the French potager – and why I’ll never make the grade!

by Sharon Santoni


staking beans in the potager at the priory d'orsan

When we first moved to this house 17 years ago I was expecting our fourth child and my first summer here was a blur of painting the new nursery, sewing curtains and keeping our young and lively family on track in our new surroundings.

During that time, I hardly touched the garden , mostly because I really didn’t have enough time and also because I wanted to see what was already here before I started reworking the layout.

apple bower - my french country home

Our closest neighbours are older than us, and all have the most wonderful and productive vegetable gardens.   This is not just a question of earth and climate, it is the result of knowledge passed down through the generations and most of all of hours and hours of time spent tending: watering, weeding, planting and pruning.

growing carrots in the potager at the priory d'orsan

In Normandy, as in many parts of France, growing your own fruit and vegetables has nothing to do with fad or fashion, it is simply about knowing where your food comes from, and common sense knowledge that what is harvested fresh and eaten immediately will always taste better than stored in a fridge and bought a week later.

Moving in during the month of May and giving birth in July meant that a potager during my first year was out of the question.   But the following spring I could see that my neighbours were surprised when I started planting  the flower beds rather than on growing food.

potager at the priory d'orsan

One morning there was a knock on my kitchen door and my closest neighbour was standing with a basket of cherries on her arm.  She was over 80 years old and stood with a stoop, her white hair tied back neatly in a chignon, and her simple black dress covered with a clean white apron.

cherries in a basket, my french country home

After the normal chit-chat, and after a few leading questions on her part which eventually brought us into my garden, she looked around, an air of dismay on her brow … “but you haven’t started your potager?!”

I explained that I wasn’t sure of where to plant, where to turn the ground over to make the space for a neatly laid out  vegetable garden, and that being more experienced with flowers I preferred to play safe for the moment.

 in the potager at the priory d'orsan

There was an audible sigh, and maybe even a tut-tut …. then her kind face creased into a  smile and she turned to me with sparkling eyes: “but you could use my old potager, you know the one across the road that I don’t use any more …. it is far too big for me, and I would like to see it tended again!”

What could I say?   This felt like dangerous territory!  I obviously had neither the experience, nor the know how and certainly not the time to maintain a perfect vegetable garden.  I babbled something about not wishing to disappoint her, and not being sure that I could maintain such a large area, but she would have nothing of it.

Ten minutes later she walked home triumphant, convinced that her old potager was about to be brought back to its former splendour and she left me standing shell shocked; a basket of cherries at my feet, wondering how I had let myself be talked into such a crazy project!

The spring and summer were busy!   I was thrilled with the potager project.  I could see it from my kitchen window, and often I’d be out there watering late in the evening, or before breakfast. But  I had four children under the age of eight, a house to maintain, school runs to keep up with and well ….. just life!

pumpkins in the potager at the priory d'orsan

My neighbour sometimes popped in to check on the watering and the choice of crops.   She was kind and helpful, and she would even step in without me asking: one morning I walked into the garden to find all my mange-tout peas were staked with freshly cut branches; another day the leeks had been re-planted to allow more growing space.

There was the occasional shock as she realised that I had no intention of growing a ton each of  five different varieties of potato, or that I wanted one whole bed just for zucchini: -“such a waste of growing space!”   Sweet corn was another area for discussion – “but that is what we give to cattle!” she exclaimed, “and it will need too much watering”, … “well, oui madame, but we like a little sweetcorn…”

The truth is that the summer came and went, and that we ate some wonderful produce from the potager but that is was a stressful experience for me.    There was simply no way that I could keep on top of the continual to-do list.  Of course I could have paid someone to help me, but Madame would not have liked to see a stranger in her garden.

