and pulling out any weeds that are too large to turn over easily into the earth. Rake the site level and divide it into 12 squares roughly three feet on a side. The plot should be three squares wide at the top and four squares wide on the side. Plan on running two paths, each about a foot wide, between the rows down the length of the plot. These paths will allow you to reach all the parts of the garden without stepping on any plants.
Don’t plant the garden now, no matter how much you want to begin. Instead, water it and watch for more weeds to sprout. When the weed seedlings are less than two inches high, hoe them again, cutting their roots and cultivating the soil. Rake again, this time mounding the soil of each square into a level bed about six inches high. Now you are ready to plant.
PLANTING THE GARDEN
The ground is ideal for planting when the weeds have just been removed and the soil is still moist just below the surface. Scratch down through the top inch of the soil to where it is damp, and then plant your seeds or transplant seedlings into this moist layer. Press the soil firmly back over the seeds or around the seedlings’ roots to retain the moisture. There should be enough dampness to germinate the seeds but not so much that the weed seeds will start again until you water the new seedlings in a week or so. By the time more weeds grow, your seedlings will have a good strong start.
Alternatively, plant your seeds in the ground two or three days after you cut down the second crop of weeds and water them immediately. Your seeds will still have a head start over the weeds and your garden will be under way.
Some herbs and vegetables are quick growing and perform best when planted from seeds. Others grow more slowly, and transplanting seedlings gives them a head start in the garden.
Plant each of the garden squares with seeds or seedlings appropriate for the season, choosing from the lists below. As you harvest one season’s crop—radishes, for example—plant your garden square with seeds or seedlings for the next season.
Many herbs are difficult to grow from seeds, especially the perennials, which grow year after year and are best planted as seedlings or cuttings. Buy the perennial herbs—marjoram, thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme, winter savory—in small pots or flats from a garden center and transplant them into the garden any time of the year that weather permits.
Finally, don’t be afraid to fail. Prepare the soil, plant the seeds or seedlings, water the garden and nature will take care of almost everything except the weeding. Remember, don’t be discouraged if something doesn’t grow. All gardeners fail with a plant or seed or a garden scheme, usually several times each season.
Enjoy the potager for what it is—a daily source of fresh vegetables and herbs grown by you for your kitchen.
Spring vegetables need cool weather and water to grow and remain tender. When the days become hot, the leaf vegetables become tough and the root vegetables become pithy and fibrous. Here are some options:
In early spring, plant: Seeds: arugula, carrots, lettuce, peas, radishes Seedlings: chervil, chives, leeks, parsley
In late spring, plant: Seeds: beets, zucchini, other summer squash Seedlings: tomatoes, eggplant
In summer plants produce leafy or vining growths, but we eat the fruiting bodies. To produce mature fruits, plants need warm soil and warm temperatures, along with adequate water.
In early summer, plant: Seeds: basil, dill, melon, snap beans Seedlings: sweet peppers
In mid-summer, plant: Seeds: fennel, pumpkins, radicchio Seedlings: leeks
The fall garden is actually planted in late summer with seeds very much like those of spring. Fall vegetables are leafy greens and young roots, some of which will be harvested quickly and others that will stay in place over winter, depending upon the severity of the climate.
In late summer or early fall, plant: Seeds: arugula, chard, escarole, frisee, lettuce, radishes, spinach, kale Seedlings: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, leeks, onions
The winter garden, consisting of seeds, bulbs and tubers, can be planted, depending upon your climate, from mid-fall through early winter.
Seeds: fava beans Bulbs and tubers: garlic, onions, Shallots