How to Start a Culinary Garden

Master Gardener Tucker Taylor shares tips on how to grow fruits, veggies, edible flowers and herbs to bring fresh tastes to the table.

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May 01, 2020

Photo By: Kendall Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens

Photo By: Kendall Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens

Photo By: Kenall Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens

Photo By: Kendall Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens.

Photo By: Kendall Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens

Photo By: Kendall Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens

Photo By: Kendall Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens

Photo By: Kendall Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens

Photo By: Kendall Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens

Photo By: Kendall Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens

Why You Should Grow a Culinary Garden

At Kendall-Jackson, a wine estate in California's Sonoma County, Master Culinary Gardener Tucker Taylor oversees four acres of fruit, herb and vegetable gardens that provide produce for wine tastings. The estate offers a farm-to-table dinner series. Taylor's also enthusiastic about sharing tips on how anyone can grow their own fresh foods. "There's nothing like having a culinary garden nearby," he says. "It can be as simple as a few pots of herbs by the back door or a few planting beds in the backyard."

Grow What You Like to Eat

One of Taylor's tips: grow what you like to eat. If you cultivate healthy soil, "you will harvest flavorful, nutrient-rich produce. This is why I love growing baby crops like French carrots, Tokyo turnips and rainbow beets for platters of crudités. I like to eat them raw so I can taste the intense flavors of my labor."

Build Soil

"If there is one thing I believe in the most," Taylor says, "it is soil building. Compost is key. Just like we eat yogurt or kimchi which helps inoculate our guts with beneficial bacteria, adding compost to your soil inoculates it with billions of microorganisms that help your plants remain healthy. It's all about soil."

Adding aged animal manure, turned-over green cover crops, peat moss and mulches can also help build soil for your culinary garden, whether you're planting in the ground, a large pot or a raised garden bed. If your garden soil is poor, use a raised bed and fill it with good quality soil.

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Water Regularly

Taylor says a simple drip irrigation system with a timer is the most efficient way to water your garden. "They are easy to install and prevent your plants from drying out," he notes. "We all get busy and forget things from time to time. Some people tell me that they like to water by hand and that is fine, but I ask them how [much they water] and it is usually not enough. I explain, ‘It is like me giving you a shot glass of water for the day.'’’

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Grow Edible Flowers in Beds and Borders

The gardens at the estate grow more than fruits, vegetables and herbs; they're also planted with edible flowers to add color and flavor to salads. Some are grown in dedicated beds and others in mixed borders. Taylor adds that he always includes perennial flowers in his culinary garden designs. "Not only are they beautiful, but they also attract beneficial insects and birds that keep the garden pests in check — something I'd recommend to any home gardener."

Plant Strawberries

Strawberries are one of Taylor's favorite fruits for a culinary garden. He plants them in late winter and prunes away any fruits, flowers or runners for the first few weeks to make the plants produce more roots and leaves, which results in more berries later on. He likes 'Albion,' "an amazingly flavorful fresh market variety that produces a lot in the spring and follows up with more in the summer through the fall."

Learn More : How to Grow Strawberries

Sow Greens

Greens are easy to sow directly in the garden, Taylor says. The culinary garden at Kendall-Jackson is a base of mixed lettuces, a mustard mix, arugula and other kinds of greens. "We then add seasonal soft herbs such as tarragon, chervil and dill as well as seasonal edible flowers such as calendulas, violas and nasturtiums. There are also many different 'weeds' that we harvest, such as chickweed, dandelion and miner’s lettuce, so we are harvesting and weeding at the same time. This mix is so flavorful it doesn’t require much dressing. I like to squeeze a fresh lemon, add a dash of olive oil and a pinch of salt and toss just before serving. You can really taste all of the individual flavors coming together."

Grow Carrots

Grow root crops so you can get the most from their fresh flavors, Taylor says. "Carrots, for example, begin to lose their sweetness the moment they are harvested, so you can imagine how sweet they are fresh out of the soil. Radishes are some of the quickest crops and the French Breakfast types are some of my favorites. Some local butter and a bit of sea salt and I’m in heaven. I never liked turnips until I started growing them myself. We grow salad types that are meant for fresh eating as opposed to storage types. They are also so sweet and tender. Lightly braised in the oven helps caramelize the sugars for an excellent treat." The carrots shown here are the 'Rainbow' variety.

Learn More : Growing Carrots

Use Containers

If your space is limited, or you want your garden close to your kitchen, Taylor suggests a container like this half-wine barrel. He groups herbs by their water and light requirements, planting drought-tolerant Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano together: "They don't like wet feet."

Part of cultivating a successful garden is also protecting it from insect pests. "We use row covers to protect certain crops like arugula, mustard, radishes and turnips from flea beetles." By covering your crops as soon as the seeds are planted, you're being proactive and helping prevent problems, he says, instead of being reactive and having to use an organic spray. The result? Healthier plants.

It Takes a Village to Grow

Taylor collaborated with authors Justin Wangler and Tracey Shepos Cenami to write Season: Wine Country Food, Farming, Family & Friends. In the book, he encourages parents to let their children help with the garden. One of his favorite activities for kids, he says, is planting peas for shoots. "Use an open seed tray or terra cotta pot, add your soil mix, sprinkle an ample amount of pea seeds on the top and water them in." Place the peas near a window or outside and keep them watered, "and in about 10 days, you will be able to harvest fresh pea shoots. These taste like fresh peas and are wonderful on sandwiches, in salads and tossed with some sauteed garlic and some fresh pasta."

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Grow an Herb Mix

Don't forget to add your favorite herbs to your culinary garden. "Herbs are some of the easiest and most rewarding plants to start with," Taylor says. "They really help enhance your cooking with vibrant flavors. Some herbs, like rosemary and thyme, will keep growing year-round in some climates. Other herbs, like basil, will grow better through the summer the more you harvest and prevent the flowers from forming, so the basil remains sweet. I have a dedicated basil barrel with a sweet Genovese, a Thai and a Greek that is a bit spicy and has beautiful, tiny leaves. Herbs like cilantro are better planted from seed every few weeks in order to have a continuous supply for your favorite salsas."

Learn More : How to Grow Herbs to the Peak of Flavor

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