Fruit and vegetable growing is in vogue, with an abundance of roots, shoots and leaves being good for the economy as well as offering nutritional value, style and a sense of decorative order.
Traditionally, a potager was both ornamental and productive — with medieval gardeners yielding the ingredients for ‘potage’, a thick and wholesome soup. Formal patterns of low hedging were used to provide structure, while seasonal crops planted between brought varied colours and textures.
Today, other options such as hazel hurdles or stainless steel edging can be used; these have the advantage of being far easier to maintain than hedging.
Sun, Shade and Shelter
Site the potager where maximum light falls — although cane fruits, brassicas and perennial veg will tolerate some shade. To minimise the shading of one crop by another, locate taller plants on the north side, and lower ones to the south.
If your plot is very exposed, a good windbreak is a must. Each metre of height will provide 10m of protection on the leeward side. In very windy conditions a solid wall tends to generate turbulence that can damage crops, so a semi-permeable screen such as a native hedge is best.
Other protection includes meshed cages to keep the birds off soft fruit and fleece, which can be introduced to help insulate early blooms and fruitlets from frost.
Sometimes a temporary shade netting is also required to prevent the leaves of young seedlings from scorching sun.
Ornamental and Edible
There’s a wide selection of plants to mix and match for year-round interest. Most crops have varieties bred to withstand harsher conditions, or to fruit early or late in the season.
The current trend – especially if you’ve limited space in the garden – is to dot and weave different species through the planting beds. Many flowers are edible – to toss in salads or float on a cool summer cocktail – as well as sitting pretty and attracting pollinating insects.
Stripes of alternating veg with companion flowers can also look dynamic. The bonus is some strong scented blooms confuse insect pests and prevent them from attacking their favourite crops.
Harvesting fruit and veg means reaping the goodness from plants and the soil, so nurture the land by adding plenty of well-rotted organic matter for the best possible crops.
If, after builders have been at work, the soil is compacted or your site lies on hard clay or sand, raised beds offer a stylish solution and avoid the hard graft of digging. Plus there’s less need to bend over if you’ve got a bad back, and they need less watering than individual pots. As long as the bed has a minimum soil depth of 15cm, you can grow plenty and even construct it on trestles, with space to tuck a wheelchair underneath.
From pea towers to pergolas, the vertical elements in your potager can look sculptural, screen a view and, of course, support climbing or trailing fruit and legumes such as beans and peas. Tall perennial crops like artichokes and sweetcorn look architectural and add drama.
Remember too that standard forms of currant (with a bare main stem of approximately one metre) are easy to pick from, and can be underplanted with salads, root crops and herbs. Soft fruit can be trained to mark the different zones of your garden — for example separating the family football lawn from the prize potager.
By all means pack in the plants, but don’t forget the practical paths needed for access. Measure the space for you, your trug and a passer-by. Access paths should be at least 60cm wide, and 90cm to accommodate a wheelchair or a wheelbarrow.