Dear Master Gardener: What is a potager?

Answer: Potager is the French term for kitchen garden or vegetable garden. It comes from the French word potage, which means soup, so a potager provides the ingredients for soup. Potagers were established in monasteries by French monks in the 16th century to provide food and medicinal herbs. The Potager du Roi (kitchen garden of the king), designed in the 17th century, was part of the elaborate gardens at Versailles under the reign of King Louis XIV. It still exists today and is used for teaching purposes for landscape architects.

A potager is an ornamental kitchen garden that combines aesthetics and practicality. Traditionally they were formal in design, geometric in layout, and edged with ornamental plants. Trellises and archways provided support for vining crops and added a vertical element. The vegetables were planted in patterns or groups rather than rows, with flowers, fruits, and herbs intermingled. Today in France potagers are more popular than ever, as the trend of organic gardening has increased. They range in style from formal, with sharp borders and elaborate configurations of beds with pathways, to a more informal cottage garden style. Vegetables and herbs with colorful foliage, such as “Purple Ruffles” basil, ‘Bronze’ fennel, and various leaf lettuces, are often grown to add more visual interest.

A potager in Dordogne, France. Photo by Jennifer Knutson
A potager in Dordogne, France. Photo by Jennifer Knutson

Because the COVID-19 pandemic caused food shortages and kept people at home, and many have become more concerned about food safety and the use of pesticides, kitchen gardens have undergone a resurgence in popularity. To create an easy kitchen garden in the French potager style, take a square plot and divide it into four triangles with a trellis or tree as a central focal point. You can also create a potager with raised beds and pathways. Intermingle vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers. Choose vegetables and herbs that not only taste good, but also provide great aesthetic value. Consider adding edible flowers, such as calendulas or nasturtiums. Lavender and rosemary can provide structure and beauty to an otherwise boring vegetable plot. Most importantly, grow the foods you and your family enjoy and take the opportunity to try heirloom vegetables and those not readily available in grocery stores. The French approach to vegetable gardening -- le potager -- is not only practical, but also brings beauty to the food garden.

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Dear Master Gardener: I like the look of a cyclamen and thought I’d give a red one to each friend for Christmas. Is it a good choice? Do they last long and are they easy to have as a houseplant?

Answer: ‘Tis the season for giving gifts to those we care about and I personally think giving plants is a great idea! I guess a plant-lover would think that way! A cyclamen is an excellent choice for a flowering houseplant because it blooms for months every year. You don’t have to limit yourself to red -- they also come in pink, white, and purple. Cyclamen plants are easy to find this time of year at florists, nurseries, grocery store floral departments, and big-box stores. Choose a plant that only has a few flowers open but has many buds forming at the base of the plant, so you will get a longer show of blooms. Bypass any with sagging, floppy stems.

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A cyclamen does best in a cool, bright location. Make sure it isn’t exposed to cold or hot drafts, as this could cause the blooms to drop. If kept in bright light and watered correctly, it should bloom until spring. Cyclamens grow from round tubers and should be watered from the bottom or side of the pot, not on the center crown. Spent flowers should be removed by giving the stalk a sharp jerk to remove it from as close to the crown as possible. Fertilize your cyclamen lightly every month as long as it is blooming, stopping when it goes dormant and resuming when new growth appears. Water sparingly when the cyclamen is dormant. When the plant goes dormant the leaves will turn yellow, which causes some people to mistakenly toss it out. However, if you let it remain dormant and on the dry side throughout the summer, the plant should resume growth again in the fall and start the blooming cycle again.

Dear Master Gardener: There are little pine trees with red bows on them out in stores now for the holidays. Do these pine trees do well as a houseplant?

Answer: You are probably referring to the Norfolk Island pine, which is frequently sold in stores during the holidays as a living Christmas tree. Unlike the conifers you find in local garden stores, which are meant for outdoor planting only, these conifers, native to the Norfolk Islands and Australia, are tropical plants meant for indoor growing in our northern climate.

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When purchasing a Norfolk Island pine, a single-stemmed specimen is best, but typically you will find multiple seedlings in a pot because they look fuller and sell easier. If you purchase a pot with multiple seedlings, you may want to plant the seedlings individually to encourage a single-stemmed tree with symmetrical, tiered branching coming off the main stem, which is characteristic of these plants. In addition, without thinning or repotting, the seedlings will be overcrowded and you will end up with seedlings of various sizes, vigor, and poor form. Norfolk Island pines should not be exposed to freezing temperatures, so make sure to take that into account when purchasing your plant. Wrap any plant you purchase at this time and make sure not to leave it in a cold car. Norfolk Island pines prefer cool temperatures with high humidity and evenly moist soil. It is best for all houseplants to use water that is at room temperature. If you have city water, let the water that you use for plants sit for 24 hours to dissipate the chlorine. Norfolk Island pines need bright light but should not be exposed to full sun. Turn the tree frequently to maintain its beautiful symmetrical shape.

If you decide to decorate your Norfolk Island pine for the holidays, keep in mind that the branches are not very strong, so use light-weight ornaments or small bows to avoid damaging your tree.

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at umnmastergardener@gmail.com and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.