Thursday, December 07, 2006

Kitchen Gardens

I am watching the snow fall on what remains of my kitchen garden. I failed to harvest most of my herbs this year so I can still see my wilted parsley and sage as the snow quietly blankets what remains of my garden. To combat the winter blahs, I have stared to plan for spring when my herbs will once again grow with wild abandon and I can walk outside to gather the seasonings I need for my cooking creations. Next year my kitchen garden will be bigger and better than ever before.

Kitchen gardens are herb and vegetable beds located outside your kitchen door. A kitchen garden is a functional garden, its' purpose to provide fresh seasonings needed for food preparation. Think of it as an outdoor pantry filled with very fresh oregano, parsley, basil , and lettuce. It is close to the kitchen door so the cook can easily grab a handful of parsley or chives while preparing a meal. Ease of use also translates into ease of maintenance. If your kitchen garden is the first thing you see when walking out your door it is more likely to receive the attention needed to produce a bumper crop of seasonings. Pulling weeds and proactively preventing pests is easier done a little bit at a time on a regular basis. Picking basil and pulling weeds begins to occur simultaneously in a kitchen garden, just remember to use the basil not the weeds in your salad.

All you need to create a kitchen garden is a sunny spot outside your kitchen door. Ideally, a garden bed is best suited to create an outdoor pantry but most herbs and some vegetables can be grown in containers which will serve as adequate substitutes. Even if you have a garden space in which to plant your outdoor pantry, including a few containers will add visual interest to your functional garden and provide the sheltered growing environment for herbs that are particularly susceptible to slug and other insect damage. I built a raised planting box , inspired by a 1960's garden book, that houses my basil plants and shields my air conditioner unit from view. The raised bed prevents most insect damage to my basil plants and allows me to quickly assess if netting or other measures are needed to protect these herbs. I can also harvest my basil while standing in the rain. Most of the other herbs I plant require at least dusty knees and a little more effort. My raised planting box is several feet tall and allows easy access to the herbs I plant in it. Large containers found at your local garden store will serve the same purpose.

Deciding what to plant in your kitchen garden should begin with the herbs and vegetables you use most frequently while cooking. Chives are easy to grow perennials and can be used in a variety of dishes, not to mention as a topping for baked potatoes. Chives can be grown from seed but acquiring a divided clump of an existing chive plant will quickly provide you a more mature plant. Chives' flower and these flowers are edible and attractive. Also worth mentioning are garlic chives, which can also be grown from seed. Garlic chives appear similar to traditional chives but their leaves produce a garlic flavor rather than the slightly onion flavor of traditional chives. Remember to label your chives if more than one type is planted.

Garlic is an option for your kitchen garden. The leaves of the garlic plant can be uses in a similar manner to garlic chives. In fact immature garlic plants will produce a garlic" green onion " that is delicious in cooking. Most gardening sources tell you not to plant the cloves from the garlic purchased at the grocery store. If your garlic cloves have begun to spout , planting these cloves will produce very good garlic" green onions ". Plant the clove with the green sprout reaching for the sun. If you are hoping for full fledged garlic clusters, I would advise following traditional advice, since I have never allowed my garlic plants to reach maturity.

Green onions are tasty additions to any kitchen garden as are cherry tomatoes and lettuce. Most lettuce plants are cool season crops and are best grown early and late in the growing season. Home grown lettuce is delicious but it looks different than what you buy in the store. Loose leaf lettuce is the easiest to grow in your kitchen garden and you will most likely be harvesting individual leaves rather then full heads of lettuce. If your lettuce is bitter it has " bolted" and you should wait for the next cool growing season. I let my lettuce plants continue to grow last season as an experiment and they grow quite tall. The leaves are no longer pleasant to eat but the plants do flower. The plants did not self sow, at least in the fall growing season, I am curious to see what happens in the spring.

