Can you feel it? The garden is calling to you. As the pile of seed catalogs rises to the ceiling, your fingers start to twitch. They want to play in the soil. They NEED to feel the rich humus-y goodness, to birth green babies and tend tender greens.
But then, you look outside—and reality hits.
Once again, it's a steel gray day in South Carolina, with an insipid nasty drizzle making my mood ten times worse than a normal chilly day. Please, give me sun! My poor hellebores' heads hang even lower than normal, like they want to crawl back into the ground.
I feel the same. Burying under the duvet until spring arrives sounds like a perfectly acceptable option.
However, I've chosen to forgo the duvet and uncover garden hope. I've spent the morning drooling over photos of gardens. Not just the lovely formal gardens so pristinely maintained and showcased on the many garden tours I've attended. Instead, craving fresh cucumbers and sun-warmed tomatoes, I've been lusting over edible gardens.
(Edible Garden at P.Allen Smith's Moss Mountain)
Every year, I plan to create the perfect, Pin-worthy kitchen garden. And every year, life happens. The garden starts off well enough, with great vision and perfectly placed seedlings. Then, like life, it rambles and becomes unruly. I try to coerce it into shape, and sometimes I manage for a week or two. This year, though, I'm investing the time and harnessing the patience to create a beautiful design—to keep it both productive and pretty.
(Garden Delights' Large Kitchen Garden and Greenhouse)
Doesn't it make you crazy when you read articles that proclaim: “The No-Work, Productive Garden!” or “10 Minutes to Create Your Most Beautiful Garden!”
Gardening IS work. It's the best kind of work, but still—there's no magic formula. Plant, water, weed, harvest, repeat. There. I suppose that's the formula.
(Sunny Pointe Café Kitchen Garden)
There is, however, a way to make your kitchen garden more enticing: make it beautiful. If it's an inviting destination, you're apt to spend more time in it. If you spend more time in it, then you're more likely to pull those stray weeds on a daily basis and pluck the hornworm from your tomato plant before it decimates your dinner. If your kitchen garden is as appealing as your other outdoor living spaces, it suddenly becomes not just a plot of work—plant, water, weed, harvest, repeat—it becomes a destination to enjoy.
Shouldn't all gardens provide delight? A kitchen garden is no different, and perhaps can prove to be even more delightful than your other outdoor spaces.
(After all, where else can you find instant, delicious snacks while you weed?)
(P.Allen Smith's Kitchen Garden at Moss Mountain)
When deciding to grow a kitchen garden, let's immediately abandon straight rows of monoculture crops. The garden should feel inviting, not utilitarian. Besides, why not treat the kitchen garden as a canvas to create something beautiful and tasty? I've seen some lovely kitchen gardens. Plus, I've Pinned my favorite beautiful kitchen gardens here for inspiration.
While I currently incorporate some garden design principles in our kitchen garden, I can do better. Much better. Let's make a resolution to create beautiful kitchen gardens together!
Of course, the biggest consideration for your kitchen garden is its location. Six to eight hours of sun, good soil, access to water...these are no-brainers. (Get your soil tested to make sure it really is good soil. Check with your local University Extension program.) If you have a large space, the sky's the limit with your kitchen garden design. If you're an apartment dweller, you can still create beautiful edible container gardens. (Let's pause the container garden discussion until next time—we'll chat about that soon.)
(Side Kitchen Garden in Portland)
Front yard, back yard, side garden...the choices are limitless. Our property is shady. Very, very shady, We live in a forest. Our big kitchen garden is in a small clearing by the forest and river, where I manage to eek out just enough sun for tomatoes. (How I wish I had more.)
(Potager at Garden Delights)
However, our potager is in the backyard, filled with crops that tolerate less sun--primarily, greens. I also squeeze edibles throughout the landscape, wherever I find a patch of sun, but for now, we'll focus on a main edible garden.
Determine how large to make your kitchen garden. If this is your first time creating an edible garden, rein in your enthusiasm a bit and opt for a slightly smaller version of your dream garden.
Here's why: you want your first gardening experience to evoke pleasant memories. Nothing hampers a gardener's love of the sport more than overzealous expectations. If it's a drag to go to the garden, you won't stick with it, and you'll become frustrated. Your plants will become frustrated, too, if they don't get the attention they need. (Trust me. I know.) Start small the first year, get your hands in the soil, grow your favorite food, learn about managing pests, make a delicious dinner from your homegrown goodies...and then expand next year, if you wish. Just please, make it manageable the first year so you'll enjoy the journey.
Once you've decided on the location and size of your kitchen garden, consider what you want the garden to look like. What bones will it have? Will you use raised beds to give it structure and definition, or will you plant in the ground and define beds with rocks, bricks, or perhaps small evergreen boxwood shrubs? How large will the beds be? How will you move around the garden? What kind of paths will you create, and what materials will you use for the paths? Will you surround the garden with a fence, either to protect the garden from wildlife or to simply define its space?
Hardscaping is one of the first steps in creating a beautiful edible garden. When we planted our first large kitchen garden, we planted in the ground with little thought of design. It was not pretty. After we discovered a soil-borne disease, we created a raised bed garden, which I love. The beds help define our garden, giving it shape and structure that lead to additional design ideas. Each bed is 4' x 10'. Four feet is an ideal width for a bed—you can reach into the center of the bed on either side without stepping into it. However you decide to design your garden, keep that number in mind—4-foot width. You don't want to walk on your soil, as it becomes compact and ruins the structure. Stay on the paths when tending your garden beds.
