The Homestead Potager Garden Design

In previous posts, I covered some things I know to be beneficial about choosing your potager location and designing your paths and bed styles. I also explained why I think it’s really important to make a vegetable garden functional and beautiful and inviting.

Now I want to cover a few other practical considerations that may influence your potager design and make it simple for you to maintain and use your garden effectively.

Expansion Opportunity

Homestead potagers are fueled by compost. So, I recommend that you match your vegetable garden bed size with your compost creation capacity. However, the deeper you get into the homesteading arts, the greater your compost capacity will become.

Down the road you will most definitely be able to to increase your garden size as you grow your skills. So, it makes sense to plan some additional space now to expand into later.

Pocket Potagers

If you have set aside 250 square feet now, you may want to double that two years from now. You can simply plan to expand out from your current potager. Or, you can consider the idea of pocket gardens.

Large vegetable gardens tend to be a bit like a red carpet invite for pests. They are basically a grand buffet for vegetable leaf eating insects, root eaters like voles, green eaters like rabbits, and larger pests like deer who consider our gardens to be irresistible.

Instead of expanding out into one giant vegetable garden, I have learned the benefit of having several smaller pocket potagers. These gardens can be integrated with your broader landscape.

For example, when you are ready to grow some fruit trees and bushes, then perhaps you want to tuck your pocket potagers in between your larger orchard aisles. This works well if you are planning to use dwarf or semi-standard trees pruned low. That way you’ll still have full sun for your vegetables.

Or perhaps, you want to intermix your pocket potagers with your livestock. For example, I have one of my vegetable gardens sandwiched between my chicken run on one side and my goat barn on the other. This gives me access to throw the chickens and goats garden scraps. Plus, I have easy proximity to transfer their manure and litter to my compost area.

When planning for future pocket potagers, keep in mind proximity to your house for harvesting. Also, keep in mind all the other location considerations such as sun, obstacles, water, drainage, etc. Finally, plan to unite your gardens using inviting paths that encourage you to walk from area to area so no garden gets neglected.

Larger-Sized Potagers

Expanding out to a larger sized potager can also work well if you break up some of your vegetables growing area with other beneficial plants. For example, inside my largest potgater garden, I have created islands of non-vegetable plants to break up my vegetable beds.

That makes my garden less of a smorgasbord for pests and more like trying to get to a particular store inside a mall. Pests have to navigate through places they don’t want to visit to get to the place they want. Since that’s more work, pests will often just go somewhere else where the food is easier for them to get. Or, they’ll get distracted by something along the way and forget about my more delicate edibles.

Pollinator Plots

If the only flowering food source you offer pollinators is the cucumbers and squash blossoms in your potager, you’ll have a hard time attracting sufficient pollinators to your garden. You can hand pollinate, but that makes for more work.

If you have the space, consider creating provide pollinator-friendly plots . These should be adjacent to or inside your potager areas for good yields and insect pest-prevention.

Many pollinator-friendly plants grow like weeds. They don’t require much care, can get by with lower fertility, and add interest to your landscape. So, you don’t need to factor those planting areas into your compost calculations. Think about things like mints, clovers, dandelions, wild flowers, etc.

I will share a lot more information on pollinator plots in future posts. But for now, planning some pollinator areas in or around your potager is an important step in your design. Grouping at least 5-10 pollinator plants together works best.

Yet, even if you are working with really limited space, dotting a few high-impact pollinator attracting plants (bee balm, butterfly bush, anise hyssop), around your potager area will also help ensure you get good pollination when you need it. Between a few long-bloomers and a sequence of flowering vegetables, you can help attract the pollinators you need.

We’ll get deeper into this subject later. For now though, earmark as much space as you can, close to your garden for pollinators. And keep in mind pollinators need to be part of your potager plan to keep things simple long-term.

Tool Storage

There are a few times a year when you might use a long-handled shovel, rake, and pitchfork in a potager. But the rest of the time, simple hand-held tools are all you need to grow a homestead potager. You may also need to store seed trays, watering cans, garden amendments, and a few other things year round.

