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How to build a cheap potager in a French garden

Building our potager beds for very little money was something which had been on my French garden to-do list for months.

Our vegetable plot has been through several thought processes and incarnations – but first, we chose a sunny spot in the garden. It’s important that the beds will get enough light to be productive. Exactly how much you will need will depend upon what you want to put in there, but we chose to put three 4m x 2.5m beds of exposed earth with no edging up at the top left-hand side of the garden next to the fence closest to our neighbours.

Choosing the right place in the garden for our potager beds was important.
The top of the garden before the potager took shape.

Build a cheap potager in France: Preparing the ground

Digging out the turf which was in place and exposing the ground underneath was a hard job. We removed it by hand with a spade and turned it over to allow the grass to die off. We didn’t have compost bins at the time so this was a space and (somewhat) labour saving method – but it did mean that the ground was not usable for planting for several weeks longer as the roots of the grass (and more problematically for us, moss) decayed.

However, after those weeks of waiting, we were delighted to find that the soil underneath was of good loamy quality. We then used the electronic tiller – that we had picked up on Gumtree while in the UK for the princely sum of £10 – to break down the larger clods of earth and give us a smoother growing medium.

Once the beds were made they were great, they looked neat. But of course, over time the garden grew and the grass and weeds on the edging persistently made their way back into our hard-won soil. We came to the realisation that we would not be able to keep the potager as we had imagined with the time we have available to maintain it. We needed to create some kind of delineation between grass and vegetables to help us out.

Marking out the space we would use was easy, but digging the beds was tough.
The weeds won the war of edging the beds when our spring became busy with work.

What material to build with

There are lots of materials which can be used for the construction – a typical method in our old UK lives was to build our beds from the abundant and free resource of wooden pallets (choosing ones which were not treated with harmful chemicals which could bleed into the soil).

Pallets are easy to come by in the UK, but less so in our area of rural France.

We built almost everything in our old garden from pallets, Graham even replaced our decked garden steps with them when we were trying to save money in the last year of living in Bristol. Incidentally, they looked great and were even stronger than those which had been there before!.

Our Bristol vegetable patch.

Unfortunately, this was not to be the case for us in France – pallets have a monetary value here and are not given away freely in the area of Limousin in which I live. Perhaps in more industrialised areas, they may be more available – if they are please feel free to comment below and let us know where, as I’m sure others will be interested.

So this pushed my brain into gear to try to solve the problem, initially without spending any money at all, while also creating something aesthetically pleasing.

Version two of the potager meant bringing down some old leftover planks of wood from the top of the woodshed (grange) and arranging them around the edge of the beds to create some separation. They worked. The grass’ encroachment on my beloved potatoes was impeded, and for a while I felt more comfortable with them.

Some quick and dirty recycled edging to hold back the grass tide, however the order of this deteriorated quickly as you can see.

Expansion and improvement

I mentioned the potatoes which I had planted earlier this year – we grow them every year as they are a staple of our diet and we appreciate good quality produce where possible. This year I bought a large 3kg bag of the Bintje variety seed potatoes from E.Leclerc for less than 10€. Great value, but when planting them all they completely filled our three existing beds (and to be honest, I overfilled them and had more for pots) so we needed more space.

I learned that covering the turf with a light occluding medium weakened that hard to remove moss and turf, so marked out and blocked off the light for another two beds of the same size to give us more space for other projects – however, that of course meant that more edging was required.

I had used all of the wood from the grange, and also on my thrice-daily visits to the top of the garden feeding and tending the chickens, I had fallen out of love with potager version two. With the harsh weather, some of the planks had shifted out of place, and the lack of a uniform look had clearly been noted by our neighbours who since version one had planted some small laurel trees next to their hedge. Clearly they were keen to hide the undeniable ugliness of our potager.

For me, frugality means spending our money where we get the best value for it, so with this laundry list of dislikes and our neighbours’ obvious discomfort, we decided that this project warranted a small spend, both financially and of physical effort.

A tidier potager bed in Bristol – overseen by head garden-cat Ralphy.

