The First Principles for Starting a Kitchen Garden—the French Way

June 20, 2017

I discovered the potager, or “kitchen garden,” when we first moved to Provence. Everyone in that part of France had a garden, and every day, someone from the household would go out to gather the foundation of the day’s meals. The vegetables changed with the seasons, and seeds and seedlings were planted all year long, ensuring a continuous flow of food.

The importance of a potager in the scheme of French country life cannot be overestimated. Indeed, I devoted a whole chapter to the topic in my book, La Vie Rustic. The deed to my house in Provence specifies, among the several parcels of land, barns, and outbuildings, un potager. The designated piece of land for this garden is adjacent to a field and next to a well, a hefty distance from the main building.

This is not unusual, however. In the grand scheme of French rural life, even as property was divided in inheritances, each dwelling had to have what was needed for a sustainable life. In my case, this included a plot for a vegetable garden, a bit of land for trees and crops, space to keep animals, a share of the threshing ground, and a source of water.

Ever since my initiation into the tradition of the potager, it has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my life. When my first husband and I moved to a suburb in Northern California after returning from France, we established a potager in our front yard. After digging up half the lawn, we planted peas, radishes, carrots, and lettuces in early spring, followed by squashes, eggplants, and peppers for summer. We couldn’t find seeds for fava beans, so a French friend mailed some to us. We harvested from the garden all spring and summer long, and our table was never bereft of fresh vegetables. As fall’s cooler weather approached, we planted cool-weather crops like broccoli and cauliflower and made salads throughout the fall and winter.

Today, all of my children have their own vegetable gardens, from a backyard in San Francisco’s Mission District to raised beds in a Portland, Oregon, side yard, and they cook from them on a daily basis, bringing my grandchildren along to help with the harvest.

I know planting a kitchen garden may seem daunting, but, like so many things, once you’ve started, you’ll find it isn’t so mysterious after all.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I have a house in the south of France --- I have vegetables and flowers at the bottom of the garden. The best advice I got: plant all your herbs outside your kitchen door -- in pots if necessary --- that way you will use them, by stepping outside and snipping what you need with ease, and at the last minute. You're welcome!”
— Leslie B.

It doesn’t have to be large. Remember, it’s just a garden to provide a little something fresh for you and your family each day throughout the season. It could be just some radishes and arugula in spring, zucchini and tomatoes in summer, lettuce and chard in fall, and, depending on where you live, spinach and broccoli during the winter months,. It can be a small garden, 12 feet square for example, or even smaller.

Here are some tips to get you started:

1. Pick fool-proof seeds.

One tip for success is to choose seeds that fit the season and are pretty much fool-proof, like radishes, arugula, and peas in spring. These are all vegetables that are most successfully grown directly from seed, rather than from transplants. You could also sow some lettuces seeds, but you can use transplants for these if you prefer.

2. Add flowers.

I like to plant a row, or sometimes a circle, of nasturtiums in my garden in spring, then as the weather warms, I add sunflowers and zinnias. They’re just simple, easy to grow flowers that add color—and also cuttings for bouquets. Like radishes and peas, these flowers are easily grown from seed.

3. Don’t overdo it.

I remember being way too ambitious with an early try at a kitchen garden. The space I allocated was too large, and I planted mostly vegetables to harvest in summer. It was way more than enough for daily use—more like enough to feed the entire neighborhood. People got tired of me trying to fob off my huge zucchini and endless eggplant on them. I couldn’t keep up with the food it produced. I discovered the French-style kitchen gardens to be on a more human scale.

4. Always be planting.

The number one trick to a successful year-round garden is this: While you are still enjoying one harvest season, you are also planting for the next. When you are serving your spring radishes with butter and sea salt, tossing your spring peas in risottos, and adding handfuls of arugula to your salads, make way for your summer plantings. Clear some space, turn your soil, and plant a few cherry tomato seedlings and some sweet pepper plants, purchased at your nursery. Also plant seeds of green beans and summer squash. By the time your radishes are getting pithy, the arugula flowering and the pea pods starting to dry out, your summer garden will be near to its first harvest.

Try the Green Garlic & New Potato Soup from Georgeanne's new book, La Vie Rustic, and shop her gardening and cooking products in The Food52 Shop.

