Book Review: Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An American Potager Handbook

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Last week we brought you some questions and answers about gardening from kitchen gardener and author Jennifer Bartley. But we haven’t yet brought you a review of her book, Designing the New Kitchen Garden: An American Potager Handbook.

We’re going to tip our hand and say that this is one of the most inspiring books on kitchen gardens we’ve ever read.

We are garden novices, relatively speaking, and this book seems like an odd favorite for a new gardener. It’s not the Veggie Gardener’s Handbook, and it’s not a three-step guide to gardening for the very first time.

No, it’s much more than that. Here’s a list of some of the things that inspired us from this book.

But first, let’s tell you what this book is not. It’s not an introduction to soil, sun, and water. It’s not a guide to zones, hardiness, and vegetable rotation. It’s not a hold-your-hand handbook to all things practical.

And that’s fine; there are plenty of books out there that will do all of that well. In fact, most of that is on the internet anyway for free. (We will, though, cover some books that are great for these topics a little later.)

No, this book is pure inspiration, which is not to imply that it skimps on practical and thoughtful knowledge as well. This book deals in big picture inspiration. Why do we garden at all? Why do we garden to eat, and how do we create gardens – whether they encompass just one pot of herbs or cover acres of monastery land?

Jennifer begins her book with the famous quote from Dostoevsky: Beauty will save the world, and she carries that theme through the entire book. She starts off defining the potager – the kitchen garden, taken from a French word that means “soup of broth with vegetables.” This has grown to mean a kitchen garden grown to nourish the home, the table, and the soul. She gives a wealth of fascinating historical detail about gardens, their purposes and functions in England and France from the early Middle Ages to today.

Then she moves on to the design of kitchen gardens in monasteries and in some amazing American potagers today, located in diverse places such as Texas, Maryland, and Vermont. She also gives plans, plots, and plant lists for gardens she designed for restaurants in the Midwest.

Here just a few of the things we learned from this book.

• How some of the stylistic differences in English and French cooking evolved out of their landscape design and where they put their kitchen gardens.

• How monasteries and medieval gardeners laid out their gardens with respect to their kitchens.

• Where the word paradise comes from and how it relates to the garden.

• What an espaliered fruit tree is and why it’s perfect for tiny city gardens (oh and how we would love these in our garden now!)

• Why and where cold frames and glass cloches are used in the garden.

• Ideas for designing a garden that looks just as beautiful in the winter as the summer.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Oh, and the pictures! We can’t fail to mention the pictures in this book. Lavishly illustrated does not begin to describe this book’s wealth of photos, illustrations, diagrams and more. The author visited several gardens in France and in the United States and photographed them in full color. She also provides garden layout diagrams and lists of plants, as well as watercolors she painted herself.

Like we said above, this is not a practical handbook, although she does have an entire chapter at the end on building and maintaining a kitchen garden, with guides to zones, soils, plants for shade and sun, and how to set up indoor grow lights.

This is primarily a book to remind us that the garden is so much more than just a functional space to grow food and flavor. It’s a place of nourishment for our eyes and hearts as well; it’s a place to reconnect with the earth and sun. It can be beautiful as well as practical; hummingbirds do live in the cities, and you can grow things to attract them, and flowers that beautify and taste good.

Even if you have just a tiny patch of earth, or just one pot, the way that things grow so miraculously can refresh and nourish. Every kitchen gardener should have this book or one like it, to inspire and remind us that the garden is a place to live in – not just tend and care.

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