Your Complete Guide to Creating and Maintaining a One-Stop Kitchen Garden to Fulfill Your Culinary Needs
While a trip to the farmer's market or a stroll through your local grocery store is a great time to pick up a bounty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs—imagine if you could scoop up a similar harvest by venturing out to your backyard. By starting a one-stop kitchen garden for your culinary needs, you'll be able to grow the produce that you find yourself buying regularly during shopping trips.
"There are many terrific, and tasty, reasons to grow a culinary garden," says Jim Putnam, founder of HortTube and plant expert for Southern Living Plant Collection. "First and foremost, a culinary garden is a living extension of your pantry. There's nothing fresher than just picked produce from the backyard." Additionally, Putnam notes that this type of gardening gives you the freedom to grow and eat uncommon heirloom varieties of herbs, fruits, and vegetables that may not be readily available at your local grocery store.
Beyond how practical it is, there's much to be said about the visual impact of fresh, home-grown produce. "Culinary gardens can be aesthetically beautiful," Putnam says. "Many edible plants do double-duty as hedges, blooming flowers, privacy screening plants, and container superstars."
How to Start a Kitchen Garden
Of course, every large gardening project must start somewhere. Before putting your seeds in the ground, make sure you do a little forward planning to set your kitchen garden up for success.
Know Your Area
As is the case when growing any plant, it's important to understand the climate and conditions of your yard. "Use your address to look up your USDA Hardiness Zone—this information will give you a general sense of the kind of plants that thrive in your area's climate," Putnam says. In addition to knowing your growing zone, familiarize yourself with how long your local growing season is, which will indicate when your plants should go in the ground, says Renee Pottle, creator of SeedtoPantry and author of The Confident Canner.
Prepare Your Soil
Once you know what your growing zone is, Putnam says the next step is to go outside and examine your soil. "A soil test—often offered through your local agricultural extension agency—can tell you whether your soil is alkaline or acidic, plus identify any key nutrients it may need to help plants thrive," he says. While certain plants may require neutral to alkaline soil—think cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage—others like acidic soil, including blueberries, raspberries, radishes, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Research each variety's preference to guide you.
Generally speaking, light, loamy soil is ideal for a culinary garden. "Prepare your garden soil by adding in 2 to 3 inches of well-finished compost on top and plant directly in that," says Stephanie Rose, creator of Garden Therapy. "If you're starting from seed, then keep the soil moist at all times in order for the seeds to germinate and for the seedlings to take root."
The placement of your kitchen garden depends on where you have room, but you should choose a spot that fulfills your plant's light requirements. Additionally, Rose says convenience is also a factor when choosing where your garden will go. "Plan for your culinary garden to be as close to the kitchen as possible," Rose says. "You'll want to access it regularly to harvest for your meals."
While you may be tempted to plant a range of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, Pottle recommends starting fairly small and with easy plants. "Green beans grow almost anywhere, so plant a few rows. A couple of cherry tomato plants will provide fresh little tomatoes for months," she says. No matter what produce you choose to plant, Pottle stresses the importance of not overdoing it. "Don't plant more than you can take care of," she says.
How to Decide What You Should Grow
With an abundance of fragrant herbs, colorful fruits, and nutritious vegetables available to you, it can be hard to decide what to plant. A good jumping off point is considering the foods you already love to eat.
Think About What You Like
"The first thing I suggest to people who are trying to start their own garden is to determine what you enjoy and what you tend to spend money on," says Dominique Charles, gardener and garden consultant at Plots and Pans. Planting things you love and eat seasonally will ensure you're willing to put in the work to ensure your garden flourishes. In addition to considering what you like to eat, also think about what you like to look at and smell—Putnam says each plant's visual appeal and fragrance should also be factored into what you grow.
Focus on Companion Planting
In addition to growing things you like to eat, Charles says to also plant things that grow well together. For example tomatoes grow well with a handful of vegetables, but they're commonly planted next to basil. Charles says this is because some pests don't like the smell of the herb, meaning it can ward off bugs that commonly feed on tomatoes, like tomato hornworms. This gardening concept is called companion planting—the practice of growing two plants in close proximity for the benefit of one or both of the plants. Before deciding what you want to fill your culinary garden with, Charles says to research the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that play well when planted next to each other.
Consider What Fits in Your Space
Of course, how much room you have in your garden will play a role in what you grow. For example, Pottle says she rarely grows corn because you must grow several rows to get many ears, and the stalks are big compared to some other options. "I almost always grow tomatoes and green beans because you get a lot of produce from a few plants," she says. Take stock of your space and research how big each plant gets when it reaches maturity.