Beyond these basics that any potager requires, your personal choices will determine how much additional storage you need. Here are some things to think about in your storage planning.

Design Dictates Tools Needed

Your garden design, and particularly your path maintenance, will dictate which tools you use and need to store. If you’ve made simple choices like using nutrient swales and mounded beds, then your storage needs will likely be similar to those listed above. If you’ve opted for more labor intensive choices, like wide grassy paths, then your storage needs will also likely be greater.

Take some some to figure out what your future storage needs might be based on your design plan in progress. Consider the storage options you currently have and whether they can be used for garden tools also.

Existing Options

For example, if your potager is close to your house and you a garage (or another place in your house) where you can store tools, that might be all you need. However, if you live in a single-wide mobile home like I do, and barely have room to walk down your hallways, then you may need to plan alternate storage for your garden tools.

Planning for a Potting Shed

If you intend to build something like a potting shed down the road, or some other structure for homestead use, make sure you factor that into your potager plan. Keeping that close your potager will save you steps in gathering and returning tools.

You also want to make sure that structure won’t cast shade, create wind tunnels, or otherwise become an obstacle for your potager. You may also want to consider using it as a roof surface to collect rain for watering your garden down the road.

You don’t need to know your exact plan for storage now. However, if you do think you might want to build something, then leaving space for it in or near your potager can be helpful.

Compost

Right now, you are probably focused on vermicompost and maybe bokashi to create compost for your garden. However, as you begin to increase your compost capacity, you’ll need room to store the larger stuff you collect such as cardboard, leaves, grass clippings, free mulch, all the vegetable tops you don’t eat, etc.

Also, when you start growing your own food instead of getting packaged stuff at the grocery store, you’ll find that your volume of compostable materials increases in relation to your garden success.

Plan a Compost “Bed”

Personally, I like to leave myself about an 4 foot wide by 8 foot long area, similar to a garden bed for composting. There are a lot of ways to compost that we’ll cover in more detail in future posts. But that amount of area gives you room to store, compost, turn, age, etc. enough compost for a potager garden.

If you plan to keep your potager small, such as around 100 square feet, then you just need a few feet for storage. A big pile won’t make a lot of sense in a garden that small. So, you can work with about half that space.

Manage Leachate

In the process of making compost, leachate –the liquid that runs out from your compost pile — can be either a benefit or a source or risk for your garden. Leachate can often be too strong of a fertilizer for vegetable beds. In some cases, it may also contain pathogens that you would not want to overflow onto something like your come and cut lettuce area.

Situating your compost pile so that the leachate runs to places like a lawn, the outer root zones of mature perennial plants, or to the root zone of plants that benefit from high fertility (e.g. a rhubarb patch) can harness those nutrients without harm.

Protect Ground Water

Also, if you maintain your own well, and rely on mostly untreated ground water, then make sure your compost pile is at least 50 feet away from your well head. This is extremely important if you are planning to compost manure of any sort.

Season Extension and Seed Starting

I have a 36 foot by 12 foot greenhouse. I use it to propagate plants for over 2 acres of cleared land. I also use it for growing some exotic plants that aren’t compatible with our climate such as a lemon tree, an olive tree, and year-round heads of lettuce.

Do You Need a Greenhouse?

I love my greenhouse. But, in retrospect, it’s not necessary for homesteading. It’s more of a luxury item that I enjoy. For those of you just getting started, you may feel the need for a greenhouse. However, there are much simpler solutions to get you started.

Row covers, cold frames, and even over-bed hoop houses are more self-sufficient and economical choices for simple potagers. I will cover these ideas in future posts.

Plan for Some Season Extension

For now though, if you want a greenhouse for personal reasons, please include it in your design. Make sure to keep in mind how it influences and coordinates with your design.

If you simply want to get an early start on the planting season, then set aside some space for a cold frame in your potager. Similar to making compost, setting aside the equivalent space and pathway access as you would for a 4 x 8 foot bed is plenty of room.

If you have limited space, then direct seeding fast-growing plant varieties in season using over-bed cold frames, or starting indoors under lights, are simple solutions that don’t require additional seed starting space.

