Dreaming of succulent vegetables, fruits bursting with sweetness and juice, redolent herbs to spice up the cooking pot? Like many before you, a kitchen garden may be just what the doctor ordered, literally.
Imagine Creating a Gorgeous Kitchen Garden
Walking out your door to harvest sun ripe tomatoes, snap beans, or a garnish of parsley could satisfy your eye and your palate. The kitchen garden is the dressed up version of the homely, but indispensable, vegetable patch of our forebears in an earlier America. They have some truly enviable garden design possibilities.
Kitchen Gardens are Practical
Kitchen gardens are traced back in time to the Middle Ages when a large garden to produce food for the castle and estates was necessary. I have an inkling, however, that it dates quite a bit further back in time than that- as Romans and other ancients were quite fond of their gardens containing delicious produce for their dining tables.
The kitchen gardens of old transitioned into English Cottage gardens and French potagers, we Americans kept the vegetable patch and physic gardens of colonial times until style pundits such as Wm. Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll, and Andrew Downing coaxed us into a more romantic style that resulted in the vegetable garden moving discreetly from front or side yards to the backyard. Traditions that hold onto the older styles, such as Amish farmyards still retain the feeling of the old colonial garden with neat rows of vegetables and flowers cropped near to the house, often in the front yard.
It has been opined that the kitchen gardens fell out of favor with the rise of grocery stores which made fresh produce easily available, with only a few revivals during wartime when ‘Victory Gardens‘ were promoted as a patriotic duty, as well as for family health. Perhaps today’s need for nutritious fruits and vegetables with good old fashioned taste will lead to a more long lasting resumption of the home kitchen garden. It takes skill to raise good produce, but the results are well worth the effort and time.
How to Make a Kitchen Garden of Your Own
Today’s kitchen garden will probably contain many contemporary uses for the space instead of looking anything like the display at one of the most famous of kitchen gardens, Château de Villandry.
Though disputed as being unlike any of the kitchen gardens of the day, nevertheless, it is a most renowned example of one. Villandry’s kitchen garden is much photographed and featured in many garden tomes.
Whether you design your own as a rim around the lot with espaliered fruit trees underplanted with strawberries and herbs, or a large vegetable patch with a cut flower space, the main thing is to provide a culinary harvest.
A continual supply of fruit, flowers and vegetables all for provision and decoration of the dining table is the goal.
The requisites for this are
- a sunny space
- fertile, well cultivated soil
- proximity to water
Besides these three ‘musts’ you have a great deal of leeway in arranging your space.
Hedges, Walls, and Fences
Most of these gardens in former times had a wall enclosure, and it is still a good idea to protect your plants from the likes of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny; some barrier against wind is welcome, also. Some protection from wind will make your space friendly to pollinators such as bees. Hedges, walls, and fences are all candidates for the job. Location close to the house would afford a microclimate with even more protection and some captured warmth, south, south-east or south-west-facing ensures the maximum amount of sunshine.
“Fine fruit is the flower of commodities. It is the most perfect union of the useful and the beautiful that the earth knows. Trees full of soft foliage; blossoms fresh with spring bounty; and, finally, fruit, rich, bloom-dusted, melting, and luscious.”
– Andrew Jackson Downing
Being right outside your kitchen door is the epitome of the idea of this type of garden: imagine yourself stepping outside for a fresh salad all made with your own lettuces, tomatoes, and slices of crunchy green peppers! If you are picturing something large enough to hold a cold frame or a small green house, those would be traditionally a part of the kitchen garden space. It might extend your garden season.
“I think the orderly design adds to the whole atmosphere of productivity that is the best thing in a kitchen garden. ” ~Rosemary Verey
An Organic Garden Method
Growing productively requires good soil.
Adding amendments and keeping weeds under control might just be two tasks that can both be accomplished using some organic gardening methods.
Lasagna Gardening 101Â is an article which can start you off, or really dig into the methodologyÂ with Patricia Lanza’s book, Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding!
Flowers in the Food Garden
The tradition of raised beds is making a comeback for gardeners for many reasons, easier to get ready for the new season and preserving soil tilth. If you are going to use a tiller every year you need a flat garden, but if you have a small space that will stay fairly permanent then raised beds of soil are an option. I have tried these at different junctures of my gardening career here in my home, and the important thing with raised beds is to keep them replenished with soil and to keep them well weeded. Weeds love the pampered conditions as much as your favored plantings. Raised beds can provide a neat appearance and that lends itself well to the goal of making this a food garden that is a pleasure to the eye as well as to the palate.
Using a combination of flowers and vegetables is a way to incorporate companion planting for organic techniques and healthier plants. Some plants can do double duty if they are edible, such as the lovely nasturtiums.
Monet used them along his walkway, sprawling plants that bear bright citrus colored blooms cheerfully all summer and have round luminously green leaves, both of which can be eaten . They are a bit peppery in flavor. Used as a “catch crop” for aphids, it is a good idea to wash them thoroughly before eating- to make sure no ‘critters’ find their way into your dish! A kitchen garden is not a perennial garden, as a rule. Vegetable crops are mostly annuals and they need rotation to keep the soils healthy and to give continued nutritious harvests. The usual crop rotation cycle is three-years – in other words you only have a certain vegetable type in the same spot every third year according to Clare Hogan’s article. It is the structure of the garden that gives it its permanence, while the more long lived perennial additions, such as espaliered fruit trees or a strawberry patch and fruit bushes, can find themselves used around the perimeter.
The trellis seems to be an integral part of the kitchen garden. Serving to hold precious fruits off the ground, save garden space, and give a vertical focus to the eye, these prove both utilitarian and decorative. Simple central tripods or trelliswork along a wall, these supports are easy to make and also available in almost any garden center both in wood and ornamental metalwork.
On the grand scale they provide shady arbors, and even pergolas dripping with grapes, on the smaller scale they are the support for runner beans, peas, or a single tomato plant. They can be plain or brightly painted, even placed against a wall in such a way as to trompe -l’œilartistic optical illusion .
Paths in this type of garden are straightforward and geometrically ordered. that simplifies the maintenance and underlines the fact that this is a working garden after all, no meandering down the path when supper awaits. They are for walking on and keeping up with the weeding, but that doesn’t mean the straight lines and geometric patterns are not pleasing. They can echo trellis work or simply divide the beds into the old quarter system; there is something settled and right about such a design and it is thankfully simpler to maintain in good order. Brick is a beautiful material to use for this, but hard beaten dirt paths can be almost as good…as long as there isn’t too much rain and muddy conditions. I personally don’t like materials such as mulch or straw in these areas… the mulch is messy and the straw seems to beget weeds. Rosemary Verey had an endearing such garden constructed with brick paths.
Edgings of marigolds are part and parcel of my vegetable plantings every year. They ward off destructive insects, especially nematodes if you use the Mexican marigold, tagetes minuta. One of the beauties of the kitchen garden is its sense of neatness and order with raised beds and pretty edgings such as the marigolds. Teucrium or herbs such as lemon thyme could be used, English kitchen gardens in grand form used boxwood to surround block plantings.
- Lettuces can be used as edgings, as well as annual herbs such as basil, which has a pretty appearance and comes in various leaf colorations.
- Hardscape edgings include bricks, brick pathways, and wood frames for raised beds, something easy to manage and weed.
- Landscape edgers come in many styles, textures and colors and could be used to build up some very attractive beds.