A kitchen garden is a garden designed primarily with a cook in mind. In other words, it is a garden with a wide variety of produce, herbs, and flowers with which a creative cook can use to great advantage.
Why Have A Kitchen Garden?
Most of the answer to this question revolves around the same tenets for why one would have any kind of garden. A garden provides wholesome food, exercise, a productive hobby, and peace of mind.
Wholesome Food: Since you can control nearly every aspect of what goes into a garden, you can make sure that the fruits of the garden labor are also healthy. You select the plants; you also select the materials needed to ensure the growth of the plants in the garden.
Also, with an abundance of vegetables and herbs at your disposal, it becomes much more convenient and easy to prepare healthy meals. In fact, after several years with my kitchen garden (I actually have multiple gardens now, as it has become a major hobby of mine), I have almost become a vegetarian and am probably in the best physical shape of my life due to my improved diet.
Exercise: Planting, weeding, and harvesting a garden provides an amazing amount of exercise. I find that nary a spring, summer, or fall weekend seems complete without several hours in the garden, listening to some light music and working up a sweat planting, pulling weeds, or harvesting.
A Productive Hobby: A garden can quickly turn into a full-fledged hobby that runs the whole year around. During the winter months, I usually become a cook, learning how to prepare complex dishes using the wares of my garden. In the spring, I become a planner and a planter, determining where various plants should go and executing a plan that will produce the vegetables and herbs that I want. In the summer, I become a weeder; I keep the garden free of weeds and encourage the steady growth of the plants. In the fall, I am a harvester, picking vegetables, trading and sharing with friends, and storing some for myself in the months ahead. It's a hobby the whole year around.
Peace of Mind: A kitchen garden also provides peace of mind. My garden has incorporated an old wooden bench in it, and I find myself there quite often, reading a book or a newspaper and just enjoying the beautiful environs.
What Do I Need For A Kitchen Garden?
The most important ingredients are actually inside you: expectation and commitment. You have to start off willing to commit yourself to spending the time that it will take to pull off this garden. A two hour block on each weekend should take care of it, but as a hobbyist, I usually spend an hour each day and three or four on the weekends in my garden.
You will need some space with access to sunlight, although this isn't a major issue; I was able to grow a lively garden in wooden boxes while I lived in an apartment. You'll also need access to soil, water, and materials with which to "feed" your plants.
You also need seeds and a plan, both of which are described below.
Tips For Success
Here are some general tips for a successful kitchen garden.
1. Choose a site with full sun, and use any areas with shade for plants with less sun tolerance, such as salad greens and radishes.
2. Plant flowers and fragrant herbs throughout the garden. This attracts butterflies and pollinating insects (like bees). I recommend lavender and sage.
3. Grow some plants on the edge of your garden that will keep away animals that might snack on your plants. A few maypops and some bitter melon will do the trick.
4. You're going to need some mulch. I recommend raking the leaves in your yard up, then chopping them up and combining them with the soil in late fall. This will make your soil less likely to erode away.
5. You might also want a slightly raised garden with separators to keep them out of the rest of the yard. I did this several years ago when I lived elsewhere with fallow soil. If you do this, make your frame out of one or two inch thick untreated cedar planks, then fill this in with a rich soil that you've purchased elsewhere. These planks are expensive, but don't settle for anything less; they are absolutely the best choice for bordering your garden.
6. Plan out your garden each year. I usually use graph paper, with each square representing a square inch of garden space. Save your plans from previous years and rotate things around from year to year! Even with composting, this is really useful for keeping your soil healthy. In fact, I use a four-year rotation.
7. If you're going to have climbing plants, such as cucumbers or melons, you should set up a small fence or a trellis so that the vines can climb away from the rest of your vegetables instead of taking over.
8. Building a simple greenhouse is also a good idea. I can't afford a real one, so I made a simple one that sits over one of my garden patches. It's basically constructed out of several pieces of wood, some bricks for support, and a lot of Saran Wrap. This allows me to get my garden going about a month earlier than many other people, so I start producing vegetables much earlier and thus have a much longer period of time where my garden continues to produce.
9. Compost is fun. Basically, I keep all of my organic wastes in a series of tubs in the basement. When the tub that I dump things in gets full, I turn it upside down into another tub. Then, these tubs sit in the back room, waiting for that first warm day of spring. Then I spread the compost and till it into the garden (you can just spread it on top if you can't or don't want to purchase a tiller).
10. Be selective about the plants you plant in your garden. I got into a seed exchange and it was the best move I ever made. Now, I have a careful list of specific varieties that I seek out, and I keep seeds from particular varieties that I know that I like, rather than relying on whatever hybrids the seed companies make available. It also results in a very distinctive and varied garden. See below for some of my recommendations.
Recommended Seed Sources
Here are some places you can go to acquire a wide variety of wonderful and distinctive seeds for your kitchen garden. I've only listed addresses that I regularly use, which are all within the United States; there are seed sources in most countries. Try contacting your nation's agricultural department.
Abundant Life Seed Foundation
P.O. Box 772
Port Townsend, WA 98308
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
2278 Baker Creek Rd.
Mansfield, MO 65704
18001 Shafer Ranch Rd.
Willits, CA 95490
The Cook's Garden
P.O. Box 535
Londonberry, VT 05148
13889 Dupree Worthey Rd.
Harvest, AL 35749
P.O. Box 245
West Elizabeth, PA 15088
Star Route 2, Box 37
La Honda, CA 94020
Le Jardin du Gourmet
P.O. Box 75
St. Johnsbury Center, VT 05863
Sand Hill Preservation Center
1878 230th Street
Calamus, IA 52729
Seed Savers Exchange
3076 North Winn Rd.
Decorah, IA 52101
Seeds of Change
P.O. Box 15700
Santa Fe, NM 87506
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
P.O. Box 460
Mineral, VA 23117
Great Kitchen Garden Varieties
I strongly recommend trying out these varieties in your garden.
Chiltoma Grande (sweet pepper)
Magnificent fragrance throughout your garden, and very large, red pods. You can get these from Heirloom Gardens.
Panachee a Graine Blanche (lettuce)
This is a wonderful crunchy lettuce that grows a bright green with maroon sparkles. These are available from both Heirloom Gardens and the Seed Savers Exchange.
I use both the root and the green of this beet in salads; one of the few plants you can entirely use in your cooking. It has a very rich, sweet flavor. You can get this one from Prairie Garden Seeds.
One Last Thing...
Have fun with a kitchen garden. If you're not having fun, then it's not worth it.