Kitchen gardens have been around since people first decided to grow plants for their use rather than simply gathering them from the wild. It's the ultimate in practical gardening—growing fruits, veggies, herbs, and edible flowers right outside the kitchen door. Step outside, harvest the freshest and most flavorful produce, then cook and serve. What could be easier or better than that?
In England and France, where kitchen gardens are called potagers (poh-tah-JAYS), a lot of planning goes into making sure these humble gardens are as attractive as they are practical. Potagers feature patterned beds and arches where herbs, edible flowers, and fruits mingle with the carefully selected vegetables in a celebration of color, flavor, fragrance, and form.
Whether you design a simple kitchen garden or an elegant potager, here are some basics to get you started.
Because space in a dooryard garden is always at a premium, reserve your kitchen garden for delicate crops you want to pick a bit at a time—lettuces and other salad crops, scallions, radishes, edible-podded peas and cherry tomatoes. Crops that are beautiful as well as edible, such as strawberries and ornamental hot peppers, with their variegated foliage and multicolored fruits, are a natural for a kitchen garden too. Plant those space-hugging, main-harvest crops such as corn, squash, beans, storage onions, cabbages, and the like in your regular vegetable garden.
Include some perennial crops and containers in your kitchen garden, too. Flank the entrance to the kitchen garden with a pair of rugosa roses with their showy, edible rose hips, or blueberries, which, like rugosas, are ornamental in three seasons and produce a bumper crop of luscious berries. If you have room, grow a grapevine or a pair of hardy kiwis on an arbor leading into the kitchen garden. If you have a greenhouse or sunroom, your choices are even greater. You can position matching large containers of figs, pomegranates, or citrus plants at each side of the entrance during the growing season, then move them to the greenhouse or sunroom for winter.
Herbs and edible flowers will also brighten your kitchen garden. You could even surround the kitchen garden with a border of daylilies to give it definition. (Both the unopened buds of daylilies, valued in stir-fries, and the open flowers are edible.) Herbs were among the first kitchen-garden plants because of their ornamental value and numerous uses.
Herbs for the Kitchen Garden
It's a good idea to have a small herb garden easily accessible to the kitchen door so that you can snip a few herbs while cooking—even if it's raining. To grow herbs successfully in a dooryard garden, be sure the soil has good drainage and the area is in sunlight for at least 6 hours per day.
A kitchen garden is the perfect place for thyme, parsley, marjoram, oregano, and cilantro. You might want to include several kinds of basils—sweet, small-leaved, and purple—since they have such different flavors. Rosemary makes a handsome tall shrub for the kitchen garden planted directly in the ground or, in colder areas, in containers. This is the place for French tarragon, too; it's not decorative enough for a flower border. Plan on keeping a rigorously controlled mint plant or two close at hand, as well. Plant mint in tubs aboveground or in bottomless sunken buckets to keep it from crowding out other plants.
Chervil, once started, will seed itself under a shrub, sticking to its spot for the rest of your life. Dill will also show up dependably every spring. Consider the variegated sages, as well, both for their decorative contributions to the garden's beauty and for their culinary properties.
Chives and garlic chives are two more kitchen-garden favorites. Be sure to cut the dying blossom heads from the latter, though, because it's as ruthless a colonizer as the mints, although it spreads only by seed, not by roots. Its umbels of white starry flowers add beauty in the garden, and the flat leaves add interesting flavor when chopped and sprinkled on salads and soups.
You may decide to make your kitchen garden more ambitious and duplicate a Colonial garden, complete with the medicinal and culinary herbs that early European settlers grew and relied upon. This project would contain different plants than you'd find in a typical kitchen garden. (For example, a Colonial garden wouldn't have included basils, French tarragon, or coriander.) Visiting historical gardens is a good way to get ideas for your own garden.
Edible Flowers for the Kitchen Garden
Edible flowers are the perfect companion plants for kitchen gardens, adding color and fragrance as well as ornaments for salads, cakes, and cold soups, and garnishes for the plate. Here are some excellent choices for your kitchen garden:
Bee balm, monarda (Monarda didyma)
Borage (Borago officinalis)
Calendula, pot marigold (Calendula officinalis)
Daylilies (Hemerocallis spp. and hybrids)
Johnny-jump-ups, violets (Viola spp.)
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Marigolds (Tagetes spp.)
Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Roses (Rosa spp. and hybrids)
Scented geraniums (Pelargonium spp.)
Sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus)
This article is courtesy of Rodale's Ultimate Encylcopedia of Organic Gardening.