Potager or Kitchen Gardens

Red and green lettuces planted with violets and swiss chard

What exactly is a kitchen or potager garden? In essence, these trendy terms basically describe a garden filled with vegetables, herbs and fruits. All food gardens are technically kitchen gardens, but this term is often used for a garden planned for beauty as well as function. 

Potager garden

peas, radicchio and calendula flowers

Kitchen gardens have been around for hundreds of years. The French call it a potager garden, coming from the word potage for soup. Faced with usually small garden spaces, they have learned to grow enough vegetables to feed their families. And flowers to cut for the table. 

Cottage garden

British cottage gardens include ornamental plants combined with all manner of vegetables, fruits and herbs. They’re filled with lettuce, chard, sweet peas supported on twig trellises, and plump cabbages that are beautiful in their own right. Add the herbs such as purple leaf basil, lemon thyme and garden sage for cooking delectable dinners.

A kitchen garden can be precise and orderly, blowsy and tangled, or even a garden made up only of containers. But the effect is the same – vegetables and fruits grown with flowers and herbs, limited only by your imagination.

Lettuces and mesclun in rows for a potager garden

This type of garden is not used so much for large-scale production, canning and putting away for the winter, but more for immediate use in the kitchen. It can range from a small hanging basket of oregano and lettuce outside the back door to a full garden with roses, shrubs and perennials coupled with vegetables and herbs. Fruits and edible flowers certainly have a place here as well.

Why plant a kitchen garden?

We are usually inspired to start a kitchen garden because we want to taste fresh food that’s not available at the market. There is nothing quite like picking and tasting your own ripe, perfumed melon or warm raspberries right off the shrub. Greens such as arugula, radiccio and mesclun are rarely available from the grocery or farmers market, but are amazingly simple to grow. Heirloom squash and beans are easily be grown in the home garden. 

Radiccio

The freshest food

We all love having beauty around us – that’s generally why we garden in the first place. Edible plants can be artistically combined with ornamental plants to create a beautiful garden that pleases eye and palate. 

Some vegetables that lend themselves to a smaller space garden: 

The vegetables

Green beans – Come in green, purple and yellow types, in bush or pole types which produce later in the season. Plant scarlet runners, purple and yellow wax beans together on a trellis for all spectacular accent. 

Haricots verts

Eggplant – These delicious fruits come in every color and shape imaginable, from white to yellow to striped lilac to red to black, and in oblong, round and cherry-tomato sized. The compact plants make beautiful accents with striking purple flowers, dusky green-purple leaves and jewel-like fruits.

Kale – This nutritious vegetable comes in a myriad of sizes, colors and leaf textures. Unlike the familiar flowering kale, the new varieties are sweet and tender, and come in all shades of blue, purple, pink and red. Best of all, they produce all summer.  

Winterbor kale, pretty as any flower

Lettuce – there is no end to the colors and textures, not to mention the countless types of greens mixes. These make beautiful bed edging and thrive in baskets.

Batavia lettuce

Pepper – Peppers come in all colors, shapes and sizes, jewel-like fruits hung on ornamental plants. Choose orange, red, white, purple or brown bell peppers, scarlet cayennes or jalapenos, tiny upright mirasols, rich golden bananas and cubanelles or even tiny but potent maroon scotch bonnets. 

Cayenne peppers

Tomatoes – Grow cherries on trellises or patio tomatoes in the ground or in containers. There are methods to prune and pinch and train them onto a single stake, taking up much less room than in a tomato cage. 

Classic Salad Niçoise

This salad is a classic French dish and can be adapted to any seasonal vegetables and your favorite vinaigrette. Add edible flowers like calendula petals, nasturtiums or violets to make it pop.

Your choice of vegetables: 

sliced steamed baby potatoes 

green beans

artichoke hearts

small cooking onions or scallions

hard boiled eggs

tomato wedges

sliced sweet peppers

grated carrots

cooked edamame

shredded beets

olives

capers

Set in rows on a bed of bibb; drizzle with vinaigrette of choice. 

You can also add seared tuna or grilled flank steak. 

The humble green bean

Haricots verts

It doesn’t get any simpler or more homespun than a pot of green beans. Biting into one, whether steamed, sauteed or simply fresh off the vine, is a true taste of summer. Green beans are coming in like crazy now, so pick while young and tender or visit a farm stand or market weekly for the freshest beans. 

Haricot verts

Green, yellow wax and purple beans at market

A fancy french type, haricots vert, is probably my favorite, but these tend to be fleeting, ephemeral. There are specific varieties of haricots verts that grow long and thin, but really any green bean can be eaten as haricots verts. You must simply pick and consume them when they are very young. 

Most haricots verts varieties are bush-type beans, meaning that the plants get about a foot tall and then cover themselves with long, thin pods. 

Bush beans vs. pole beans

Bush beans produce a quick crop in early June and are then done. Pole beans, whether purple, green, lima, Romano or just plain green beans like Blue Lake or Tendergreen take a bit longer to get started but will produce abundantly all summer. 

Easy to grow

Green beans of all types take little special care and are seldom bothered by insects and disease. You simply need to provide decent garden soil and plenty of sun and water. Pole type beans will need a trellis to climb (a chain link fence is perfect if you have it). 

Succession plant

To keep bush beans coming through the summer it’s necessary to succession-plant every two weeks or so. I put them in pots this year which gave me no room to do succession planting. So, I put them around the perimeter of a large pot, constructed a bamboo trellis, and then put pole green beans in the center. When the bush beans are finished in the next week or so, the pole beans will take over for longer production through the summer.

How to prepare

I grew up snapping beans on the front porch with my grandmother. She put the beans in a pot of water with a ham hock, salt, pepper and a little sugar and then boiled them for several hours. I’ll admit to not being a fan as a kid although whenever I taste them cooked this way now, a wave of nostalgia always overcomes me. 

As a grown-up, I discovered the French method of blanching beans that makes them irresistible and preserves all the good “beaniness.” You simply bring a large pot of water to boil, liberally salt the water, tip and tail the beans and then toss in the boiling water for 2-3 minutes. Plunging them into cold water stops the cooking process and gives you crisp-tender beans that are the essence of summer. All they need is a spritz of lemon and a dash of salt.

Blister your beans

To take them one step further for extra pizazz, blister them. Film a cast iron skillet with olive oil, mince a large clove of garlic and add the garlic and blanched beans to the skillet when hot. Saute, stirring frequently until the beans are slightly charred. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Blistered Green Beans

1 lb. green beans, trimmed  

1 clove garlic

olive oil to film the pan

salt  

Add the beans to boiling, salted water and allow to cook for 2-3 minutes. Drain and cool by running under cold water in a colander.  Smash the garlic clove and mince roughly. Heat a cast-iron skillet and film it with olive oil. Add the green beans and cook on medium-high heat for about 5 minutes. Add garlic and continue to cook, turning and stirring until the beans begin to char. Turn off the heat and salt the beans to taste. Enjoy warm or at room temperature.