At the end of the season, we thanked her kindly and left her with the last basket of carrots, leeks and beans, but we didn’t renew the experience the following year.   We remained good friends with this kind lady, and when some years later, I dug up four small squares in a corner of my garden, and planted a few tomatoes, some radishes and salad, she smiled.  It was of course far too small in her mind, and my efforts on the white picket fence were a waste of energy, but she graciously accepted that times change, and so do family demands.

growing beans in my potager

And so today, as our lives still seem very busy, we maintain a minimal potager, whose role is to provide us with tomatoes, salads, fresh herbs and courgettes …. and most of all to look pretty!  Its all about being realistic!

early tomato plants in the potager

all pictures except for the cherries and the last two shots are borrowed from the wonderful site of the Prieuré d’Orsan



Jo @ Let's Face the Music July 22, 2014 - 11:32 am

Our potager this year is messier than it has ever been due to ongoing renovations to the house. However, it is producing better than it ever has. We really can’t figure it out. And I agree with you that it should look nice. Jo @ Let’s Face the Music

Penelope July 22, 2014 - 11:48 am

What a beautiful story and timely for me to read! This last week, I told my husband I desired to be in a place where we could grow more of our own food. When were we young, we always had a big space to grow our own summer vegetables. Like you, with a rather large family growing and busy over the years, time became a factor. I have a variety of tomatoes planted between my flower gardens now but I need more! There is nothing like the joy of picking fresh vegetables! Your neighbor sounded like a beautiful and lovely French lady! Beautiful photos as well!

Holly July 22, 2014 - 12:06 pm

How beautiful the photos are and a challenge as I feebly stumble through my own potager, albeit here in Southern California. We are struggling with a severe drought so watering has become an issue. With my husband in water conservation, he is forever telling me to space the automatic sprinklers further apart. So I water when I feel is best but at 4 or 5 in the morning, well before his rising. Ha! We women have our ways. I have three different tomatoes, grapes (left on the vine too long so no harvest this year, grow and learn), zucchini, one lonely cucumber, and assorted herbs. All amongst nasturtium and roses. I love my harvest of tomatoes, the summer salads sing with their burst of sunshine sweetness. Keep planting as every year it gets easier. I, in turn, will keep dreaming of France!

Vicky from Athens July 22, 2014 - 12:22 pm

Thanks so much – Love today’s post and beautiful pictures. It made me reminisce . . . and yes, there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of growing and harvesting one’s own fruits and veggies. I don’t do it anymore but there was a time in our lives when we had quite a large potager in our back yard. I spent many of my summers enjoying the fresh fruits of our labor, canning and freezing food and sharing with our neighbors. One summer we planted our tomatoes on an outside row of the garden. Our dog (smartest black lab I’ve ever known) knew he wasn’t to go in to the garden but he watched us as we worked between the rows and picked things as they ripened. One day I found a couple of ripe red tomatoes at the back door. Where did they come from? Who left them there without a note? A few days later the same thing happened. And then again a few days later . . . but this time one of the tomatoes had a slight toothmark on it. Mystery solved! Our dog was pulling ripe tomatoes off the bushes as far up as he could reach and bringing them to our door. Always ripe ones, never green. He was a retriever after all, and that’s what retrievers do. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised at our unexpected “gardener”!

Susan Kramer Sugar July 22, 2014 - 12:47 pm

Dear Sharon,
What a delicious story! And the little french woman was delightful and determined. You, on the other hand were very polite and adventurous. Notre Dame d’Orsan has been added to my wish list of visiting someday. A bientot… minus a carrot 🙂 Susan

Janette @ The 2 Seasons July 22, 2014 - 12:53 pm

Our first year of marriage we lived in Switzerland, and we could never find corn. Their response was always that corn is for the farm animals.

Gardengirl July 22, 2014 - 1:30 pm

I have a vegetable garden simply because I feel I am supposed to. How can someone call themselves a “gardener” and only have far too many flower beds. I have kept mine small with a fence and two arbors at each end. On one arbor is one single grape, it is incredibly happy and I have to really keep it in check. There are the usual suspects in the garden along with a few perennials and a rose. I love the way my “potager” looks tucked in just in front of my horse pasture and I do enjoy eating delicious produce still warm from the sun. Happy gardening!