I love basil as you may have guessed since it has its' own planter. Basil is difficult to grow from seed though if you have good indoor growing conditions it can be done. While I have grown basil from seed, I find buying basil plants at the garden center produces more productive plants. Basil comes in different varieties but I normally only grow "traditional" basil since I use it to make pesto. I have started adding basil leaves to salads with positive results. I may try a wider variety of basil plants this upcoming season, if my traditional basil plants allow them room in the planter. Basil is a good choice for containers. It needs adequate water and the confined area of a container allows daily watering when other more drought tolerant plants can wait a day or so. Most importantly, the leaves of the basil plant that are so delicious to us in salads and pesto, are also delicious to insects and other garden pests. Containers reduce insect damage. Moreover, while basil plants love the heat of summer, they do survive into fall. Planting basil in containers allows the gardener to protect their plants against early fall freezes. A futile effort unless there is a Indian summer, since basil really needs the strong sun of summer.

Oregano is a must in any kitchen garden. It is a perennial and it will spread. Thyme is a delicious herb and its' tiny leaves are wonderful in Italian cooking. Parsley is easy to grow from seed and is a must in any garden for its' beauty as much as its' culinary purposes. Sage has beautiful foliage and is a worthy addition for ascetic purposes even if you are not really sure what it is used for. Mints come in a variety of flavors but they are invasive and hard to control. The same can be said for cat nip, though I did manage to kill my cat nip plant this season. The cat nip was intentional planted for my cat so its total eradication from my garden was not intentional. I must admit I impressed the garden supply staff with the effectiveness of my control methods. I discovered this while searching for a new cat nip plant for my garden.

A kitchen garden should contain the herbs and vegetables a cook needs. After these plants are established, a gardeners focus can shift to adding plants for beauty, or just to have an extensive herb garden. I was very wary about using anything grown in my own garden for years. I would grow the lettuce, but not eat it. I would serve it to my husband, who loved it, but my personal salad needed to come from the grocery store. I planted different herbs in my garden to create a herb garden, not to use it for cooking. Over time, I quietly began to experiment with the herbs growing in my garden. Dried oregano slowly became replaced by fresh oregano. The same goes for dill and parsley. Then I could no longer find basil at the grocery store, so I grew my own. This year I tried carrots: great cooked, not so good raw. I am trying a different kind next year.

Having a kitchen garden outside your kitchen door also encourages a gardener to actually use their plants in cooking. It is therefore important to label your plants so you do not poison your family. While many of my herbs self sow, if I cannot positively identify them, I treat them like a weed. I am still new to this kitchen garden world and feel the lure of prepackaged grocery store products every day. Until you are confident in your own ability to identify herbs, when in doubt, do without.

Herbs are increasing in popularity not only for their culinary uses but also for their beauty. Numerous gardening and landscape sources are suggesting herbs as decorative plantings. Lavender's first appearance in my herb garden was this year,. It did not thrive but I am waiting until next season to decide whether to pull the plant from my garden. I placed it in my herb garden, since it is an herb. A thirty thousand dollar, award winning, landscape project recently written up in our local paper, featured lavender as a permanent border planting on the walk to the front door. I have seen thyme suggested as ground cover and mints as options for those gardeners looking for natural insect repellent. Kale, a fall favorite of the landscape community in this town, is actually an edible plant from the mustard family. Its' true home is in the vegetable garden though I would not be surprised to find it is used more frequently as a landscape plant. Who knows, lettuce could be next.

While herbs are breaking out of their traditional kitchen garden home, I think a kitchen garden is the best place for these plants. For the cook, a kitchen garden is an outside pantry. For the gardener, it is a interesting garden to plan and tend. It's location near the kitchen door, may even tempt a gardener to use their garden while cooking. It worked that way for me. I think next year I will include mint plants in my kitchen garden, for fragrance if nothing else. I know I need different types of parsley and my dill plantings need more than a little work. Fennel looks funky, even though I have no idea what it is used for. I think my kitchen garden will be even more spectacular next year, if for no other reason than it is right out my kitchen door.

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