Vegetables gain ground in home landscapes

How to spice up your meals with a kitchen garden

Before there were supermarkets or even corner stores, cooking a meal required a visit to the kitchen garden to see what was ripe for that day's meals.

More than a garden of edible fruits, nuts, flowers, vegetables, and herbs, a kitchen garden is a cook's garden, where the beauty of a plant is as important as the flavor of its fruit.

In my kitchen garden, cucumbers climb the stalks of giant sunflowers, marigolds peek out from among tomatoes, and poppies nod beneath peach trees.

What is your favorite pepper? What is your favorite basil? You may not find them in the store, but you can grow them in your garden.

Chef and restaurant consultant Debora Carl recently started a new kitchen garden alongside the San Diego-area home she shares with her husband and two young sons.

"Right now, I am growing all different kinds of peppers: red, yellow, purple, bell peppers; jalapenos and serrano," says Ms. Carl. "I have large-leaf basil and purple basil. There are several varieties of tomatoes: Sweet 100 cherry tomato, Brandywine, mini and large yellow pear, Carmello, San Marzano plum tomato, and the new Santa Lucia grape tomato.

"I am growing Armenian, Japanese, and lemon cucumbers, as well as several kinds of wonderful squashes, all started from seed. I also grow my favorite bean, the Romano pole bean, which is flat rather than round, and the entire pod is edible."

My own garden started much like Carl's, only on a far smaller scale. Like most of today's gardens, mine is limited by the size of my suburban lot.

Though most visitors would describe my garden as an ornamental garden, in truth, it is a fusion of ornamentals and edibles - which is exactly what a kitchen garden should be.

I started by designating a section of my yard for a traditional vegetable garden. I chose a flat spot with direct sun all day. My husband built three 4-by-8-foot raised redwood beds for me and a pair of 4-by-4-foot beds, one for each of our children. A wire and wood fence surrounds the garden to keep out unwanted critters such as rabbits, soccer balls, and stray children.

By the end of the first season, I had outgrown the vegetable garden. From that point on, I learned to integrate edibles into my overall landscape design: Strawberries and rhubarb found a home in a semicircular bed that runs along the western edge of the vegetable garden. A dozen asparagus plants cozy up to the strawberries.

Along the eastern boundary, I planted a trio of magnificent artichokes among penstemon and tree poppies.

An herb bed took form beneath my daughter's bedroom window. I planted it with oregano, bay, lemon grass, mint, fennel, and rosemary, to name just a few. I also added curry plant (so named because it smells much like the mixture of spices used to make curry), a hedge of sweet-smelling, red-flowered pineapple sage, and yellow Mexican marigolds.

Next came fruit trees planted among the shrubs and perennials. I have three kinds of nectarines, a plum, an apricot, a peach, and a pluot, a delicious cross between apricot and plum. Grapefruit, kumquat, lime, and tangerine grow in a little sloping orchard underplanted with an array of flowering sweet peas and annual poppies.

Pomegranates form a large hedge along one side of our property, near a thicket of Southern highbush blueberries. We even have bananas and mango trees, though after several years, they have yet to bear edible fruit.

Whether you live in a warm climate or in an area where winter is cold and snowy, you, too, can have a wonderful kitchen garden with a little planning and some dig-in-the-dirt hard work.

Plan your garden. Be realistic about how many plants you need and how much space they require. You might envision a summer garden with a few tomato plants, some peppers, maybe an eggplant or two, and some basil. In fall or winter, you could grow several heads of broccoli and cauliflower, a few heads of spinach, a patch of beets, and couple of rows of beans. Don't forget the parsley and dill.

Where to plant. An area with at least eight hours of direct sun every day is the minimum requirement for most fruits and vegetables. Choose a spot as close to the kitchen as possible. The closer your edibles are to the house, the more you will use them.

Raised beds. Raised beds are especially well-suited for kitchen gardens. Build raised beds of wood, brick, stone, or plastic lumber. Be sure the beds are no more than four feet wide - any wider and you'll have trouble reaching the center of the bed.

Pathways. Mulch the pathways of your kitchen garden to keep down weeds, discourage bugs, and conserve moisture. If you are a "barefoot gardener," as I am, be sure to use a material that is comfortable to walk on.

Fences. Many traditional kitchen gardens are surrounded by a fence or wall. Garden fences create wonderful growing surfaces. I once visited a kitchen garden that was "fenced" in a continuous, waist-high stack of firewood. The gardener trained her pumpkin vines up onto the "fence" so that the huge orange pumpkins sat happily (and beautifully) atop the aging wood.

Perennials. Strawberries, blackberries, rhubarb, artichokes, and asparagus are marvelous perennials that are right at home in a kitchen garden. Plant them once, and they will produce for years.

Group plants. Your garden will be easier to care for if you group plants according to their water and fertilizer needs. Also, try clustering annual plants so you can replace them as the seasons change without disturbing your perennials.

Fruit trees. Every kitchen garden needs a lemon tree, even if it is in a pot. If you have room, add an apple, peach, plum, or cherry. Be sure to choose varieties suited to your climate.

Herbs. Once you have cooked with fresh herbs, the dried stuff tastes like old grass! Start with a few basics: Greek oregano, basil, dill, and parsley.

Carl grows English thyme, lemon thyme, several varieties of sage, tarragon, chives, garlic chives, and lemon verbena. She also grows flatleaf Italian parsley, which is her favorite parsley for cooking.

In addition, she grows bronzeleaf fennel, mostly because she loves the look of it, and proudly points out a row of rosemary plants that she grew from cuttings given to her by an Italian chef nearly 30 years ago.

Flowers. Flowers add color, variety, even food, to a kitchen garden. Plant edible flowering plants such as nasturtiums (leaves and petals), daylilies (petals and tuberous roots), roses (petals and rose hips), and calendula (petals).

Use what you grow. Carl loves to cook from her garden. "Being a chef, I don't like to plan ahead, I like to cook in the moment," she says. "The joy to me is to think, 'Oh, it is 6 o'clock, I better make something for dinner,' and start a pot of water for pasta. I wander into the garden and pick some tomatoes, peppers, and herbs, and come into the house to cook."

Each summer, Carl combines her bounty of plum tomatoes with her garden-grown herbs and spices to make a simple sauce. She freezes the sauce and uses it for pastas and other dishes throughout the year.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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