Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An American Potager Handbookby Jennifer R. Bartley
Most gardeners know how rewarding it is to harvest ripe, sun-warmed tomatoes or pungent herbs straight from the garden. But those pleasures can be multiplied a hundredfold by creating a garden that is not only productive, but also a beautiful, well-integrated part of the home landscape. In this handsome volume, Jennifer Bartley shows how the traditional features of
Most gardeners know how rewarding it is to harvest ripe, sun-warmed tomatoes or pungent herbs straight from the garden. But those pleasures can be multiplied a hundredfold by creating a garden that is not only productive, but also a beautiful, well-integrated part of the home landscape. In this handsome volume, Jennifer Bartley shows how the traditional features of the classic kitchen garden, or potager, can be adapted to contemporary American needs and conditions. The book is informed by her conviction that the nurturing, preparing, and eating of fresh, home-grown vegetables contributes enormously both to our ties with the natural world and our ties to each other. Copiously illustrated with photographs and with the author's delightful watercolors, Designing the New Kitchen Garden offers the perfect blend of inspiration and practical guidance.
“This lushly illustrated, 250-page hardback shows layouts for gardens planned to keep their visual appeal throughout the year, gardens that are virtually outdoor rooms.”
- Timber Press, Incorporated
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Read an Excerpt
What is a potager? Translated literally from French, potage means a soup of broth with vegetables. For Europeans, le potager has come to mean simply a vegetable garden (jardin des légumes). But the term potager carries with it a much deeper historical tradition. This meaning stretches back to the Middle Ages when all of Western civilization — literature, history, and science — was hanging by a slender thread, hidden behind the high stone walls of medieval monasteries. These cultural outposts were small, isolated, and largely self-sufficient. For the most part, the monks and nuns grew their own food, herbs, and medicines. Within small geometric plots, useful herbs, vegetables, and perhaps some flowers for the chapel altar were grown year-round for daily use. Monastery gardens were more than vegetable gardens, however; they were also used as sites for meditation and prayer.
Just a kitchen garden?
Georgeanne Brennan, cookbook author and owner of a cooking school in Provence, describes a potager as a year-round kitchen garden whose purpose is to supply the kitchen with fresh vegetables and herbs on a daily basis. The French have always grasped this important connection between the garden and the kitchen. The nearby potager supplies food for the household, and what is grown in the garden is served at the table.
The term jardin potager first appeared in 1567 in the Charles Estienne and Jean Liébault work L'Agriculture et Maison Rustique, in reference to a garden of edible plants. Later, the word potager was used on its own to mean the same thing. A potager is different from the traditional American kitchen garden, which is typically planted in the spring and harvested in the fall, with all surplus being canned, dried, or otherwise preserved for the winter months. In former generations in America, the majority of citizens were farmers. In addition to whatever cash crop they produced, rural families depended on their own gardens for fresh and preserved foods. These gardens were not designed in the sense of an ornamental garden: farm wives had large plots fenced against roaming domestic animals, and these gardens, even with a few flowers, were entirely utilitarian. The gardens were laid out much like smaller versions of the plowed fields in the landscapes around them.
In their Summer 2001 catalog, Ellen Ecker Ogden and Shepherd Ogden, authors and cofounders of The Cook's Garden in Warminster, Pennsylvania, wrote:
The new American kitchen garden is a place where gardening is a pleasure for both the gardener and the cook, a place to grow both vegetables and flowers together for the simple delight of watching them blossom and fruit, and the pure pleasures they provide the table. Our own kitchen garden is the center of our summer months, and we spend as much time there as possible because tending it is a pleasure, not a chore.
The definition of a traditional kitchen garden depicts a seasonally used space defined separately from the rest of the residential garden — the ornamental plants and lawn areas. And, in fact, most suburban vegetable gardens are still miniature versions of grandmother's farm plot. They are rectangular areas consisting of regular, mounded, mulched rows: one row of beans, one row of tomatoes, and one row of squash — more than the family will consume. Annual flowers may be in another bed or border, and shrubs and blooming perennials are on the other side of the house, where the neighbors can see them. These traditional kitchen gardens are not designed, and we tend to apologize for their lack of aesthetic appeal by sticking them in the far reaches of the backyard, out of sight.