Perennial Potager Plants

There are a few perennial fruits, vegetables, and herbs that you may want to include in your potager garden. Once established, many of these plants have minimum fertility requirements or just require heavy winter mulching to feed the soil life around them.

So, you may want to consider adding some extra bed space for these plants in your potager design now. Even if you can’t quite make enough compost to support them at the outset, it’s good to start these early on since perennials can take a few years go really get growing.

Personally, when I spend buying soil improvements to plant perennials now, I consider that like putting money in the bank. Later when I start to harvest, those early investments will continue to pay off for years to come.

Asparagus, Rhubarb, StrawberrIES

Asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberries are some plants I always include in or near my potager garden. For asparagus I aim for at least 20-40 square feet to make it worth growing. You can also use those beds for growing a few tomatoes and basil until the asparagus plants fill up the space.

Rhubarb and strawberries work well in 4 x 4 or 4 x 8 foot beds. These do require lots of compost for good production and benefit from afternoon shade in summer. We’ll get further into how to grow them later. But, if you plan to grow them, leave room and plan to buy lots of compost to give them a good start.

Dwarf Fruit Trees and Bushes

Dwarf-size, self-fertile fruit trees, blackberries and raspberries are also good options for a potager. Plan at least an 8 x 8 foot area for dwarf trees and 4 square feet or more for berry bushes. Note, things like blueberries and grapes have different soil requirements than your average potager garden grown plants, so I usually save those for other locations outside the potager.

Herbs

On the herb front, many of your classic cooking herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, lavender, French tarragon, culinary mint, and more can all be great additions to the potager garden. They have lower fertility requirements than most vegetables and can keep growing for years. So give them their own dedicated bed space.

For annuals or biennials like basil, parsley, cilantro, and dill you can grow them in your vegetable beds, or give them their own space. In general, I plan about 2 to 4 square feet of space for each herb I plant. For smaller plants like thyme, I’ll plant several in that space so I don’t risk over-harvesting from fewer plants.

Deep Bed Plants

Depending on the depth of your soil now, and how rocky it is, you may want to consider creating a deep bed or two to use for potatoes or long carrots.

With the addition of compost, your soil will get deeper over time. Also, as you garden, you’ll dig out rocks that you come across. At the outset though, with no till practices, you may want to use containers to grow these kind of plants that really need 10 – 16 inches of soil for high production.

Alternatively, you can grow oxheart carrots which are wide and short and use grow bags for potatoes.

Fencing

Vegetables are delicious to us and just about everything else that eats plants. As such, I don’t know any gardeners who don’t have, or wish they had, a fence around their vegetable gardens.

You can often get away without a fence your first year since pests don’t know you have a garden. But, once they discover it, easier deterrents like soap and fishing line will only work for a while. Then a fence becomes necessary.

At least leave room in your design for the possibility of a fence. That way, you’ve got the space and accessibility in the event that you need to install one.

Convenient Features

There are a few more convenient features you may want to consider in your design if you have the room and interest.

Washing Station

A washing station can be as simple as a place to fill a few buckets with water to give your vegetables a dunking rinse before bringing them in the house. That rinse water can be used to water your plants later.

You can certainly get more elaborate on your wash areas, though it’s not necessary. For any area you use for washing vegetables, plan for drainage. One of the easiest ways to do this is to add several layers of gravel and make a wash station landing.

Similar to compost leachate, think about where the water will ultimately drain so you can direct it for good use.

Water Barrel

For a small garden, it’s a pleasure to water using a watering can. The sound of water pouring through those small holes in the rosette sprayer are therapeutic. As you water you get a chance to study the health of your plants, learn about their growing habits, and connect with your garden.

In fact, I even hand water in large garden because I enjoy it so much. What I don’t enjoy though is waiting for the hose to fill my watering can. Instead, I keep a barrel full of irrigation water at all times. So, when I need to water, I just dip my can in the barrel and fill it up much faster. Recycled food grade 55 gallon drums work well for this.

If you have even more space, down the road you can add an irrigation pond to collect rainwater, and dip your watering can direct into the pond.

