Kitchen garden basics

Kitchen garden basics: How to get started today

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Kitchen gardening is making a comeback. These small, attractive, and productive vegetable gardens are having a renaissance of sorts. They’re popping up in backyards around the world. Let’s take a look at the basics of kitchen gardening with an expert on the subject, Nicole Burke, author of the beautiful book, Kitchen Garden Revival. The info in this article, combined with what you’ll find in Nicole’s book, will have you growing in your own kitchen garden like a pro. 

How to set up a backyard vegetable garden

This small yet stylish kitchen garden is just the right size for providing fresh veggies and herbs for the family.

What is kitchen gardening? 

There are two types of kitchen gardening. The first type takes place in your kitchen and can involve either re-growing veggies from food scraps (if you want to try this, I recommend Katie Elzer-Peter’s book, No-Waste Kitchen Gardening) or growing herbs and veggies on your windowsill. But the type of kitchen gardening we’re talking about in this article takes place outdoors. It involves growing fresh, organic vegetables right outside your back door. Instead of taking place in the kitchen, this type of kitchen gardening takes place for the kitchen. 

The French have known the kitchen garden as the potager for generations, and the American colonists practiced kitchen gardening, too. But industrialization changed that and the kitchen garden was replaced by the straight rows of Victory Gardens. Sadly, with the subsequent industrialization of our entire food system, most families found themselves with no food garden at all. 

Learn how to set up, plant, and grow a small backyard vegetable garden.

This kitchen garden, designed by Nicole Burke, consists of 4 raised beds laid out in a symmetrical pattern. Photo by Eric Kelley for Kitchen Garden Revival

How is kitchen gardening different from “regular” vegetable gardening? 

A renewed interest in kitchen gardening, however, is bringing this tradition back into vogue. I took the question of how a kitchen garden differs from a vegetable patch to Nicole, and here’s what she had to say about it: “To me, what makes a kitchen garden unique from a ‘regular’ vegetable garden is that it’s typically smaller, tended more often, and designed to connect more aesthetically with the design and architecture of the home.” Kitchen gardens are designed spaces, with symmetrical beds organized and planted in an aesthetically pleasing way. In other words, kitchen gardens are not only productive, they’re also pretty. They’re also meant for fresh eating, rather than for growing large amounts of food for canning and preserving. 

Designing a small backyard vegetable patch

This pretty two-bed kitchen garden sits in a previously unused nook and is designed to fit the home’s architecture. Design by Nicole Burke. Photo by Eric Kelley for Kitchen Garden Revival

Where to put your kitchen garden 

Nicole loves to tie the kitchen gardens her company, Rooted Garden, designs and installs to other existing aspects of the home, such as a fence line, the edge of the house, or even by lining it up with windows or doorways. “You really want the kitchen garden to look like it’s always been there,” she notes. Designing the garden to connect with the lines and objects that are already on-site is the best way to do that.

“Of course, you want to prioritize sunlight most,” she stresses, “and you do that by ensuring you’re on the southern side of any tall structures in your landscape. Then, you’ll want to be sure you’re near a water source. Once you’ve thought about sunlight and water, then consider the aesthetics of your home and how you could extend one line or another and create a new space that feels like it’s always been a part of your home.”

In other words, don’t hastily plunk in a kitchen garden. Think through which space on your property you’d most like to spend time in that also has plenty of light. That’s where you want the garden; not far away and out of sight, but as closely tied to your everyday life as possible.

Setting up a small veggie patch using raised beds

Keep your kitchen close to home for easier maintenance and harvesting. But, make sure the site receives at least 8 hours of sun per day.

Kitchen garden design basics

Nicole believes that for both ease of use and for the health of the plants, raised beds are the way to go. “Raised beds allow you to set up and plant right away without the years of amending and working your native soil,” she says. It doesn’t matter what the beds are built from. It could be wood, stone, metal, or bricks; whatever suits your budget and partners well with your home and existing landscape.

Raised beds also allow you to more intensively plant your gardens so you can get more out of a small space. Many of the gardens Nicole’s company installs take up as little as 30 square feet and consist of anywhere from 2 to 6 symmetrically arranged raised beds with walking paths in between. Of course a larger kitchen garden is great, too, but for most families, such a large space isn’t necessary (or budget friendly!). 

Of course, kitchen gardens don’t need to consist of raised beds. Any space divvied up into symmetrical beds with pathways and attractive plantings of edibles is technically a kitchen garden. “If you’re tending the garden regularly and harvesting often, you’ve got a kitchen garden, even if it’s in the ground. But, if you have raised beds, you’ll probably enjoy the experience more. At least that’s my opinion!”  she jokes.

Vegetable garden basics include a level site with full sun.

While raised beds make kitchen garden maintenance easier, they aren’t necessary. This small backyard kitchen garden still has the hallmark symmetrical beds and overall design.