Very British problem solving

My automatic (and perhaps very British) response to the problem was to consider sleepers as a solid and easy to install edging (note, not railway sleepers due to the chemicals which they can be treated with) but as I researched this route I discovered that to edge our five large beds would cost over 1600€! To my mind, I’d rather just buy my potatoes from Carrefour for that price.

Sleepers were my first choice.

So we dove into Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration on how we might create an affordable version of this typical British allotment look – and found that even buying pre-made potager edging was going to be more than we were willing to spend.

Instead, we readied ourselves to put our building abilities to the test and hit the Castorama website with aplomb. Drawing out the plans and figuring out how we might construct the beds with the materials available to us (our rural store, while large, does not carry all of the ranges listed online, nor indeed deliver) was a fun task and drew out my inner-engineer.

Bringing together the materials to construct the beds.

We ordered the materials which we thought would work for us – rounded half lengths of treated wood for the edges and sharpened posts (piquets) for the corners and strengthening – as well as small metal brackets to tether the lengths together and A LOT of woodscrews!

Our Castorama shopping list

I was pleasantly surprised to find that collecting the materials via the Castorama click-and-collect service could not have been easier – being the first time we had used it, we were a little unsure how things worked, but it was all very self-explanatory when we arrived with our trailer and a receipt for our order.


Building a cheap potager bed

Building the beds was a pretty physical job. I am usually a pretty sedentary person. My work involves sitting at a desk in every incarnation of how I earn a living. Since walking Margot hasn’t yet brought me the peak physical fitness that I had envisaged (!!), there was a lot of stiffness involved in this two-day task!

The potager coming together.

Firstly we cut the straight lengths to size and then connected together with the ones which needed further length with small metal brackets. I laid them out next to the place which they would sit when constructed, and we brought together what felt like a kit for each bed, putting aside the screws and cut posts which we attached to the lengths so that we could knock them into the ground with a mallet.

Small metal brackets hold the longer lengths in place.
We plan to shred our waste wood from hedges and pruning to create a dry walkway around the beds.

Eventually, with a great deal of teamwork and balancing wood, we managed to layer-by-layer create the beds and screw the lengths into the posts. Bed-by-bed we could see the potager coming together, and much as we had hoped to complete the task in a single day, we took a brief break when our neighbours’ little girl came over with some homemade bell-shaped biscuits to fuel us in our task.

After a few restful moments on the bench, we conceded that version three of the potager would take longer than the light we had left in the day, and so we resolved to come back afresh the next morning.

At least now, we can clearly see when the weeding needs to be done!

The finished product

And – very unlike us – we actually did finish it! Usually, a working day or social commitment will mean that we might have to get back to a task when we have the chance, but pleasingly we were able to finish our construction in a few hours on day two and step back in the sun to admire our handiwork.

Four of the five beds which we built.
We painted on leftover wood treatment to seal the raw edges of the posts we used.
The finished potager under a French sunset
Our neighbours’ view is much improved.

We are incredibly pleased with how they look, and they are proving so much easier to keep neat and tidy – our neighbours even complimented them calling them “jolie”, so we really have done a good job at building a cheap potager in France. Perhaps it goes to show that the third time really is the charm!

The cost of this project will vary depending upon how many beds which you need to make, but we managed to construct these five at a cost of around 200€. This is a huge saving on the estimate for sleepers and I’m very happy with the result – perhaps even more now that these beds are imbued with a sense of pride at a job well done!


3 Comments

  1. November 29, 2020 / 2:53 pm

    Something occured to me as I read this…(i knew something of it from your Instagram posts). Here in our canton our dechetterie has free compost available to anyone with a trailer. I assume it is made from the green waste everyone dumps. My husband, ‘Mr McGregor’, shovels some into the trailer whenever he takes stuff up there. Very useful for filling up our potager beds (which Mr Mc made in a completely different way to yours! …ways to skin a cat etc..). Loved the ‘jolie’ comment from the neighbours.

    • November 29, 2020 / 3:29 pm

      Oh, that’s fantastic! Sadly no such perks round here – I am envious! Worth checking out for others though, thanks for the tip!

  2. Liz Ant
    March 17, 2021 / 10:30 am

    If you live anywhere near Tulle, pallets can picked up free from dechetterie there. We used them to store the cut wood pile on.

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