The term “kitchen garden” is bandied around a lot these days. But what exactly does it mean? We’ve always considered it a vegetable garden in proximity to the kitchen door or whichever portal to the outdoors is closest to the kitchen. Proximity, of course is relevant, and almost any garden plot inside your property growing food no matter how far from the kitchen door qualifies.
As I’ve worked over fresh ideas for my landscape — otherwise know as “the yard” — I’m hoping to turn some features near the back door into vegetable and herb patches. This will include the borders along the walk and patio, triangular plots where the walks intersect, a window basket off the kitchen window, a few containers of various sizes on the small patio; things like that. It’s not an especially geometric or well-designed array of features. It’s mostly taking opportunity of what’s already there.
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That brought me to the old controversy about balancing form and function. Form won’t be too important in my planning. Function will. And that’s where the real thinking started. What is it exactly that I want to plant? And where?
I’ve always believed that the function of a kitchen garden is to have greens and other vegetables as well as herbs ready when needed and close at hand. When you’re planting lettuces and kale, thyme and rosemary, peppers and a few root vegetables, you don’t really have to worry to much about form as far as which plants complement the other. Nature takes cares of that.
In fact, I can’t really think of an ugly vegetable. It’s true that some are more attractive than others, but with the exception of salsify there are few that aren’t things of beauty. Some are exceptional. I remember a cluster of artichokes grown when I lived in a place that was warmer than Montana, their curved fronds covered with tiny glistening hairs, the buds at their center growing stout and green. A friend used to say I was wasting a real homegrown delicacy when I let those buds flower. It’s the one time I chose form over function. But those flowers were stunning.
My plans stick to the concept of growing those things most used in our kitchen (minus the onions and garlic which will go in our big plot). I foresee lettuce and Asian greens and kale in the borders, chard with its white or burgundy stalks, standing in tall clusters, colorful dwarf peppers in the triangles, tomatoes and herbs in the containers, and maybe some carrots for their lovely, fern-like tops (and tasty roots). Not big plantings like in the regular garden plot. Just a few of each.
I’m also thinking of things that will have presence in the gardens, things that won’t be harvested as quickly as the lettuces. Fennel is one of these. A most attractive plant, its one with multiple uses in the kitchen. Anise is another, with its minimalist flower heads and distinctive taste. Nasturtium vines will go in along the borders. There big, stately leaves will add a welcome presence as the blossoms decorate a summer’s worth of salads.
Your planting plans, of course, will be different, shaped to accommodate your family’s needs. Have kids? You’ll want to include them in your gardening, letting them plant radishes and other fast growing veggies that they can harvest themselves.
Sunflowers are always a good choice for kid-friendly planting with their big seeds, season-long growing period (a great symbol of slow and steady progress), and stupendous size. Harvesting edible sunflower seeds with kids is always fun. And you can extend their garden lesson by helping them save seed for next year’s planting.
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Herbs are a must, in kitchens and in gardens. If you have an abundance of tomatoes, you’ll want to have homegrown basil for sauces and adding to dishes like homemade pizza. Sages of various sorts can take on a year-to-year presence in gardens with favorable conditions. Likewise rosemary. Both are great with poultry. Rosemary makes a wonderful grilling addition with meats and vegetables. You can grow it in the ground as a perennial or include it in, say, a window box that’s replanted yearly.
There are other considerations when planning your garden. In these small spaces, companion planting becomes an art. Some plants don’t go well with others, such as dill which isn’t good around tomatoes and carrots. Make sure you’ve planned your garden so that all plants are accessible. You don’t want to go reaching behind some tall, heavy tomato plants to get at a spring of lettuce.
Sketching it all out is a good idea so you can plan just how much seed and how many starts you’ll need. Here are some detailed kitchen garden plans that might fire your imagination.
In the end, kitchen gardens are just a good way to extend your edible gardening right to the backdoor. They’re attractive without trying, and full of flavor to take away. I’m anxious to get growing. But first, the seed order.