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The interplay between a formal potager garden and a cottage garden is magical…

Dan Wells, Garden Designer Spring 2022

I get asked all the time, what is the best way to design a garden. The answer is simple, in a way that fits your personal style. There is no right or wrong way to design a garden. My personal style is a mixture of a formal classic French kitchen garden style, known as “potager” pronounced POTE-UH-JAY garden combined with the romantic style of a classic southern cottage garden that has more flowers and perennials, than edible plantings. It’s a great combo.

To me when those two styles meet up, there is a natural magic that happens that is intoxicating as you walk through this man-made masterpiece meandering down the pea-gravel paths taking in all the flowering scents and listening to the buzz of pollinators doing their thing.

A potager garden is meant to be a very formal well laid out garden full of vegetables, herbs, fruit, and perennial flowers to attract pollinators. It is designed with fencing to keep out deer, (good luck btw), and gate and organized raised beds in a symmetrical pattern that can be quite stunning. I love them, and I love designing them too. It’s a dream of my wife Crystal and I to have an amazing potager garden right off our deck on our final lake house when we retire. If we can keep the rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, and deer from eating it up then we will have one at that final house and I will throw out all the stops making it one of the most incredible potager gardens in North Atlanta.

To me, there is this amazing interplay when you intermingle a cottage garden into a potager garden that creates “organized chaos,” a term that originates from my Dutch landscape design mentor Piet Oudolf. I have studied his work and credit many of my personal philosophies to him in both layout and plant choice. He is a true original artist, and his work is on the level of Michelangelo, Renoir, Matisse, only its flowering plants in a field, organized by a true master.

Gardens make sense when there is a gate or an arbor, a fenced border, and dedicated raised beds for each section. Tomatoes are here, herbs are over there, cucumbers are here, and so forth. Yet the magic happens when you throw a cascade of seeds of Showy Evening Primrose into the mix and let them plant themselves wherever they see fit, this is truly an act of faith, as you will never get rid of them once they are set free without herbicides as they rhizome up underground, meaning they spread their roots underground and pop up everywhere above the soil, including on the other side of garden paths and ten to twenty feet from where they were originally sown.

They are the lovely pink wildflowers that you see on the sides of the interstate all around Georgia and Alabama in April and May each year. Ladybird Johnson loved pink ladies back in the day, as some call them, as they flourish in the warm climate of Texas quite well and she is famous for announcing her fascination with them. Oenothera speciosa, or Mexican primrose, are the most invasive, romantic petite pink flowers I have ever known, and I am both perplexed and in awe of them at the same time. Once you plant them, you are married to them for life to death do you both part. They are the classic cottage garden shining stars in April and May, and they bring drama and chaos with them.

Blue Fortune Agastache, a sterile version of the licorice herb, anise hyssop is the greatest bee attractor I have ever known. It’s sterile so it will not spread on its own yet is one plant that I feel is synonymous with a cottage garden, providing height, up to 4 ft, wonderful scents and brings pollinators by the hundreds daily to your garden to help pollinate your vegetables. Since it is sterile, it blooms from June to September, trying to set seed yet it cannot. This prolongs its blooming period. It produces the most satisfying nectar for bees and butterflies I have ever seen. You will never walk by it in summer months and not see it covered with pollinators. When the nectar finally dries up in October in Atlanta, bees still stop by and seem disappointed that the feast has finally ended, you can almost tell they are disappointed as they know too that fall is coming and the beauty of summer has passed.

Two other showstoppers that I love are Gladiator Allium and Nepeta Walker’s Low Catmint. Alliums include the bulb family onions, garlic, and scallions as well. Yet these types of alliums send up massive purple globes in May on strong stalks and are prized for their majestical round flowers, not their bulb vegetables below ground. There is no drama like Globemaster Allium another cultivar, people will always ask you what those large round flowers are with the purple balls on top and rightfully so, plant them all over your mixed garden and you will create spring drama like no other as your own organized chaos ensues in your garden.

