The French call this type of garden a Potager. Simply put, this is an ornamental kitchen garden which mixes fruit, vegetables, flowers, shrubs and other plants. Not only does it provide food for your table but it also offers a decorative feast for the eyes.
Villandry Potager Gardens ©F.Murat
Many of the English kitchen gardens that were restored or renovated belonged to the Victorian era. Part of large estates, these gardens were highly productive places supplying ‘the big house’ with fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers. Their regimented layouts were purely functional and had specific areas for each edible plant.
In the UK the last few years have seen a resurgence of kitchen garden restorations, and although a number have been faithfully restored and renovated, many have embraced the Potager look by combining both the edible and the ornamental.
Rhubarb forcing pot © F. Murat
Restoring a period kitchen garden can be a huge undertaking as these are usually large gardens and many have been left to decline after the First World War due to the scarcity of available labour. Their maintenance regime and scale meant that owners struggled to keep up with the many hours of work the gardens required. Nowadays kitchen gardens can be restored and easily adapted to modern living by using a low maintenance regime and plants that look and taste good year round.
If you are aiming for a faithful restoration of your period kitchen garden straight away, you will be faced with the very difficult decision of which period to restore to. Do you restore to the first garden that was designed and planted? Are the original planting plans still available? These might not be to your liking and the planting plan might be difficult to execute as vegetables and fruit have evolved rapidly and extensively over the last 100 years. Some varieties might not be available or suited to 21st century gardening and living. There is no right or wrong answer, but the decision must be made before you go any further.
Old Wall at Hinton Ampner, © F. Murat
The most arduous task in restoring a period kitchen garden is the clearing of the garden and the hard landscaping. Clearance work is not for the faint hearted and for gardens on a large scale this will require machinery. Rebuilding of walls, steps, paths and any additional groundwork will need to be done before you can get to the fun bit of planting! Remember to always check with planning if your garden is listed. For this article we will concentrate on gardens that are not listed.
Clearing a garden is often the most expensive item in a restoration budget – the cost of machinery, labour and waste removal quickly adds up. Plan carefully and, as a rule, allocate at least half of your budget for this. It is important to try and get as much information as possible before you put spade, or indeed digger, to task – this will ensure you do not clear any important remnants of the old garden or destroy any features under all that weed and bramble. Check any plans or old photos, research the local history of the house/garden with the council archives and contact any historical societies. Alternatively you can hire a house historian who will do all the research for you and help build a clearer picture of your period house and garden.
Hard landscaping is the other biggest outlay of time and money. In a restoration project getting original plans and information pertaining to the garden is paramount as these usually always show hard landscaping features. These will tell you where the original walls, steps and paths were, and if your period garden has passed through a variety of families, then changes and additions should come to light. In walled gardens the renovation of the wall itself is important. Whilst they may have served to screen the main house and its visitors from the workers as well as being aesthetically pleasing, their main function was to create an ideal growing environment by protecting the plants from the elements.
Materials that were once plentiful at the time of the garden’s design and construction may no longer be available, nor indeed the special crafts required to restore certain features. Dry stone walling is often seen in Edwardian gardens and their construction almost became a lost art, but it has enjoyed a resurgence over the last decade or so. However, these skills do not come cheap. See the Dry Stone Walling Association for further information and for a list of contractors www.dswa.org.uk.
Material such as original York stone is incredibly difficult to find, especially unbroken and in good condition. Try reclamation yards which are invaluable for people like myself. One I can recommend is MASCo Architectural Salvage where one can source hard to find landscaping materials of old. They can often source reclaimed material for you, visit MASCo for more information.
Restored Vyne House West Dean Gardens, © F. Murat
If a garden is not listed I personally very much favour the reinstating of anything that can be salvaged, re-used and re-cycled, whilst adding modern elements to the garden. This, in my eyes, gives continuity to a garden and also allows these period gardens to survive, thrive and adapt themselves to our modern lifestyles.
Pear walk arch West Dean Gardens © F. Murat
I particularly like the geometric formality of older architectural styles along with features that are quintessentially Potager-like such as pear-walk arches, sweet pea tepees, large pots punctuating corners and sheds and other structures. A geometric layout is easier to maintain for busy people.
Think about what you want to grow in your kitchen garden. What do you eat a lot of? What colours and flowers do you like most? Build volumes with texture and height – vertical elements are so important, especially in a walled garden. Try Swiss Chard in different varieties to give you height and colour – they range from dark green to sunny yellows to almost purple red in colour! Try different shapes of gourds and build a gourd tunnel with living willow or hazel sticks and branches, this can make a striking garden ornament in any garden.
Go for plants that are readily available and by all means try out older heritage and heirlooms vegetable and fruit varieties from The Real Seed Catalogue for example, but temper these with modern ones too. Remember that Potager means edible and beautiful – so think about the beauty of your fruit and vegetables.
Potager gardens you may want to visit –
West Dean Gardens, near Chichester, West Sussex
Salle Park, near Norwich, Norfolk
Aberglasney Gardens, Llangathen, Camarthenshire
Barnsley House, Barnsley, Gloucestershire
The Gardens of Daylesford House, Gloucestershire
West Green House, near Hartley Wintney, Hampshire
Chateau de Villandry, Villandry, France
Chateaux de Valmer
Recommended books to read:
Creative Vegetable Gardening by Joy Larkcom
Gardens of Plenty by Marylyn Abbott
Fruit & Vegetable Gardens, The National Trust Guide
Francoise Murat & Associates is a Garden, Landscape and Architectural Interior Design practice and a member of Projectbook. The practice runs garden classes in how to grow your own fruit and vegetables. Francoise is running specialist workshops at the Georgian Group in September, October and November 2010 ‘Restoring period gardens’ .