How to Start a Kitchen Garden

Are you starting a kitchen garden? Good for you—you’re joining millions of others who grow their own food in small amounts, just for family use. Your goal is to provide your family with fresh fruits and vegetables, but taking time to get everything in proper order ensures you’ll be successful.

Plan your garden’s location and shape before you turn the soil over in the spring. Ask yourself what types of vegetables, fruits, and herbs your family likes to eat. Prepare the soil carefully—have your current soil tested by an extension agency or farm bureau, and start your kitchen garden off the right way. Gather the proper set of tools to make the job easier.

Choose plants that are hardy where you live using recommendations from local experts. Plant vegetables but don’t forget fruits and berries. If you have the space, a pair of apple trees provides enough fruit for a family and several lucky friends, and strawberries and blueberries are easy to grow. Plant herbs and flowers throughout the garden for visual interest, culinary adventures, and bug fighting properties.

Most of all, enjoy your time in the garden because gardening is psychologically and spiritually rewarding. Tap into experts, ask questions, and learn everything you can about plants, soil, and growing things.

Ready to put pencil to paper?

Plan Your Kitchen Garden With Purpose

Get some graph paper and a few sharp pencils to draw up a plan. There’s no reason your kitchen garden can’t be beautiful as well as practical. Take a cue from the French and use circles, diamonds, and triangles to shape your beds into true potager gardens. Draw trees, buildings and permanent features onto the plan first, then outline your garden beds.

Location is everything for the success of your garden. It must receive full sun (at least 8 hours a day) and be fairly flat to avoid erosion and low spots. It also needs to be close to a water source unless you plan to install drip irrigation. Locating the kitchen garden near your home or a shed is a good idea, but keep roof runoff in mind so the garden doesn’t receive a deluge when it rains.

If you plan your garden as a rectangle, the long side should be oriented toward the south. Plant tall growing vegetables like corn and beans on the north side, medium growing plants in the middle, and low growing plants along the south so they receive full sun.

Before starting a garden, you should put some thought into how you will use the produce. Do you want to supplement your meals with fresh produce on a daily basis? Or would you like to store some things in the freezer or basement to keep over winter? Your ultimate purpose will decide the size of your kitchen garden and what types of fruits and vegetables you plant.

Remember, gardens do best if they are constantly harvested. If you plant 20 feet of green beans, your plants may reward you with a hundred pounds of this delicious vegetable. Be prepared to process and freeze these items for the long, dark winter days, or just plant a little for fresh use.

One final note on planning the kitchen garden: many areas of the country have mild winters, so perennial herbs are an option for you. Rosemary, lavender, mint, and thyme all come back year after year in mild climates. Plant these in an area that does not get tilled.

Soil Considerations for the Kitchen Garden

There are two ways to plant a successful kitchen garden: right in the ground or in raised beds. Planting a brand new garden in soil that’s only been used to grow grass may not be successful because garden plants require different nutrition than grass. Dig up a few quarts of soil from several places and take them to your local extension office before tilling up the whole area. Your county extension agent will help you decide what to add to the soil.

Raised bed gardening may be your best bet. The initial investment is slightly more expensive, but you use the soil year after year and plant your veggies closer together so the initial expense is balanced out in a couple of years. Hand cultivation is also much easier with a raised bed—you may not need to invite a rototiller over in the spring if you plan your beds right.

Whether you use raised beds or plant right in the ground, amending the soil is something you do each year. Make this process easier on yourself by mulching with compost in the spring and fallen leaves in the autumn. It is easier and saves money to amend the soil directly around the plants rather than amending the whole garden if you have a large space.

Get the Right Gardening Tools

Most small gardeners don’t need to invest in a tiller. During wartime in the United States, even 30 foot by 50 foot gardens were worked entirely by hand so you could do it too. You can save significant money on this piece of equipment by asking a friend for help. If you don’t happen to know someone with a tiller, call all the landscaping firms in your area or your local gardening society. As a last resort, rent a tiller from a tool rental store—but be sure you know exactly how to run it. Tillers are heavy and can be dangerous if not operated properly.

A small garden still needs a good set of garden tools. A long shovel and hoe are a must, preferably with fiberglass handles to reduce blisters and breakage. You’ll need a sharp bypass pruner for pruning and harvesting, and a small hand trowel for digging little holes. Several plastic spray bottles will come in handy for you, and sturdy baskets or small plastic bins are useful in so many ways.