After constructing the beds, new hardscape elements emerged: trellises for beans and peas; a support system for tomatoes; and this year, I'm planning several arches to link the beds, where cucumbers and squash can climb. Vertical elements help add visual interest, provide more space for planting crops, and keep plants healthy.
Our raised beds are created from untreated lumber. Yes, I know that eventually we'll need to replace them. However, cedar, stone, bricks...there are many options to create lovely raised beds. Some of the trellises are made from natural materials, like wood or bamboo, but some are also purchased from garden centers. In fact, the kids have one raised bed of their own. To make it visually appealing, I added colorful, coated metal trellises with a flower and butterfly design to their garden. It's a cheerful way to grow peas and beans that they'll complain about eating later.
While our big kitchen garden isn't fenced, I'd like to remedy that eventually, both for aesthetic reasons, as well as to attempt to keep wildlife out. However, our potager is fenced. The potager resides in the backyard, which is shared by our very enthusiastic dogs. If you have an enthusiastic dog, you'll understand why there's a fence.
Paths, too, should be considered when thinking about your overall look of the garden. Will your kitchen garden be a more formal potager style, or will it be shabby chic? While we used pea gravel in our potager, the big kitchen garden paths are hardwood mulch. Keep your budget in mind when selecting your pathway materials. With mulch, I need to add more each year. In the potager, though, I've yet to add any additional gravel after three years.
If you choose not to create raised beds, how will you define the border of your paths? Edging, reclaimed bricks, river stone, small evergreen shrubs—all are viable alternatives to give definition and visual appeal.
Will you have an entry gate or trellis? How will you define the natural flow of the kitchen garden? Will you add seating in the garden to help define it as an outdoor destination? For our garden, a wrought iron bench provides seating, but I'd like to add a bistro table and chairs near the garden...some day.
The bones are in place. Now comes the fun—plants!
Before you open a seed catalog, make a list: what do you love to eat? What fruits and vegetables are your favorites, and which ones are the priciest at the store or market? Then, take a look at your list. Do you have room for space hogs, like pumpkins and watermelons? Are you devoted enough to tend an organic mini-orchard? I'm the least practical person when it comes to plants, but I beg you—don't be like me. Even I've learned that there's no reason for me to grow peaches when I live in the heart of peach country.
Start with your favorite foods for growing in your garden, then look for the most beautiful varieties you can find.
Like tomatoes? The basics are fine, but add in striped varieties or rich deep purple heirlooms. Bibb lettuce is nice, but gorgeously speckled Forellenschluss is both beautiful and delicious. THIS is where gardening gets fun! With your favorite food list in hand, browse the seeds catalogs or head to your local nursery for seedlings. For instance, Bonnie Plants provides gorgeous, interesting heirloom plants now, which were difficult to find a few years ago.
While you select your fruits and vegetables, add edible flowers and herbs to your list. Beautiful blooms attract pollinators and beneficial insects to your garden, plus many of these flowers and herbs serve as companion plants for your crops. Benefits include soil conditioning, nutrient absorption, and pest control. Plus, edible flowers and herbs make your meals tastier and prettier.
Of course, flowers and herbs also create a lovely garden retreat. In our garden, marigolds border tomatoes, providing a pop of color while deterring aphids. Nasturtiums drape over the sides of beds, attracting pollinators. In fact, last year I added a raised bed for the sole purpose of growing flowers. While I use it as a cutting garden for creating bouquets, there's always something in bloom in the bed—and the amount of bees and butterflies it attracts to the kitchen garden is amazing.
The point is: don't forget to add beauty when planting your kitchen garden. Select your favorite food—then choose the prettiest variety. Plant seedlings close together for an interesting design. Interplant food crops with beautiful blooms. Challenge yourself to make your garden lovely and interesting.
Once you've decided what to grow, decide how to grow it. Some plants need trellises or support, so you can garden vertically with these plants, leaving room below to arrange shorter crops into intricate patterns. Triangles, waves, circles, mosaics...there's no reason that you need to plant in straight rows. Alternating colors and rich textures add interest and beauty to your garden. Do check the growing conditions for your crops. Some prefer more water than others, and pH requirements vary.
Remember, the more beautiful your garden, the more time you'll want to spend there. The more time you spend in your garden, the more beautiful it will become, and the more pleasure you'll derive from it. It's a win-win, right?
Last summer, when I attended the Garden Blogger's Fling, I was awed by the gorgeously designed and accessorized gardens we toured. Granted, most of them were not edible gardens, and the garden owners' budgets apparently are much heftier than mine. Still, the thought I brought home is: why can't my garden be better accessorized?
From signage to art to a consistent color scheme for containers throughout the garden, I want a better sense of design and whimsy in the kitchen garden.
There's no reason an edible garden needs to look utilitarian. Add elements that you love. Play with using a bright color for your beds. Add an orange trellis, or create funky characters to join you in the garden, like this guy.
We want our gardens to reflect our style and personality. Our kitchen gardens should reflect a sense of ourselves, too.
It should be a delight to spend time in the kitchen garden.
It's still gray, cold, and dreary outside. Somehow, after looking through photos and writing about my plans to overhaul our kitchen garden, I thought maybe, just maybe, the sun might shine.
Ah well. My plan is in place. The seed catalogs beckon.
It's time to select what beauties will grow in the kitchen garden.
Do you have a kitchen garden? Please share a photo of it on the Garden Delights Facebook page. What are your favorite things to grow? Which one is both the tastiest—and prettiest?
Only 65 days until spring, friends. Whew.