What to grow in a kitchen garden 

You can grow a lot of things in a kitchen garden but that doesn’t mean you should. A kitchen garden is all about setting priorities, according to Nicole. She notes that you can either grow a lot of a few things or a little of a lot of things, but you can’t really do both. Her recommendation is to grow all your herbs, nearly all of your greens, and the fruiting plants you most enjoy. In her own kitchen garden, that means leafy greens, like ‘Buttercrunch’ lettuce, spring mix, and kale; herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil and parsley; and then her family’s favorite fruiting plants which include cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, shishito peppers, and sugar snap peas. 

Nicole Burke, author of Kitchen Garden Revival, in her home garden.

In her own garden, Nicole focuses on growing the vegetables and herbs her family eats the most. Photo by Eric Kelley for Kitchen Garden Revival

To maximize space, focus on growing dwarf vegetable varieties whenever possible. Instead of growing a tomato that will grow 6 to 8 feet tall, choose one that tops out at 2 feet. There are dwarf and compact versions of nearly every vegetable you can grow. These selections have been bred to stay smaller, and as a result, they take up less room in the kitchen garden. Since space is at a premium when kitchen gardening, compact vegetable varieties are a smart idea, whenever possible. If you want to discover some great choices, we introduce you to dozens of compact veggie varieties for the kitchen garden in this article.

Maintaining the garden 

To minimize maintenance in your kitchen garden, Nicole recommends you think about nature. She recalls the time she was visiting Big Bend National Park. She couldn’t help but notice how all of the native plants situated themselves together. “It was a rolling mass of plants, with tall plants in the center of the mass, medium plants in the middle, and small plants sprawling on the ends with little to no soil exposed in between.” It made her think about the importance of echoing nature’s planting methods in her own kitchen garden plantings. 

She now sings the praises of intensive planting in kitchen gardens. “Instead of mono cropping a raised bed with a mass of just one plant, think about nature and the way these plants would situate themselves. Plant your beds with large plants in the center – usually growing up a trellis – medium plants to the side, and small plants like herbs, greens, and flowers around the outside edge of the beds. This intensive planting creates layers and nearly eliminates the challenge of weeds. It makes water retention so much better, and also prevents pests and diseases as your plants and flowers work together, just as they do in nature.”

Once the garden is planted and begins to fill in, the most time consuming tasks are pruning and harvesting, though watering is essential, especially during times of drought. 

Fruit trees can be planted near garden beds to produce more food.

Intensively planted beds mean fewer weeds and lower maintenance. Just remember to keep the garden watered.

The importance of succession planting

Since kitchen gardens are often on the smaller side, it’s important to continually plant new crops as others are harvested. It’s a practice known as succession planting. 

“In the small space of a kitchen garden, it’s so important (and so much more fun) to use up every inch of space all year long,” says Nicole. “My experience gardening in Houston taught me this in such an incredible way because there are twelve months of growing season there, but each month is different. I discovered that adding the next season of plants and seeds each month kept the garden producing and opened my eyes to what’s possible in nearly any climate.”

Now that Nicole’s home garden is in the Chicago area, she definitely has fewer months of production from the garden, but she has an appreciation for the various seasons of growing. By continuously planting new vegetables into the garden, you get to enjoy harvests earlier (well before the threat of frost is over) and later (well after the fall frost arrives) – and every week in between.

In her book, Nicole teaches the concept of the “Arc of the Seasons” to get gardeners to think beyond the idea of planting everything all at once. Instead, plant different crops at different times of the year, according to their preferred growing seasons. 

Vegetable gardens can be large or small.

No matter the size of your garden, succession planting ensures a continual harvest.

Why should every home have a kitchen garden? 

Our modern industrialized food chain gives us very little control over where our food comes from and what goes into growing it. But by starting a kitchen garden and growing even a small portion of your own food, you’ll not only be cultivating a connection to what you eat, you’ll also be helping the planet. Not to mention the fact that it just feels good to have a hand in feeding yourself and your family. Plus it’s good exercise! 

Nicole has a lot to say about the joys and importance of kitchen gardening. Once she began her own kitchen garden and saw how good it was for her and how she had more than enough to share with her neighbors, it then extended into an appreciation for local farmers and a desire to support them. It also turned into a love of the bees, butterflies, and toads that returned to her yard. All this because of a few raised beds filled with veggies. She was convinced the whole world needed a kitchen garden.

“There aren’t many things in the world that are beautiful and inspiring, productive, and so good for every aspect of your health,” she says. “At first glance, you wouldn’t think that having a kitchen garden could change the world. But when you think about the fact that all of us eat three meals a day, you soon realize that the choices we make with our food add up quickly. I truly believe a kitchen garden revival could change the whole world for the better.” Here at Savvy Gardening, we couldn’t agree more! 

Kitchen Garden Revival by Nicole Burke

For more information on starting a kitchen garden of your own, pick up a copy of Kitchen Garden Revival and get growing. You can also join Nicole’s kitchen garden community, Gardenary

And for additional tips on raised bed gardening, check out the following articles: 

Do you already grow in a kitchen garden or plan to start one soon? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comment section below. 

Design and plant a kitchen garden for homegrown vegetables and herbs.

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