Barbara July 22, 2014 - 1:31 pm

Sharon – these are so dreamy and this is a charming tale right out of the likes of a Beatrix Potter tale – only in France. They speak of another time – and I find your petite potager so pretty too. Much more realistic. What a delightful visit to the garden.

Katherine Leighty July 22, 2014 - 1:39 pm

We are older and have down sized…with the many gardens we have grown over the years I am enjoying this the most…all contained in planting boxes make maintenance so much easier! Thank you for the sweet story and all the lovely pictures I enjoyed them so much! I love the pictures of florals but these are beautiful too!

stacey snacks July 22, 2014 - 1:54 pm

You are being too hard on yourself.
I’ve been to your potager and it’s quite lovely….you have such great space, which is key, and I can remember Henry eating an apple that he snagged from one of your trees, while wearing a sport coat in the garden (I have that photo!).


hopflower July 22, 2014 - 1:58 pm

Traditionally all over Europe corn was for pigs and cattle. My English relatives never grew it, but my uncles grew wonderful lettuces and strawberries, raspberries, and other fruits and vegetables.

Where I live in California, we have lettuces, pumpkins, strawberries and tomatoes,although we are in severe drought, so I am not pushing the watering, which of course we desperately need. Pray for rain for us this autumn. You will see prices go up astronomically if you don’t; and the loss of many farms as well.

Katie July 22, 2014 - 2:08 pm

I loved your story, and the beautiful photographs. I garden here in the US, and my first love is flowers, and started growing most of our own produce five years ago. I spend the bulk of my time canning in the summer and tending both flowers and veg. You will find though that even in my vegetable beds, there are marigolds, zinnias, and sunflowers. More for beauty and cutting then for their benefit as companion plants. I love my gardens, but you learn through trial and error. Similar to parenting. We often feel we are “messing up” and pray for grace to keep it from being too much. Thank you for sharing.

Lorrie July 22, 2014 - 2:26 pm

This is such a lovely tale of life in Normandy.

You, and the French, are so right about knowing where our food comes from and eating fresh produce. Our potager is not large, but last night’s dinner included zucchini and beets from it, and cucumber from our daughter’s. I picked a quart of blueberries and a half quart of raspberries. It’s the most luxurious thing in the world. Pretty and productive!

Nancy July 22, 2014 - 3:02 pm

Ah, your neighbor sounds like a sweety.
We had a neighbor like that when we lived in Placerville, CA…..
Here in Costa Mesa, CA we have had a garden that started in the corner of the yard protected by a picket fence….but I soon outgrew it….and the neighbor’s trees got too big and blocked much of the sun…
So, now we have the raised beds in our yard…closer to the kitchen. Every year many tomatoes, beans, squash, and herbs come from here….if our labradors don’t get there first. Our labs love tomatoes. One carefully sniffs out only ripe yummy ones and the other actually prefers green ones that have just a hint of color. No wonder in the summer she gets terribly itchy!
I love your story….and all potagers are good no matter how big or small….nothing like picking your salad from outside the door!

Kim Collins July 22, 2014 - 3:40 pm


Love your post and all the inspiring photos. Our garden this year isn’t doing so well. Started off by a rough winter and late spring here in Michigan, also life getting in the way and too many days with my husband traveling for work.

We were off to a good start, had everything plotted on paper during the winter, we even bought a tractor with a tiller, but the seeds were planted late and my husband spent a Sunday night planting in the dark. Needless to say, he doesn’t remember what he planted and where. So harvesting will be interesting. Our weather here hasn’t been that great for any gardeners or farmers, so we at least aren’t alone.

But putting all that aside, My husband and I spent an hour and half weeding this past Saturday during a light rain shower. That time was filled with conversation of our week, how we would like to spend the rest of the summer. Quality time spent doing something we both love. That in itself is worth the time and effort.


FRANCESCA July 22, 2014 - 3:58 pm

I could imagine the face your your kind neighbour while reading this story.
You are such a good story teller!
I am always struggling between the will for an ever growing potager and the awareness (and disappointment!!) that working in my family company 8 hours a day and having two children under 4 at home..well that makes it impossible and my actual potager is really a mess!!