Hoses

I am not a fan of pulling hoses around in the garden. They have the bad habit of crushing plants that meander into the paths. They tend to be heavy and hard to maneuver once you turn the water on. But if you plan to use them, make sure to plan for how you will drag them around without crossing your beds.

Many people hammer in PVC or steel posts to use for directing hoses around the bed areas. Some elaborate systems even include overhead pulleys to keep the hoses above the beds so nothing gets crushed.

Irrigation

Drip tape or line and soaker hoses only hold up a few years in a garden. Then they need to be replaced. They also often have clogs or water pressure issues that require maintenance.

They don’t really fit with my idea of a simple homestead potager because they increase complexity and require replacement. But, if you must have them, make sure you plan your installation in your garden design.

Work Table

It’s nice to have a surface to work on when potting up seedlings, sorting seeds, making notes, etc. This doesn’t have to be in the garden, but it’s nice to have. Generally, I like to include a seating area in my potager for my own enjoyment. So, then I can use that as my surface for doing gardening work too.

Decorative Features

Your potager is yours and should be a reflection of your personal tastes. If there are decorative details you dream of in your garden, make sure to include them in your design. You may not be able to put them all in place your first year. But you can chip away at your list as time allows.

When I lived in the suburbs, I added a three tiered water fountain to my first potager. I had an arbor for an entrance. I used decorative fencing to keep out my dogs, and I planted almost as many flowers as I did food plants.

I wouldn’t quite call it a homestead potager, but I loved being in my garden so much that I spent enormous time there. That garden helped dramatically improve my gardening skills. If a beautiful space will attract you out to the garden more often, then indulge in those one-time decorative features that beckon you.

The Simplestead Potager Garden

Before Photos

Now it’s time to bring all this how-to information together as an actual garden design. Your garden will be designed based on your conditions. But, to give you an idea of how to go from concepts to concrete plans, I’ve summarized my garden location details and my garden design for the new Simplestead garden.

Location Details

The garden is situated just below the gravel parking area in front of our house. There’s about a 5-6 foot green space buffer between the gravel and the garden. The parking area is graded away from where the garden will be so there are no risks of pollution from our cars draining into the garden beds.

This location is close to the house for easy harvesting. There’s a porch on the house that can be used for storage as needed. There’s a hose on the house that can be used for watering. I can easily set up a washing station on the gravel parking area using a few buckets and the house hose.

I originally used this as a duck paddock for meat ducks. So, it has a 40 inch chicken wire fence, a small duck house, and small pond that collects the run off from the roof of the duck house. I can use that pond water for dipping my watering can to irrigate the garden. When the pond runs low, I can fill it with the hose rather than running the hose through the garden. (If it didn’t already have this feature, I would have just added a hose-filled 55 gallon drum to fill as my water can dipping source.)

The garden is full sun for at least 8-10 hours a day, facing to the south east. It’s actually oriented almost exactly the same way as our solar panels are for optimal sun catching. It’s also sloped toward the same direction so it warms up a bit faster in mornings than other areas of our property. The slope is a tiny bit too steep where I plan to have the bottom beds, so I’ll change the slope a bit when I make the beds and create the paths.

The house provides great wind protection. The driveway also creates a bit of a heat sink so this area experiences much less frost than other parts of landscape.

There are three peach trees breaking up the space between the driveway and the garden. They are pruned for air circulation, so even though they cast a little bit of a shade shadow over a few feet of the garden, it’s dappled, and occurs during the afternoon heat so will actually be beneficial for growing greens in summer. Those trees also pollinator-friendly for most of March.

There are no utilities in the area or access issues. Deer do graze nearby, but generally not that close to the house because of our Great Pyrenees dog on duty. Our four farm cats also patrol that area heavily so there’s no vole activity visible. Rabbits also don’t seem to be breaching the existing fence.

The soil is of mixed quality. In the upper bed area, it’s a bit deeper. So, I can grow potatoes there even this first year. There are a lot of weeds in the north-side pollinator strip, so those weeds will need to be addressed before I can plant other things there.

