Monday, July 09, 2007

The Kitchen Garden (updated from a column originally published July, 2004)

The kitchen garden is an essential part of American food culture. As the editors of Harvest of Freedom: The History of Kitchen Gardening in America point out, our nation was settled in many areas by colonists who came to the new world in search of arable land, a commodity difficult for many to attain. For these newcomers the kitchen garden became a symbolic and real means of achieving household security and economic independence.

By the early republic, Horticultural specialists like Thomas Jefferson (yes that Thomas Jefferson) Bernard M’Mahon, author of The American Gardener’s Calendar (1804), and many others extolled the value of simple agrarian life and inspired early Americans to seize upon the opportunities offered by the vast new country and promote the bounty of foodstuffs available to Americans with a kind of nationalistic pride. As M’Mahon wrote, Americans are blessed with that “which might naturally be expected from an intelligent, happy, independent people, possessed so universally of landed property, unoppressed by taxation or tithes, and blest with consequent comfort and affluence.” This attitude about American food culture and the pride early gardeners had for their produce lasted until well into the late 19th century.

By that time, Kitchen gardens had lost their primary function as the U.S. moved from an agrarian republic to an industrialized one. Many abandoned the practice of kitchen gardening out of the necessity of their situation (i.e. living within the growing urban areas), or for the convenience of pre-processed and canned food. For the city dweller or those taxed with working long hours in the booming factories gardening was a time consuming ordeal, easily supplanted by the market. Yet, small garden plots remained an important element of American culture.

During the first and second world wars they re-emerged, as the center of a grass-roots movement for “victory gardens.” In the post-war years these gardens became manifestations of the good life for American suburbanites. In recent years, under the tutelage of luminary chefs like Alice Waters kitchen gardens have become symbols of a productive work ethic and healthy eating for Urban school children. With the SLOW food movement gaining in popularity many have found kitchen gardens a perfect solution for protecting of heirloom vegetables against the loss and way to support local specialty products. Beyond these reasons growing your own food is simply fun and offers an economically smart alternative to buying very expensive fresh herbs from the grocery store.

while you might be thinking that a kitchen garden is out of your reach, you’d be wrong. The mild coastal Southern California summer offers the perfect conditions for establishing a kitchen garden that with little effort will overflow with fresh herbs and vegetables. These gardens can be small simple affairs such as a few small pots of fresh herbs on a kitchen window sill or a patio garden decorated with containers of planted herbs and a few of your favorite vegetables. Or they can be grand affairs, a large plot in your backyard filled with raised beds that offer up an unimaginable cornucopia of the summer’s bounty. Ultimately kitchen gardens are very personal and should reflect both your personality and your (pardon the pun) tastes.

While traditionally kitchen gardens were situated just outside one’s kitchen door many have found that mixing edible plants and vegetables into traditional garden plots offers a unique and often beautiful alternative to a purely decorative gardens. A very good friend of mine has herbs and vegetables (grapes, strawberries, tomatoes, basil, mint, asparagus and a whole host of others) tucked in and amongst the plants in both her front and back gardens. My own herb garden is comparatively small (2’ x 6’ plot), but within that small space I grow rosemary, two types of thyme, oregano, tarragon and sage and I’m about to plant basil and some pear tomatoes for late summer harvest.

In plotting your own kitchen garden, the first thing you should consider is the amount of time you have to work in your kitchen garden. Most experts suggest that you start small and expand later if you find you have more time and energy to put into your garden. The next consideration is location, if you’re planning on growing herbs and vegetables it’s important to place them in a location that gets 6 – 8 hours of good sunlight throughout the day. The University of Missouri agriculture department suggests, “Most herbs need a sunny location, and only a few, including angelica, woodruff and sweet cicely, are better grown in partial shade. The oils, which account for the herbs’ flavor, are produced in the greatest quantity when plants receive a good amount of sunlight each day. If you don’t have a good, sunny location, many herbs will tolerate light shade, but their growth and quality will not be as good.”

Now the fun part begins, choosing the herbs and vegetables you want to grow. And while this is the most personal aspect of gardening, I would suggest growing herbs and vegetables your familiar with along with a few heirlooms and herbs and vegetables you’ve never cooked with. You’ll also need to decide whether you’re going to start your garden from seed (if you’re starting now cool season vegetables would be a good choice, its too late to start most summer crops from seed) or from already established “nursery pots” (the easiest and quickest way to begin an herb and vegetable garden).

I’m not a gardening expert and most of the plants in my garden prove that, but I’ve been pretty successful with herbs and the few vegetables I’ve grown. The bulk of my knowledge comes from Sunset Magazine’s Western Garden Book, Arabella Boxer and Philippa Back’s The Herb Book, and the fantastic advice from the employees of Armstrong Gardens nursery. All of whom suggest, before transplanting herbs out of their "nursery" pots into the ground, water the pots well because a dry rootball is difficult to wet thoroughly once it is in the ground. Because "nursery" pots are small, herbs tend to become root bound. To encourage new root growth gently loosen the root ball before planting in the ground. Pinch out the tips of shrubby herbs, like thyme, to encourage bushy growth. Add some bone meal or fishmeal at the bottom of each planting hole. After planting firm the soil gently around the plant and water thoroughly to settle the soil and give the herb a good start.

According to Boxer and Back, newly planted herbs need regular watering, but once they are established, they are naturally drought resistant. They say successful gardeners give “herbs too little rather than too much water.” After a good soaking, allow the water to drain away and the soil to dry off. Water again when the top 2 or 3 cm of soil is dry to the touch. If your planting in containers, check them daily. The small surface area of potted plants tends to dry out much more quickly than those planted in garden plots.

Sunsets’ editors write, that fertilizing is very important, especially if you intend to use your herbs on a regular basis. During the growing season (April through October, although our mild winters will allow for nearly year round production) fertilize at least once a month. During the winter months one or two doses will be sufficient. And while, they suggest using balanced common fertilizer at half strength, I think using organic compost is a much better alternative to commercial fertilizers. To fertilize with compost either make a compost tea, or add a layer of organic compost to the planting beds or pots once a month.

Pruning is essential to encourage healthy, bushy growth. Remove dead leaves and flowers on a regular basis. Should you frequently use your herbs, pruning may not be necessary as you would be pruning automatically.

Herbs are not very prone to pests but vegetables are and if you do have an infestation (aphids, red spider, white fly) either cut back the herbs, use an organic pesticide, or as my friend does keep a large supply of lady bugs in your garage or refrigerator (they are available at most nurseries and garden centers) and sprinkle them on the effect plants when needed.

When its time to harvest your bounty, collect only what you need for a day or two and handle them as little as possible. Do not cut herbs at random. Take the opportunity to pinch out or prune the plant at the same time, removing unwanted shoots and encouraging bushiness. Use a sharp knife or scissors, do not break, bend or tear off the branches. Always harvest from clean, healthy plants in peak condition

Remember this is supposed to be fun and relaxing work. As my gardening friend says, “There’s nothing better than the taste of fresh produce that you’ve grown yourself.”

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