amy azzaritoDIYoutdoorpast & present

past & present: kitchen garden history + terra cotta diy

by Amy Azzarito

beatrix potter, ‘sketch of a greenhouse, fawe park’ (1903) via the v&a’s exhibition: the real mr. mcgregor’s garden

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.

the white house kitchen garden

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 GardenBoth 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.

Materials Needed

  • lime
  • water
  • 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.

Materials Needed

  • 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!

  1. Dip an old rag into the wood stain.
  2. Rub stain evenly into the terra cotta.
  3. Rub off the excess.
  4. Let the stain dry and repeat for a mottled look.

Materials Needed

  • milk paint
  • lime
  • 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.

  1. Using a sponge brush apply milk paint to the terra cotta.
  2. Let paint dry for at least one hour.
  3. Apply lime as directed above.
  4. Once lime has dried, sand the pot to get the desired effect.

elephant watering can, herbs and terra cotta pots from sprout home

The finished project! My own tiny kitchen herb garden!

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  • Wow great post, I wish I had room to put in a true kitchen garden, but I guess I’ll have to settle for a veggie garden and tomatoes come August… Life is good.

  • Great post!
    Where is your lovely floral curtain (is it a curtain?) from?
    Thanks so much!!

  • I (heart) that Irish walled garden. And good for you, for not letting a little lack of space hold you back!

    I wish I was a little more disciplined with my formal garden design… but as you can tell from my garden blog, I am not. I sneak edibles in with my ornamentals wherever I can, though–these pictures above prove that functional can still be beautiful.

  • Such a perfect post! I love gardens and don’t have a yard for a nice big one, so these pots are just what I need!

  • Have you ever seen a more adorable watering can than that little elephant? I haven’t! Thanks for the tips on glazing flower pots.

  • This is absolutely fascinating to me. We’re in the midst of planning our garden right now and I hadn’t heard of a kitchen garden. I’m hoping with a little extra research I’ll be able to make it work in my little backyard. Thanks!

  • hi courtney – the watering can is from sprout home ($12). the link is above, right under the last photo.
    -amy a.

  • I love your past-present series so much that I bookmark them for use in our homeschool. Thank you so much!

    By the way, anyone who enjoyed this post might like to look into the history of french intensive gardening too.

  • Amy, that was a great run down of kitchen gardens! I just started researching historic walled kitchen gardens, including ones in the United States. Apparently Edith Wharton had one at her home The Mount, but it is no longer there. I’ve been fascinated by the walled gardens ever since my dad read The Secret Garden to me when I was little. Happy Gardening!

  • What a lovely post…really had me thinking about gardening–even though I’m knee-deep in it–as it’s just the time for new plant beginnings here in the south of France. I love visiting the edieval gardens for the herb collections, but am equally charmed by the flowers I come across in my neighbors’ potagers. The more I work in the garden, the more flowers find their way into my cooking…The photo of the Lissadell House garden is magnificent, all those undulating tops pf plants.

  • Wow, what a great post! Some little kitchen garden trivia for you – Monastery gardens in the Middle Ages (especially in France) were also a profound expression of Christianity. Being a walled-in area impervious to the outside, these gardens were understood to be a representation of the Virgin Mary (ie. they were walled-in – chaste- areas that paradoxically bore fruit). That was of course until St Francis of Assissi decreed that there should be no walls, fences, ditches etc. in gardens because it displayed a wanton privelging of one kind of plant/creature over others in a disharmony with nature… Do you think that you could do a post on orchards next? (I’m thinking of the orchard at Sissinghurst).

  • Oooh David! Thanks for the trivia. I love the idea of doing an orchard post! Apparently at one of the Rothschild houses (maybe Waddesdon?), after dinner the servants would bring in trees from the orangery so that guests could pick their fruit right off the trees. It was considered more elegant than just having the fruit on the plate. I just love that!
    Cheers, Amy

  • okay. so this is way too cool. as the owner of a very overgrown backyard, this post has got me itchy to break out the graph paper and figure out how to possible squeeze a lil kitchen garden into the space

  • We’ve recently started planting a kitchen garden at my flat in London. I have sowed cucumber, rocket, pak choi and broccoli seeds so far and we’ve planted some strawberries. I have been totally inspired in this endeavour by a new BBC TV show fronted by Alys Fowler called the Edible Garden. It’s such a lovely show – those in the UK should look into it. I think she’s doing edible flowers this week!

    Love the elephant!

  • Hey neat! I always “age” my plant pots too, but I just cover them in acrylic gesso, let it almost dry, then run it under a faucet and scrub it gently with a potscrubber.

  • For my wedding (seems like forever ago), my florist dipped simple terra cotta pots in a bucket of water with gold spray paint sprayed on the surface. The pots came out all flecked and peely, like aging statues. They were beautiful with huge cottage garden flower arrangements.

  • Amy – Thank you for your beautiful use of our Garden Roses wrapping paper. Just prefect with that charming elephant. I gasped when I saw it. And thank you, too for the aging techniques.

  • Great post! I absolutely dream of having a kitchen garden one day (maybe just a little smaller than the Louis or Victorian). And I too, love the elephant (way too cute!).

  • Great post! I wish I had an outdoor space. I recommend visiting the Chateau de Villandry, in the Touraine region of France, which has outstanding gardens, kitchen and medicinal.

  • Superb article. Love the history! I was surrounded by gardeners growing up as it is quite common back in the West indies. I have a big yard myself now but prefer the wild look. We all appreciate those that have a green thumb, unfortunately lacking in my department. Trying now to revive my houseplants!

  • *sigh* to have space for a kitchen garden.

    There’s something particularly appealing to me about this blend of beauty and utility.

    For now, I’ll have to stick to herb pots in the kitchen window too.

  • Another tip from an Aussie balcony garden, apparently terracotta pots dry out faster than plastic, so need to be watered more often.
    Definitely a consideration in Australia, where we have scorching summers, and have been experiencing a long drought (+ water restrictions!)
    Terracotta does, however, look much lovelier than plastic pots!
    I think we need a post on how to make plastic pots more appealing :)

  • I want to weather various terracotta pots in my London garden to get rid of the orange colour and was excited to discover your milk paint method. I have now found out however that milk paint comes in so many different colours. Should I buy oyster white as I want a very pale finish but not completely white? What colour did you use in the photographs? I hope you are able to advise me. Louise Malcolmson