This article was originally published in March. We are featuring it again today in honor of France Week, which you can see here.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Leslie Bacon
    Leslie Bacon
  • Smaug
  • mainecook61
  • NancyFromKona
  • Shirley Adams
    Shirley Adams

Written by: gbrennan


Leslie B. April 11, 2017
I have a house in the south of France --- I have vegetables and flowers at the bottom of the garden. The best advice I got: plant all your herbs outside your kitchen door -- in pots if necessary --- that way you will use them, by stepping outside and snipping what you need with ease, and at the last minute. You're welcome!
Smaug March 31, 2017
The article is a bit short on actual gardening advice, but this kind of thing can be fun and productive. You will, however, have to make an effort to actually understand your plants and their seasonal behavior. Fresh commercial seeds of just about any vegetable variety are going to be quite dependable but you will, once again, have to make an effort to understand the process. Arugula you can just about throw a handful of seeds out the window and start harvesting the next morning, but that is not reasonable as a general expectation. I don't like to recommend commercial products, but simple systems of a heating mat and a clear, closed planting box- and maybe artificial lighting- can be a big help with starting seeds and cuttings- systems are available from Park seeds and Hydrofarm (through nurseries, Amazon etc.), probably others.
mainecook61 March 31, 2017
Idyllic--and not terribly practical. Peas, for instance, require quite a bit of space, unless you're only dribbling half a handful in a salad. And radishes can be picky---mine prefer fall weather. More practical: snap peas, which yield a lot in a small space. I have a big garden, but if I had a little one I'd also grow: bush beans ( a few feet yields a lot); a summer squash plant; a few cucumbers on a trellis; basil; parsley; dill; a tomato plant or two; a bell pepper or two; an eggplant or two; lettuce; radishes. Pole beans (the delicious Fortex) can also work, with a proper 6 foot tepee of poles. A bit more space? Napa cabbage from seed; perennial bunching onions (for scallions); a couple of broccoli plants; white turnips (fall). This writer does mention succession planting, and that's important. In Maine, I sow my last seeds (spinach, turnips, fall carrots, Asian greens, chard, more lettuce and radishes, fall beets) in late July and August. We will eat from that fall garden (which also has June- planted cabbage, broccoli, cauiflower, brussels sprouts, leeks) until December. Garden supply stores sell many devices designed to maximize space by growing plants upward, and these are a great idea; Japanese vegetable gardens make great use of them.
NancyFromKona April 27, 2018
Recommend checking out Stacey Murphy’s wise words and YouTube videos. She made a business doing backyard herb and veggie gardens in Brooklyn of all places. I thought I knew all there is to gardening but apparently not as I continue to pick up great ideas from her. Start small, plant what you like to eat, successive planting, trellis your vines, and greens and herbs are very economical since $ at the grocery store for markedly lower quality compared to just picked. Sun, sun, and more sun. Grow your soil by composting your kitchen and yard scraps. Happy growing!
Shirley A. July 30, 2019
I like to grow my snap peas and beans up a trellis so I don't have to lean over so much to pick them. After a week spent gleaning bush beans, I was sick of bending over. I use sticks bamboo sticks in teepees tied with twine at the top for my tomatoes because I only use heirloom indeterminate varieties. I prune most of them as I have a short growing season. I also grow small lemon cukes and trombocinos along a tall trellis. I like these Italian squashes better than other summer squashes because they aren't watery inside and are good stuffed. I also like to stuff and cook the last blossoms of the season. I try to use short season vegetables as I live near Stowe in Vermont. I recommend Renee's Seeds, Johnny's selected seeds, and Seeds of Change for excellent germination. I want to try those purple ball carrots that don't change color when cooking. Purple asparagus does change, but is sweeter than green. I am so glad that I put in an asparagus bed four years ago, well worth it. I surround my garden with nasturtiums, Mexican mint marigold, basil, and a few other herbs to ward off insects and add color. I also use rainbow chard. I got some devices for my pumpkins to sit on so they don't rot. And I also set them on flat rocks. I grow spicy mesclun, small beets, small asian mustard, dill, cilantro, etc. Also that multi-colored swiss chard. Spinach mildews here. We never know if we will get sun or rain! My garden is completely organic.. I originally double dug it, got the rocks out, rototilled in compost and greensand, and every year I add more compost and a bit of lime. I plant pretty closely to keep the weeds down. I also use straw not hay to mulch. I used hay once and it was a total disaster! I am putting gravel down on the paths and some ornaments next year. I need to build some more raised beds, and put up a more attractive fence so I can have a nice deck and patio back there. But next year I am going to start preparing a bed of hardy and unusual fruit trees and shrubs behind my slower beds, Eventually I will build an arbor for some hardy kiwis. My husband only likes stuff you can eat, but I like my perennial flowers, lol.
One hint: grow pole beans, and grow the french kind -- so much tastier. They used to be called Emerite, but the name changed this year. I love pole beans, as I grew up in the South, where they used to cook them to death. But I saute them with garlic. I need to start growing several other veggies, when I build more beds! Sorry for the long post! Enjoyed the article and comments! Have you ever seen photos of Beth Chatto's kitchen garden? Best ever!
JenniferJ December 23, 2021
Love love love this post and the thread overall. It’s a treat to read about people’s gardens and the things they have learned and love. It’s December 2021, and I am reading this story for the first time. I really enjoyed it. Beautiful photos. I am curious about the book.