What makes the potager different from a typical vegetable garden is not just its history, but its design: the potager is a landscape feature that does not have to be hidden in the corner of the backyard, but can be the central feature of an ornamental, all-season landscape — even in the front yard of a home in the most exclusive residential neighborhood. The potager is a source of herbs, vegetables, and flowers, but it is also a structured garden space, a design based on repetitive geometric patterns.
While the typical vegetable garden is a bare rectangle of soil and mulch throughout the dormant season, the beauty of the potager is that it has year-round visual appeal and can incorporate permanent perennial or woody plantings around (or among) the annual plants. Evergreen shrubs are planted with perennial roses and annual vegetables. Thus, the potager is more than a vegetable plot: it becomes an outdoor room, with "carpet" and "furniture." It can be near the kitchen door in a suburban yard, or it can be the central design in an urban garden. It is a well-designed place that feeds the soul as well as the stomach. It can be tiny — four small squares and just a few species of plants — or opulent and bursting with color, texture, scent, shape, and exuberant placement of the plants. The potager is a simple concept that enables any of us with a garden, small or large, to design for year-round visual satisfaction, while reaping the bounty of the edible and fragrant fruits, vegetables, and flowers it provides.
The potager is more than a simple kitchen garden; it is a philosophy of living in harmony with nature. It is a dependence on the seasons and the earth to supply the bounty of flavors and textures for the kitchen; in the spring we enjoy a salad of red radicchio with white radishes and early peas, a dessert of strawberries and cream with a sprinkle of candied violets, and for the table vase a bouquet of fragrant heirloom peonies. In the height of the summer, a quick sauce of coarsely chopped tomatoes, basil, Italian parsley, onions, and garlic is served over pasta; the green beans never make it to the table, as they are eaten sweet and raw from the vine, while the tomatoes, herbs, and flowers are gathered into a basket. Some lavender blossoms are folded into a vanilla custard for dessert, while additional purple stems are gathered along with the chartreuse flowers of 'Envy' zinnias (Zinnia elegans 'Envy') for the table decoration. The light begins to change in the season of harvest (although we have been harvesting and replanting all summer — not just once in the autumn). The flavors become deeper and richer — a spicy pumpkin soup is cooked within the fleshy shell. The brown remnants of the late fall garden, when frost has killed the sensitive heat-loving vegetables, remind us that if fate is kind to us, we can do it all again next year, season by season, and then again the year after that. Before the garden is cleared and prepared for the winter, we gather a few seeds from a favorite calendula and heirloom tomato. This becomes the hope for the next spring season and ensures that we pass on these memories and flavors to our children.
The potager carries with it a counterpoint and irony of meanings. It is a designed garden with the gardener controlling and dominating the landscape, yet it is a respectful concession to time, the circular rotation of the seasons, and the power of nature. The potager is a paradox of control and intervention and patience and acceptance. It is a reminder of our humble state to plant a dry, brown seed into fertile soil and watch it grow, without any assistance, into a fragrant and colorful vine producing bright green dangling pods or a plant with pungent, tiny, softly hairy leaves to walk on with bare feet. It is always a miracle when we scatter a few seeds in various locations in the bare spring earth, and then with patient anticipation, by the end of the summer, we are engulfed by a garden of fragrant, edible, useful, and beautiful plants. The potager garden is a beautifully designed garden room where we grow the flowers, fruits, herbs, and vegetables we use in the home.
The enclosed garden is a haven of beauty. A modern version of hortus conclusus, an enclosed garden of the soul, is very much needed as a model of design for our busy, cluttered lives. We need a garden where we can escape the stresses of urban life, a designed space to step into to forget about traffic, work, and deadlines. We can create an oasis where every sense is brought back to its fullness. This is the modern potager garden — a garden of any size — that fits into our urban or suburban worlds, where we can find healing restoration for our souls and unique specialty delights for our stomachs. Gardens revive us. The very act of tilling, planting, harvesting, and then preparing food strengthens and deeply satisfies us. It is even more rewarding when this garden is part of our homes, where we can enjoy its spiritual and physical bounty every day.