Nepeta Walker’s Low could be my favorite perennial. From the catmint family, it smells of spearmint and blooms dramatic lazy purple flowering stalks that look like French lilac. Cats love them and can be caught sitting in them and rolling in their fragrance. Six Hills Giant is one of the largest cultivars of nepeta and is my personal favorite, as it is hardy and comes back year after year even more beautiful than the previous season. When you allow May Night Salvia and the aforementioned pink ladies to grow into their own mass chaos together, you will have created a true masterpiece in your garden that will dazzle visitors and take your breath away as you marvel in their combined beauty.

A beautiful white picket fence around the garden will set off a backdrop of southern charm that you could bottle up and sell. Imagine the smell of a pork butt smoking in the background on a warm May Day as you walk through your garden with a glass of wine on a Sunday afternoon. Nothing could be better.

To add drama to your potager, I love to add beautiful metal or cedar arbors at every entrance and exit that leads onto formal garden pea gravel paths. In Atlanta, you can train wisteria and trumpet vine onto your arbor or many cultivars of honeysuckle to attract hummingbirds for added magic and beauty. It is worth the exhausting search and high cost to traverse the southern states and their flea markets and antique stores to find an irreplaceable pair of cast iron urns from the Antebellum and Victorian periods of our past. Classic urns originating in France, England and Italy, immigrants brought their beauty to this country during the Victorian era, and they still offer the same sophisticated magic today. If you can find a pair selling into the low thousands, buy them, and never regret your decision. Allowing them to flank your garden entrance will be a planned compliment that you will receive from every person that visits your garden for the life of your garden.

The more that we can mimic European flare into our own southern gardens the more beautiful they become. Provence is arguably the most beautiful area of France, with its own original sophisticated European country style and chic. This is where the French country look comes from, with pastel blue green shutters on stucco-colored homes with magical pea garden driveways and courtyards, it’s such a delight to envision. Bringing that look into your own potager and cottage garden will result in some magic of your own.

To me no garden is complete without the addition of a water element and a fire element of some type. In a formal potager garden a fountain placed at the center of the garden in a circular shape is well worth the cost of buying a nice one and installing it, you will need both electrical and water lines as you plan your garden to make this happen. It’s a centerpiece that will have birds stopping by for a drink on a hot day and a quick bath that will amaze you as you toil in your garden mecca.

The fire element is a must. Whether you plan an amazing tall stone outdoor fireplace and sitting area, or a simple stone fire ring with two Adirondack chairs or a cedar swing in your garden oasis, you must include fire into your garden design of some kind. On a cool fall night, after the growing season has ended, sitting by the fire reminiscing about the delicious herbs and vegetables that your garden produced during the growing season will be a chance to cheers yourself with your beverage of choice for a job well done.

Finally, as you become a master gardener overtime you will find the need for some type of greenhouse to complement your garden and to extend the growing season. There are many ways to add some type of greenhouse depending on your budget. One thing that we can offer at MyLandscaper.com is the build out of the stone or brick base, the electrical run, the water line, and the pea gravel floor as part of your design. We partner with great greenhouse companies like Hartley Botanic and BC Greenhouse to bring you complete kits that can be built and installed on your properties. This is no small feat and takes a lot of planning. These kits, once paid for, can take months to arrive to you, so the process is long, yet it’s a rewarding one that will offer years of joy as you bring your planted creations to life from seed to fruiting and flowering plantings. We can help you get it built for years of enjoyment ahead. When you divide the cost as an investment, by the years that you will get to enjoy it, you are only paying a small amount for each year’s pleasure that your new greenhouse will bring you.

I will close this blog post asking you to sit and imagine your greenhouse, with a cast iron stove inside it piped up through the glass, with the smell of oak wood burning as you plant seeds for the spring season. You look out into your fenced garden, with cedar hewn raised beds and pea gravel paths. You have perennial flowers budding for another season of splendor, nutritious compost in the beds and many seedlings to plant, herbs, vegetables, and fruits, like delicious strawberries. This is YOUR garden, a place of magic just for your family.

If you would like a magical 3D garden plan designed for you, we can accommodate all budgets. Please reach out to me at dan@mylandscaper.com or simply call 404-999-YARD.

Happy Gardening,


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