The rest of the future garden area is growing mostly annual grasses, clover, and a few edible weeds like bittercress. The duck poop has clearly made the soil nutrient rich, but the roots stop about 2-3 inches deep, so that means the subsoil is pretty compacted. Overall, it’s better than having no soil, but lots and lots of compost are an absolute must for this area!

In terms of beauty, the area is a bit of an eyesore right now. But by turning it into a potager, I’m enhancing the whole front entrance to our house and solving that problem.

Design Details

Now, given the location and the space I have to work with, I came up with a simple garden design plan that will give me about 128 square feet of vegetable bed area for the first year, plus some pollinator areas, and makes use of some existing resources in or near the garden.

Here are the details of the plan shown above.

  • Four Main Vegetable Beds that are 4 feet wide by 8 feet long
  • Pollinator strips running along the inside perimeter of the existing fence on the northern and southern sides of the beds
  • Compost area in two parts – 1 for storing materials, the other for composting and aging, with leachate from the piles running into the outer root zone of an edible food forest aisle down slope
  • Paths are about 18 wide in perimeter paths and about 24 inches wide in the center path
  • I am going to create a small round-about using the corners of the beds and the intersection of the paths to make it a bit more interesting than just having rectangular beds
  • I’ll leave an existing clover filled area next to the garden and add a small table set in that area
  • I’ll keep the duck house as a rain catch and down the road, it can be used as infrastructure for either storage depending on whether I opt to expand the potager or keep some small livestock there
  • I’m adding some raised containers outside the garden to give it a more grand entrance
  • I’m also going to grow some low maintenance pest-resistant plants outside the perimeter of the garden, such as lilacs, and some tea plants (e.g. mints and other strong herbs) to create natural pest barriers

Homework

Now it’s your turn. Take all the ideas from this potager planning series and turn them into the framework for your own potager. You may want to read back through the earlier posts to remind you of some of the information we’ve covered. Also, look back through your homework assignments.

  1. Starting a Homestead Potager
  2. Plan Your Homestead Potager Garden Location
  3. Pathways For Your Homestead Potager
  4. Homestead Potager Garden Bed Design

Plan It On Paper

Put your design on paper. It doesn’t have to be perfectly to scale, but try to get close so you have a good guide to use to keep you on track.

I use a computer spreadsheet and make each cell about .50 x .50 to represent a square foot. It’s basically like making my own electronic graph paper. You can also do this on real graph paper using pencils. Or, just eyeball and draw it on blank paper if that’s more your style.

Sleep On It

Once you have your design on paper, sleep on it for a few nights. Then go back and make sure it still makes sense.

Don’t rush this process. I’m an impatient person. I get the desire to charge ahead. But, if you want to have a garden that is simple to maintain and works well for you long term, you need to take your time with planning.

Gut instincts and ideas are great, so don’t discount them. However, do make sure you flesh them out though and put them through your reasoning faculties before you commit to them.

Try it On

Once you feel great about your design and have gotten a little distance to make sure it really resonates, then try it on. Use whatever you’ve got to simulate what your garden will look like when finished. String, chairs, brooms, streamers, old paint, your recycleables…

It really doesn’t matter what you use as a stand in, just make sure you represent everything on your plan on land. Then, pretend like you are using it.

Squat down and plant imaginary seeds. Sit on your bench and imagine your view. Harvest pretend vegetables and take them to your house. Pretend to dunk your watering can, haul around your hoses, build your compost pile, move tools around, etc.

You may feel like a crazy person at first. Trust me, though, this step can save you from silly design mistakes that can seriously complicate your gardening activities later. If something feels wrong, make adjustments until it feels right.

Revise Your Plan

Revise your plan on land, then translate it back to your paper plan. That paper plan will keep you on track as you start digging. You may also want to make notes on any details you need to pay attention to based on your trial run.

Conclusion

Believe it or not, once you’ve done your homework from this post, the rest of this potager-making process is going to be really simple.

Yes, there will be work. But, you’re not afraid of a little work. If you were, you wouldn’t be reading a homesteading website or planning to grow your own food!

In fact, if you are like me, you are probably so excited you can’t want to dig in and start to make your potager dreams a reality. So, in our next posts, we’ll break ground and get ready to garden!

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