The earliest kitchen gardens
We need to understand historical gardens, not to re-create an authentic monastic or medieval garden, but to apply the literal design model of the medieval hortus conclusus and a bit of the simple, balanced agrarian lifestyle that is healing and dependent on fresh, authentic food. It reminds us of the possibilities of balancing spirit, soul, and body. It helps us think about our homes and gardens as bits of paradise, where friends and family can come to be refreshed and healed, and our potager gardens as workshops, where we hone the art of growing and preserving edible delights. This is the lesson for modern living — that our gardens would be a source of pleasure and healing to those that visit us.
In Western Europe, the form of the traditional kitchen garden — four quadrants with a water source in the center — evolved from a combination of symbolism and the local environment of the gardens of Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Babylon. The early Persian gardens were walled gardens that contained shady, green vegetation and canals of flowing water; this was a direct contrast to the surrounding harsh, brown desert climate. The tree, so rare in the desert, became a symbol of life and fertility. The Persian kings used these enclosed gardens as royal game parks, where they could hunt for exercise and recreation. The gardens were lush and contained fragrant fruit trees, under which one could relax and indulge in sweet refreshment with the cooling sounds of precious bubbling water. Date, fig, and pomegranate trees supplied life-giving sustenance.
This is the origin of our word paradise, which comes from the Persian pairidaeza and literally means a wall enclosing a garden or an orchard. Later, visiting Greeks were so enamored of these lush gardens that they adopted the word paradeisos, which is translated as park, garden, or pleasure ground. In Greek translations of the Bible, paradeisos was used for the Garden of Eden. The idea of paradise as a heavenly abode became interchangeable with the Garden of Eden, and it was understood that the garden was enclosed.
An architectural feature derived first from the Greeks and then the Romans, the peristyle is a colonnade surrounding a garden open to the sky. Typically it was in the center of the dwelling with rooms arranged around it. This central garden was the foundation of Roman family life, where they entertained, rested, and placed representations of their deities. The rooms of the house were shut off from the street, and views were directed inward through the covered columns into the garden. This open central garden created a special haven of light and breezes to cool the house. The garden was lush with edible plants and pools of water, creating a private paradise for the owner, the size and lavish quality limited only by the owner's means. Later the peristyle — with its layers of central open garden, covered walkway, and internal rooms — was adapted to Islamic gardens and to the cloister in monastic gardens.
Islamic gardens embraced the concept of representing paradise on earth through the enclosed garden. These gardens also contained linear canals of water that represented the rivers flowing from the Garden of Eden, dividing the garden into four quadrants.
Genesis 2:8–10, from the King James Version, describes the first garden:
And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.
And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.
This was the goal of the earliest kitchen gardens, in both the Muslim and Judeo-Christian tradition: to get back to the original, perfect garden where humankind was at peace with God and nature. Create a lush, green garden with fruit trees like the Tree of Life, producing every kind of fruit. Create a garden where the most beautiful flora growing in perfect harmony would surround the visitor with fragrant, cooling textures of green with highlights of every imaginable hue to please the eye and the tongue. This was a reminder of heaven, where all manner of delights would be enjoyed in a garden of shade and flowing water for the faithful believer.
Two archetypes: East and West
Two archetypes developed from this obsession with Eden. Both were inspired by the surrounding landscape. The Eastern archetype is the oasis in the desert. The cooling shade of trees and running water provide a refuge for the weary traveler. This concept of safety was transferred later to the Western archetype as the clearing in the wilderness.
The landscape of Western Europe was entirely different from the desert. In many places, temperate forest covered the land. in the Middle Ages, an opening in the dense, sometimes unknown and unsafe forest, was a refuge. The Eastern and Western traditions both have the same meaning, that of a haven and refuge, a place of protection and a representation of heaven on earth. This is the foundation of the hortus conclusus.
Meet the Author
Jennifer R. Bartley holds a master's degree in landscape architecture from Ohio State University, where she has served as an adjunct professor and critic in the design studios. Still living in Ohio, she is now in private practice as a landscape designer, artist, and photographer. She has traveled extensively throughout France to study traditional potagers (kitchen gardens), and has created her own versions of these gardens for American chefs and gardeners devoted to using fresh, seasonal, and local food. By emphasizing both functionality and design in her work, Bartley seeks to create beautiful and vibrant gardens that embrace a simpler life more connected to the landscape, the seasons, and the food we eat.
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