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kitchen garden design
Published June 9, 2022 by Nicole Burke

What Is a Formal Potager?

Filed Under:
garden design
garden layout
garden inspiration
kitchen garden styles
Nicole Burke in a formal potager designed by Rooted Garden

Formal Potager Garden Design

Just like with homes, gardens come in all different styles, sizes, and layouts. 

I typically employ one of six different layouts when designing gardens using the Gardenary methods: border gardens, twin gardens, garden trios, keyhole gardens, four-garden classics, and formal potagers.

Today, we’re going to focus on the formal potager cuz I’m feeling fancy. (After you look at these pictures, I hope you’re feeling fancy too!) 

potager with borders and walkways

Potager Definition

As I wrote in my book, Kitchen Garden Revival, a formal potager is “so large and ornate we had to call in the French language to help us describe” it. Potagers, however, did not begin as large and ornate. In fact, they come from much humbler origins.

The word itself actually evolved from the act of stepping out to the kitchen garden to fetch some fresh herbs for that night's soup, or potage. Potager (pronounced poe-ta-zhay) came to mean vegetable garden in French.

Potagers evolved with the times, transitioning from the simple kitchen garden behind the house to elaborate monastery gardens filled with medicinal herbs and espalier trees. The Renaissance took gardens and turned them into ornately laid-out, intricately patterned things, as it did art and architecture.

The word potager now describes a kitchen garden that's been elevated to the next level of form and function, a garden that goes beyond a few raised beds. We’re talking spaces that include additional features like fountains, fruit trees, seating areas, etc.

Think the highly ornate chateaux parterres like the ones you would see at Versailles but then downsize those to fit in your backyard and suit the style of your home. I like to think of formal potagers as the grand foyers or ballrooms of gardens (except much more relevant to modern life). 

If highly ornate is not your thing, that's okay too. The potager layout can be as informal and relaxed as you want.

Formal potager designed by Rooted Garden

Potager Garden Layout

A common theme in potager layouts is symmetry. You'll typically see raised beds arranged in a grid-style with designated pathways in between.

The formal potagers I’ve designed are often four L-shaped raised beds around a central focal point, and the effect that’s created feels like you’re inside a maze or a special enclosure. Potagers can make even large outdoor spaces feel intimate.

We design all of our garden using raised beds, but potagers also leave a lot of space for creative groupings of containers, oversized pots, statues, and more.

potager layout

Tips to Design Your Own Formal Potager Garden

If you’ve got space in your landscape (an area that’s more than 20 feet wide and long), you have the opportunity to have something really special, budget and gardening time allowing, of course, with a formal potager. Think of all the good stuff you could harvest from four or more raised beds.

Follow these tips when designing your space:

Create a focal point

Thanks to the use of gravel paths in formal potagers, the eye is typically drawn to the middle of the garden. Add a sculpture, a fruit tree growing in its own raised bed or large container, an obelisk trellis covered in vines, a seating area, or a fountain to this central area to tie the entire space together.

potager designed by Rooted Garden

Remember accessibility

Raised beds in the potager layout are typically accessible from multiple sides. If you can tend each bed from all sides, you could go as wide as four to five feet with each raised bed. Anything beyond five feet, however, would make it difficult to tend and harvest from plants the middle of the bed.

If you can only tend from one side (say, for example, one side of your potager would need to back up against a fence or wall), I’d recommend staying under two and a half feet, which is probably about as far as your arm can reach. 

formal potager layout

Add vertical interest

Garden design means using more than just the horizontal space available in your yard. Building height is incredibly important too, not just for adding vertical interest but also for maximizing your growing space. Nothing accomplishes this quite like the right arch, obelisk, or panel trellis. When designing potagers, I love to connect two beds with an arch trellis spanning the opening. Few things are more beautiful than an arch trellis covered in tomato vines or another climbing plant. (Explore our complete list of what to grow up garden trellises.)

Shop Gardenary Trellises
formal potager with olive orchard

Think about color

You'll often see repeating themes in traditional potagers. An easy way to create a theme in your own space is through use of colors. Plant swiss chard varieties like Bright Lights that will have jewel-toned stems that match the flowers you plant in the corners of each raised bed. Or grow some French marigolds to match the citrus fruit forming in the large pot in the middle of your potager.

colorful relaxed formal potager

Play up a natural boundary

Historical kitchen gardens were often enclosed to protect the plants growing inside (and perhaps the gardener themself while they were busy tending). Because of this, potagers became private places where the gardener could contemplate and find peace. Create your own little enclosure by adding a wall, privacy fence, or a hedge along a border of your potager if you don't already have one. Espalier trees can be trained along a fence, and bonus: they're edible!

formal potager in backyard

Design Your Own Dream Garden

We've got lots of resources here at Gardenary to help you create a space where you can grow and flourish. Check out my book, Kitchen Garden Revival, or for more step-by-step garden design info, enroll in the Kitchen Garden Academy. We'll teach you our proven system to design your own beautiful, productive, and thriving kitchen garden, no matter your prior gardening experience.

Thanks for helping us bring back the kitchen garden, whether you're gardening from a small herb garden or a grand potager!

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What Is a Formal Potager?