Good for the soul -- and the stomach -- kitchen gardens are more than just a source of fresh produce. They're a return to simpler times.
Ever since I was a child, I've heard about the garden my grandmother nurtured in her backyard in Montebello, Calif. Her larder was filled with beans, tomatoes, squash, berries, lettuce, radishes and onions. Interspersed with the edible crops were lots and lots of fragrant flowers.
My mother, who doesn't recall eating store-bought vegetables until she was fully grown, has kept the memory of her mother's garden alive with her own patch of Japanese eggplants, pickling cucumbers and bumper crops of outrageously sweet tomatoes. She's passed the love of gardening on to her children and is now working on the next generation.
Today's kitchen plot provides gardeners with more than just a way to grow produce not available at the local store. There's nothing quite like working the soil and enjoying the superior taste that comes from pickling fruits, vegetables and herbs right when they're ready. And it doesn't have to be grand.
Your garden can be as elaborate as a large plot of land sporting many raised beds and trellises or as simple as a few pots on a sunny balcony; it can be traditional, containing many of the same crops our elders grew, or more daring, with new ones such as mesclun and tomatillos. As long as you have a spot that gets five to six hours of sun (hopefully near the kitchen, thus the name), well-amended soil or a good potting medium and are committed to the process, your garden will thrive.
Where to Start?
Think small, says Paul James, host of Gardening by the Yard. "You'd be amazed at what you can get into 100 square feet or less. That way, when weeds or bugs inevitably attack," he says, "they'll be manageable and you won't throw in the towel and say 'I quit.'"
Paul's first rule for a new gardener is simple: grow what you like. There's no point in planting beets or zucchini if nobody in your household will eat them. Second, consider how big a particular plant will get. Some plants overwhelm the rest of the garden. "I wouldn't consider growing corn or more than a few tomato plants in a small garden," he warns.
Here are the basic steps for a successful kitchen garden:
"Nurseries are perfectly fine, too, for buying seeds," he notes. "If you're buying an F1 hybrid and all the companies are selling it, it's exactly the same plant. If it's an open pollinated or heirloom plant, the seed quality could be variable so you want to buy from a reputable source. Then check to see that the packet provides essential information, that the seeds are disease resistant and that the package is easy to reseal if you don't use all the seeds."
Depending on where you live, you may need to adjust the amount of pH to get it just right for your crops. Most vegetables require a pH of between 6.0 and 6.8. Your local extension office can help you with advice on testing and improving your soil.
Some crops do fine in early spring before the last frost. These hardy veggies include beets, carrots, parsnips, peas, radishes and Swiss chard, as well as many salad greens. After the last frost, beans, corn, squash and many herbs can be planted by seed. The most tender of plants — cantaloupe, okra, lima beans, peppers, eggplant and tomatoes — prefer the warmest, sunniest and driest spot in the garden, and should be planted when soil has warmed to at least 60 degrees. Your fall garden can yield broccoli, kale, spinach and turnips well past frost.
Paul suggests staggering planting to make your harvest longer. He uses lettuce as an example. "Plant one row of lettuce, then another one the next week," he explains. "Keep going as long as your season allows so that you're not inundated with, say, four rows of lettuce ripening all at once. That works well with carrots and beans too." After an early crop is harvested, plant a summer one in its place.
Pest Control: Less Is Usually Best
Before you head for the insecticide, consider Paul James' tips for bug control.
"Oddly enough, cutting back on spray is one of the first steps," he says. "Too often people will reach for a broad-spectrum insecticide, which does get rid of bad bugs but also wipes out the beneficial insects."
A healthy plant can withstand a lot of bugs, Paul says, and if the gardener holds off for about a week, natural predators — such as ground beetles, damsel bugs and braconid wasps — may move in and help control the problem.
For those who want to introduce beneficials, such as ladybugs, be sure there's a good supply of aphids for them; otherwise you'll be doing the entire neighborhood a favor but perhaps nothing for your own garden.
As for four-legged pests that feed off the crops — deer, rabbits and raccoons, for example — Paul is philosophical. He's tried a lot of methods, even exotic elephant manure (which he calls pachy-poo). It is good for the garden, he says, but isn't so hot at controlling wild animals.
Fencing can work with rabbits if it's both high enough and low enough below ground, Paul says, but he thinks the high deer fencing is expensive and obtrusive.
His favorite solution for handling garden pests: figure out how to coexist peacefully — and plant a little extra.
Photo by Charles Brooks