Gardening Basics

The Joys of a Kitchen Garden

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.

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Paul James' first rule for planting kitchen gardens is simple: grow what you like.

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:

  • Select your spot. It should be a sunny, well-drained location, preferably close to the kitchen, that's also sheltered from persistent winds. Measure your plot, then head back indoors for grid paper and a pencil.

  • Make a plan. Whether your garden will be 20 feet by 20 feet or half that size, plan before you plant, says Michael MacCaskey, author of Gardening for Dummies. He suggests that gardeners leave a central path wide enough to accommodate a wheelbarrow or cart and paths 1-1/2 feet wide between individual beds. Within this space, you can plant such sprawlers as zucchini and cucumbers, vertical crops such as corn, trellis plants like peas and beans, and root plants such as potatoes, carrots and beets. Michael advocates companion planting so crops can help one another thrive. "Lettuce doesn't like the hot afternoon sun so if you plant lettuce to the north of the corn, it will get afternoon shade. This year, I had one trellis with beans, cucumbers and sweet peas, and in their shadow I had parsley, which also loves the shade."

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