Planning the Kitchen Garden

Planning a garden is similar to planning an addition or a room to your home. You ask yourself the same questions: what will it be used for, how will it be used, how do you want it to serve you? There are as many different kinds of Kitchen Gardens as there are people and,so, I’ve prepared a list of the different directions a kitchen garden can take, hoping that it may serve as a guide for folks who may be planning their gardens for the first time, or for those who are thinking about expanding their gardening horizons. These are ‘thumbnails’ of the different types of gardens that one might think about. Subsequent posts will address each garden type in detail.

  • The Weekend Garden: Folks with weekend homes often look for a simple, low maintenance garden that doesn’t require daily visits to care for. Good candidates for this sort of garden include a concise list of short and long crop varieties. If I were living in the city and visiting my place in the country on weekends I’d want tomatoes, peppers, maybe corn, some salad greens, some perennial herbs, some root vegetables, like carrots, parsnips and turnips. I would avoid things that need regular attention, like cole crops and certain curcurbits.
  • The Summer Garden: This type of garden focuses on crops that produce well in the heat of the summer. This includes summer squashes, beans, peppers, eggplants, some cole crops; kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, and then, basil, tomatoes,asian greens, potatoes, and collards.
  • The Family Garden: This is a garden that everyone in the family commits to. It will produce salad greens, radishes, squashes, beans, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, swiss chard, spinach, kale, collards, tomatoes, potatoes, and corn.
  • The Heritage Garden: Those who are interested in ensuring a diversity in our seed supply and open-pollinated plant varieties, as well as preserving heritage and heirloom plants, will be interested in cultivating and maintaining this kind of garden. Some of the varieties that will be grown in this sort of garden may lack the disease resistance that newer hybrids possess, but will make up for it in diversity and plant vigor.
  • The Potager: A french term, the ‘Potager’,(literally, the ‘soup’ garden) in my mind, refers to a system of planting and cultivating whereby the plants are packed in tightly and the garden includes flowers and other ornamentals.
  • The Paintbox Garden: This garden concept focuses on the aesthetics of color in the garden, taking into consideration the appearance of the vegetbles as seen in the garden, as well as their appearance as served up on a plate by a chef.

Plant a Vegetable Garden: No Excuses

Lettuces in the Kitchen Garden

Lettuces in the Kitchen Garden

Lacking space, there are few reasons for not planting a vegetable garden. One person I know, who prides herself on her creativity and gardening sophistication, and who owns a very elegant and historic property complained to me that when she bought the place, “there was a big vegetable garden smack in the middle of the lawn…I had to get rid of it”. This statement so shocked me as to render me speechless. Had I managed to regain speech during the course of her monologue, I would have suggested that, with some creativity and thoughtfulness, a person might find a way to highlight the vegetable garden, treat it as a valuable, enhancing landscape feature from which one might extract a sense of aesthetic pride as well as civic pride for ‘greening-up’ their lifestyle and reducing their carbon footprint. I didn’t, at the time, regain speech but am doing so now.

Creating a vegetable garden, or Kitchen Garden, the preferred term, is a project, but it’s an undertaking that will reap benefits that you may never have thought of. If you can’t begin the process yourself, you can get others to do the most difficult part, laying out the garden, tilling the area, creating raised beds (if that’s what you’re after), installing irrigation systems on timers, mulching paths to suppress weeds and reduce your work (or, better yet, laying down landscaping fabric beneath the mulch to virtually eliminate path weeding).  Siting it in the landscape is crucial and is the most important decision you’ll need to make for the project. The kitchen garden needs full sun and, ideally, it is located at a convenient distance from the kitchen.

As for making it attractive in the landscape; I see this as an opportunity to create ‘charm’ and to engage with the land and your food supply in a more intimate way. Fencing will be necessary to keep out the deer and the rabbits, but this isn’t a problem. There are numerous creative and handsome fencing options that will contribute to the aesthetic of your property and plenty of climbing ornamental plants to adorn your fence; many of such staggering beauty that you’ll be spoiled for choice in how to use them. Climbing roses, clematis, morning glories, perennial sweet peas; all contribute to making a Kitchen Garden inviting, beautiful and a place you’ll enjoy working in and relaxing in and looking at.