Pam July 22, 2014 - 5:06 pm

What wonderful story. I enjoyed every bit of it and the beautiful pictures. I have struggled with our garden in a big way for the last several years, because of drought and grasshoppers; your pictures and story were like a glass of ice tea on a hot day today. I have a enjoyed your blog. Have a lovely week.

Karena July 22, 2014 - 5:29 pm

Dear Sharon what a wonderful story about you so kind neighbor. I could not have kept up her (your ) potager, than an acre of flowers!! It is about making our own vision come true, not someone else’s….

The Arts by Karena

Donna Baker July 22, 2014 - 5:30 pm

Gardens/potagers are not for the hurried and busy. They take much time and care and even then, things don’t always produce. Gardening definitely is for optimists. And, yours looks very pretty and manageable.

Colleen Taylor July 22, 2014 - 6:50 pm

This is such a delightful story you’ve ‘painted’ Sharon. I can see the potager woman now. She sounds like she looked just like my grandmother who also tended her huge garden. I grew up on a farm but I have never developed my grandmother’s talent for gardening. My flowers are quite beautiful, but the gardening is just too much of an effort & so time consuming. We have had an abundance of organic lettuce, eggplant, dill, mint & salvia which we do during the growing season here. It’s too hot now to even try to attempt. Beautiful photos again as always. I’d rather look at your flowers nevertheless. X

Linda July 22, 2014 - 7:09 pm

Lovely story, but don’t sell yourself short. Growing vegetables and flowers is a tedious job but the results are certainly worth the effort! We are in a drought situation in the Texas Hill Country so the tomatoes we’ve harvested have been especially satisfying!

Peggy Braswell July 22, 2014 - 7:38 pm

what an adorable story + yours looks wonderful.

Leslie in Little Rock July 22, 2014 - 8:10 pm

Lovely story! I would plant just the same veggies if I could, although I do have herbs, but until then, I will enjoy buying from our local producers. Your potager IS perfection!

Emm July 23, 2014 - 3:43 am

Such a lovely story. And how very kind of your neighbor to loan her potager — although I like the look of your current one, especially the wriggly tomato stakes.

Marian from UK July 24, 2014 - 8:41 am

A lovely evocative story! You painted a perfect picture. We are starting from scratch with out garden and plan a couple (or more?!) raised veg beds, so it’s been interesting reading yours and others’ experiences. Start small and grow with experience seems to be the answer – but I too want beautiful flowers to cut and bring indoors. A small english country garden is what it will be – we hope! Your blog gives me inspiration. Thank you.

linda Barreira July 25, 2014 - 7:12 pm

How I dream to have a garden so green and full of yummy veggies and fruits. I try so hard to make one here in Scottsdale Arizona but it is so hard, especially during the hot days of summer. I was so sad to lose yet another chicken yesterday to our 113 degree day. Please keep sharing your wonderful pictures so I can dream of my very own country garden.

Sally July 26, 2014 - 12:02 pm

What a lovely story Sharon, and it is lovely to hear your fondness for your neighbour to take on her potager and feel the warmth of the sunshine in Normandy ripening your produce that year. You had so much to do at the time.
I feel we must look for small victories with such tasks, and even to grow a little of your own food is a wonderful thing, and most rewarding. Although I too, enjoy growing flowers and feel much more confident with those!
I hope you have a lovely trip to the cote d’azur, sparkling in the sun it is just waiting for you.
Enjoy the weekend
Sally xx

French Heart July 29, 2014 - 6:40 pm

Very pretty white picket fence garden. I used to have one and loved it. That was before social media when there was lots of time 😉 Hopefully, when I move to France…

Adriana Busqué August 5, 2014 - 5:22 pm

Bravo, excelente

Llll June 19, 2024 - 6:50 pm

Titling your article “I’ll never make the grade” is a weird way to put things. It’s not a competition. Do what you want. Are the “French Authorities” going to come after you? weird.


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