Tomatoes require cages. Most beans and peas require a trellis to climb on. Cages and trellises don’t have to come from a home improvement center—repurpose items around your home for these uses. Fencing is a great idea to keep children and errant animals away from your tender plants, but not strictly necessary.

Several other items make kitchen gardening easier but are not required. These include bug netting, a wheelbarrow, a low stepstool for sitting, and gloves. You could spend a lot of money on gardening gadgets! Once you have a set of tools for your kitchen garden, use them just for that purpose, wash them with mild bleach solution once in a while, and store them carefully between seasons.

Choose Your Kitchen Garden Plants Wisely

The key with kitchen gardens is to plant what you like to eat and to plant what grows well in your part of the country. Your local extension agency has a list of plants that thrive in your area. Avoid disappointment by choosing those varieties.

A typical kitchen garden anywhere in the United States has tomatoes and peppers; greens; cucumbers, squash, and melons; root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, beets, and turnips; and sweet corn, beans, and peas. Common culinary herbs include chives, basil, thyme, rosemary, and oregano. Once you have the basic plants in mind, expand your culinary horizons a little with more herbs and unusual vegetables.

Your local greenhouse has a wide selection of plants all ready for transplanting into your garden space, though you’ll seed most plants directly into the soil. Using starters makes your gardening job much easier, especially if you live in a colder climate. Just make sure to properly “harden off” your baby plants—that means keeping them in their greenhouse pots for a few days and moving them outside during the day and inside at night until they get used to the weather.

Fruits and Berries: Cornerstones of the Kitchen Garden

Kitchen garden fruits include strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, although raspberries may take over the yard if not tended properly. These plants are perennials or biennials and require certain types of soil, so investigate their needs carefully and plant them where they will not be disturbed. Most fruits and berries do not produce in the first year after transplanting; you’ll need to be patient.

Those who live with a lot of sun and longer growing seasons may want to try fruit trees such as apples, cherries, pears, and oranges. These trees typically grow well in almost anyplace with good soil and plenty of sun. They do better in pairs to provide cross pollination, so plant two or more of each species.

Don’t Forget the Flowers in a Kitchen Garden

A true kitchen garden also includes flowers, usually the edible kind. Nasturtiums, marigolds (calendula), borage, pansies, and scented geraniums add lovely flavors to meals and bright colors to gardens. Even if you don’t choose to eat these flowers, they help keep bugs away from nearby vegetables, smell wonderful, and complete those empty corners of the garden beds.

Lavender is a kitchen garden must. Adventurous gardeners may want to harvest the flowers for sachets and potpourri, but just having this silvery-leaved herb in the garden is a delight. Northern gardeners may need to replant each year, but southern gardeners will find lavender waking up early each spring.

Chive blossoms are a good addition to salads and as a garnish—their pretty purple color adds visual interest to food, and the delicious onion flavor does not cause the usual bad breath associated with onions. If your chives bloom out, cut the flowers to eat.

Problems in the Kitchen Garden

Failure is a part of gardening, too. Perhaps bugs attack the plants, or a weird fungus might grow better than the vegetables. The weather is a great unknown for gardeners; too cold or too hot and yields go down. If you’re just starting a kitchen garden, these failures may cause you to rethink the whole idea and give up.

While it’s a great idea to mix heirloom seeds with hardy hybrids, or to plant fruits and vegetables that may or may not thrive in your area just to see what they’ll produce, these ideas involve risk and the chance for failure. Failure is good—you know what to do differently next time.

Kitchen gardening does not have to be complex or time-consuming. Keep your spaces small and your plant choices limited in the first year—you can always expand next season. Be persistent and learn everything you can about gardening. There are ways to overcome bugs, fungus, and even the weather. Gardening is a seasonal process and a lifetime process, teaching you in subtle ways how to experience success.

Benefits of Kitchen Gardening

Growing a kitchen garden is a worthwhile activity. You save a little money on your grocery bills, provide fresh organic foods to your family, and get out into nature on a regular basis. The hidden benefit of kitchen gardening may be the most important: You will simply feel good. Gardening is a stress reducer and happiness inducer.

No matter where you live, you can find a way to grow a few tasty plants. All they really need is light, air, water, and some good dirt. Apartment dwellers can grow gardens in buckets; urban neighbors can get together to form cooperative gardens. The kitchen garden has a long and important history in humanity’s quest for food—join in and enjoy yourself.

Plan your kitchen garden carefully, create the best possible soil conditions, and choose a variety of plants including herbs and flowers. Your kitchen garden will reward you with good nutrition and the satisfaction of knowing you grew it all yourself.

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