The Garden Enclosure; Part II: The Arbor

Building a Rustic Arbor; a Foyer for the Potager.

Rustic Cedar Arbor

The rustic, cedar arbor waiting for its seating.

One of the things that has made weeding the kitchen garden a chore is the absence of a place to take a break. In an ideal world, there would be a somewhat shaded place, where a gardener could get out of the sun for a few minutes, with a comfortable seat and possibly a surface upon which one could place a glass of iced tea and a gardening book. So, this time around, we aimed to correct this flaw and build a 7′ wide arbor that will accomodate a bench or two. If you’re starting a new kitchen garden plan to include a somewhat shady spot to sit. It will make spending time in the garden so much more pleasureable.

Because our land slopes down into the garden, Andrew created a couple of short steps and a ‘floor’ surface paved with large, flat granite stones. The voids (or joints) between the stones are filled with sand and then fine, crushed stone.  As a finishing touch, Andrew liberally sprinkled seeds of creeping thyme over the surface and gently washed them into the crevices. Thyme is a slow germinator and has a comparatively low germination rate so we expect to see more weeds than thyme, but we’ll keep an eye on it.  When we get around to it we will build some rustic benches. (The gate opens out, not in).

We’ve planted the arbor with climbing things, champagne grapes and clematis, to create a sort of bower, and we will likely allow some of the self-sown morning glories from last years garden fence to join the cedar climbing competition. Two small, curved, planting beds on either side of the arbor will make it easier to mow around the garden and the japanese quinces that we’ve planted in the corners will give the chickens a place to take cover when the hawks are looking for lunch, rather than in the perennial borders.

Rustic cedar arbor with grapevines

Grapevines have been planted at the base to create a bower.

Planning the Kitchen Garden

In my experience, it’s relatively easy to establish parameters for oneself by committing to a 20’ x 20’ plot and limiting the plantings to fit within those confines. It works in writing and on graph paper. If, however, you’re a dreamer like me, seduced by fantasies of abundance and variety, it doesn’t work all that well, especially after the hibernation of a dark season of long winter evenings spent reading seed catalogs, with a glass or two of wine, a highlight marker and a block of post-it notes. It’s very easy to slide into the 20’ x 35’ plot, or the 30’ x 50’ plot or the 50” x 85’plot, so easy that it’s almost inevitable.

I offer the following example. The first year that we started our vegetable garden, our seed bill was $27 dollars. The next year it was $74 dollars. The size of the garden didn’t alter.  So, what changed? A desire for greater variety; we wanted three kinds of beets, not one, seven different tomatoes, not three, four kinds of squash, not two, etc…

Shakespeare knew something  when he wrote: “Know thyself and to thine own self be true”. But here’s the rub: as a home-gardener, I don’t need 45 zucchini seeds. I need 4, or, if I’m going to sow successively, I need 8, or maybe, at the limit, twelve. The cost of seeds isn’t that expensive but it does add up, especially if you’re like me and want to try all sorts of things.

The fun and economical solution/idea is to share. Get together with other gardening friends during the winter months. Call or e-mail your gardening compatriots in October/November to make sure that they are receiving the same seed catalogues that you are (and e-mail them the links to your favorite seed suppliers if they’re not). Set up a potluck buffet-dinner evening in mid-to-late January to come together and prepare a group order. This will work for either a large Community Garden group or a Rag-Tag band of home gardeners. You could be admirably well organized and list the categories of produce for which you seek seeds for your garden, i.e., tomatoes, corn, squash, lettuce, cucumbers, beets, spinach, etc… You might even use the various catalogues’ categories and headings as a guide. No matter how you do it, remain focused and have a designated someone to keep track of everyone’s shared orders.  If you’re going to be professional about it you could purchase very small ‘Ziplock’-type bags or ‘glassine’ envelopes (in future, you will be directed to a resource link for such products) to divvy up the seeds once they arrive. This is yet another excellent opportunity to share shoptalk with other gardeners and will likely lead to long lasting horticultural friendships.

In future, more to come about Kitchen Gardening.