If I had an outdoor space, I’d have my hands in the dirt right about now. Instead, I’ve been distracting myself by flipping through books about other people’s gardens and I’ve become entranced with the history of the kitchen garden. The kitchen garden is a bit different from the humble vegetable garden – which is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall (with surplus canned or dried). The kitchen garden is designed to be useful and visually appealing year-round, and often incorporates flowers (edible as well as non-edible) amongst the vegetables. The visual appeal of the kitchen garden is extremely important. The kitchen garden is not solely concerned with food but also with beauty. In French it’s called a potager (love that word!) – what’s grown in the garden is served at the table.
the kitchen garden at bois richeux, a medieval garden south of Paris
A traditional kitchen garden has four quadrants with a central water source. This design evolved from a combination of sources – the gardens of Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamia and Babylon. In the Middle Ages, monasteries developed elaborate kitchen gardens. Because they were secluded from the outside world, the monks were responsible for growing the food necessary for their survival. Not only did the monks have elaborate kitchen gardens (and were great seed savers), but they also would have had a cloister garden, a medicinal garden and an orchard.
le potager du roi via jardinludique
At the end of the 17th century, Louis XIV had a great kitchen garden planted at Versailles. This was someone with rather high expectations so it’s no surprise that the garden utilized the best technology of the time and provided the king with asparagus in December, strawberries in March and cucumber and peas in April – whatever the King wanted and whenever he wanted it. Like the french medieval garden above, Le Potager du Roi, was (and is) organized into sixteen squares rather than rows and are all oriented around a large pond. All around this Grand Square, behind high walls, were twenty-nine walled gardens containing fruit trees, vegetables and berries. Now these gardens – 22 acres – are managed by the students École nationale supérieure du paysage. (Can you imagine going to school at Versailles?!)
I’m determined to not let my lack of outdoor space keep me away from growing my own food! I’ve created a mini herb kitchen garden, and to achieve that old walled garden look, have faux aged a few terra cotta pots. See below for three ways to age a terra cotta pot!
CLICK HERE for more kitchen gardens + the diy project!
victorian walled garden at lissadell house in sligo ireland
Walled Kitchen Gardens
Walled gardens have an interesting history in their own right, but I’m trying to stay on topic here. The walled kitchen garden reached it’s apex in Victorian England. Queen Victoria had her own 32-acre walled kitchen garden at Windsor palace. Victorians excelled at the game of one-upmanship and loved bringing home exotic fruits or developing new varieties to wow their neighbors. The high garden walls provided extra security for these precious fruits and vegetables and for an added level of surveillance (and simple Victorian practicality) the head garden’s cottage was usually built right up next to the garden walls so that two of the garden walls were used for the house.
victorian gardeners at winsford walled garden
The Head Gardener
The head gardener in a Victorian household was responsible for providing the family with fruit and vegetables all year-round. His rank within the servants was on par with the highest house servant – the butler. Gardening was a science and as such was considered a gentlemanly pursuit. The head gardener would have been responsible for keeping those exotic fruit plants alive or for developing new varieties that might be named after the family or the house. The head gardener was so respected that even members of the family would not have cut a single flower or picked any of the fruit without a go-ahead from the head gardener.
In this country, the kitchen garden (and even the simple family vegetable garden) has regained a significant amount of popularity. (I know I’m stretching it a little with this image – a kitchen garden should be used year-round and not planted in rows!) In Louis XIV’s France, the potager was directly responsible for the delicious food that found its way to the table. So here’s to good eating!
Books to Read
- Designing the New Kitchen Garden – Both a history and a practical guide to planting a kitchen garden. If you have some outdoor space to cultivate, this book will provide some inspiration and guidance. If you’re an armchair gardener, there are plenty of beautiful photos to drool over.
- A History of Kitchen Gardening – This book leads you on tour around an old walled kitchen garden in the south of England.
- Victorian Kitchen Garden – This book is a lot of fun to read. Interspersed with the history of these gardens is the story of the author attempting to restore a walled Victorian kitchen garden.
Facts to Know
- The great Joseph Paxton, who in 1851 designed the huge glass building known as the Crystal Palace, was first, the head gardener to the sixth Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth.
- The Victorians loved their science and manure from different animals was used for different plants and purposes. Horse manure was used for forcing vegetables in the winter, cow manure was considered good for fruit trees and pig manure was good for growing pineapples.
DIY Project: Aging Terra Cotta – 3 ways
I’ve been working on aging terra cotta pots for a while. Initially I tried the natural way, brushing yogurt on the pot. Let’s just say that what grew on the pot wasn’t anything that I wanted to share. (Nasty, nasty mold). So I gave up on the au naturale method and embraced the faux methods. Here are three ways you can add a little visual interest to a simple, cheap terra cotta pot.
- terra cotta pot
- natural brush
- medium grit sandpaper
You can find lime at your hardware store in the garden section. The lime adds a lovely weathered texture to the terra cotta. If this is going to be an outdoor pot, then the milk paint method might be better for you – the lime will wash away in the first rain.
- Mix one part lime to two parts water. Stir until fully combined.
- Using a natural brush, brush the lime over the pot. It will dry fairly quickly.
- Once the lime wash is completely dry, randomly sand the pot to achieve desired weathered look.
- dark wood stain
- old rag/cloth
- terra cotta pot
The wood stain gives the terra cotta a dark weather-beaten look. I love the texture!
- Dip an old rag into the wood stain.
- Rub stain evenly into the terra cotta.
- Rub off the excess.
- Let the stain dry and repeat for a mottled look.
- milk paint
- terra cotta pot
- sponge brush
- medium grit sandpaper
If you want to age a pot that is going to be outside, this is the method for you. You can even skip the lime step. The lime just adds a little additional texture.
- Using a sponge brush apply milk paint to the terra cotta.
- Let paint dry for at least one hour.
- Apply lime as directed above.
- Once lime has dried, sand the pot to get the desired effect.
The finished project! My own tiny kitchen herb garden!