Certain plants are ideal for beginners who are just starting their kitchen garden—think cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, and string beans. While it's certainly ideal to prioritize produce you can confidently grow, Putnam also urges gardeners to plant something you don't have the chance to eat as often. "For instance, apples and oranges may be common on the shelves at the supermarket, but a garden allows you to grow fresh guava, which may be a special treat," he says.
Whether you choose to grow something simple or an item that challenges your green thumb, Putnam says to read up on the qualities each edible plant variety offers. "Even if it's something available at the grocery store, its homegrown equivalent can offer a totally unique look, smell, and taste based on the variety," he says.
How to Segment a Kitchen Garden
Thinking about how you're going to construct your garden will keep you organized as things start to grow. Charles says to avoid simply freestyling what you put in the ground, and instead sketch out how you want the space to look ahead of time.
"It can be helpful to segment a kitchen garden into rows or sections; the space between segments allows you to more easily weed, water, stake if needed, and harvest," Putnam says. One way to do this is by creating rows with fruit trees that have been espaliered—a tree whose branches have been trained to fit a flat, narrow space. Putnam says fig trees, specifically the dwarf variety, are well-suited to espalier because their petite size allows them to fit into snug spaces and containers where other fruit trees can't.
Fences and Trellises
Create sections in your garden by adding fences and trellises to your space. They can serve double duty by playing host to edible plants. "Blackberries train well on fences, trellises, or on wire strung along existing walls," Putnam says. "Growing in this way makes the berries easier to pick from thornier varieties."
Additionally, Putnam says to consider segmenting with a living border. "Choose an edible plant with a compact, mounding habit to create a clean and crisp border," he says. He suggests rosemary varieties as a great option because they are fragrant, edible, evergreen, and will add year-round visual interest to your culinary garden.
Raised vs. In-Ground Garden Beds
There are advantages to both in-ground and raised garden beds, but the choice may come down to soil quality, level of mobility, and budget.
Raised beds give you more autonomy over the quality of your soil, because they need to be filled, whereas in-ground beds already contain your yard's natural soil. "With the soil that I use for my raised beds I know I like a compost, I like this type of soil, I like that type of soil, and I mix all of those things together to find what I think is the perfect soil combination," Charles says.
Additionally, raised beds can be elevated to any height, which Putnam says makes them easy to access for those with limited mobility. "They also offer lower maintenance than in-ground gardening, with less weeding and better drainage," he says.
On the other hand, raised beds are generally more expensive in terms of start-up costs, as you need to buy or build them and fill them with soil. "They also tend to dry out more quickly than in-ground gardens, so you'll need to be careful to keep your beds well watered," Putnam says.
One reason someone may opt for an in-ground bed over a raised bed is because it's less initial work at the forefront, assuming you use your land's existing soil. In-ground beds also have lower watering needs than raised beds.
"However, gardeners may have to contend with poorer quality soil that needs amendments, more plentiful weeds, and easier access to your produce by pests and animals," says Putnam. "In-ground beds are also often more exposed to foot traffic and trampling."
How to Care for a Kitchen Garden
The plants growing in your garden each have their own care and maintenance needs that must be met. To keep track, Putnam recommends hanging on to your seed packets and plant tags, which list the variety and care details of the plants you're growing.
According to Putnam, most plants will need a thorough watering when first planted. Once established, he says to check the instructions on your plant tag for further watering guidance. To stay on track, Charles says to stick to a watering schedule. "I come outside and everything gets watered at the same time," she says. Charles adds that some things will get more water than others—for example her watermelons receive more hydration than her potatoes, but the actual watering all happens simultaneously.
Most common edible plants tend to thrive in partial to full sun conditions, according to Putnam. However, if you are dealing with a variety that enjoys shade, Charles recommends placing something that doesn't require as much sun, behind something that requires more sun, so you're naturally creating the shade that the plant needs.
Feeding your plants fertilizer is necessary as it helps to ensure they have the nutrients needed to produce a successful crop. "Read up on the specific variety you're growing to find out the type of fertilizer you need, and the appropriate time to apply it," Putnam says.
Upkeep is dependent on the type of plants you're growing—but tasks for a culinary garden may include staking and supporting vining plants and heavy produce, like tomatoes and beans. "Bamboo or plastic garden stakes, twine, twist-ties, tomato cages and wire can help you get the job done," he says.
Pruning and deadheading isn't typically necessary for edible plants like it is for flowers; with the exception of tomatoes, which need to be pruned to promote fruit growth. Pottle also notes that some plants need to be thinned when planted from seed. "Carrots, lettuce, rutabaga, and beets all fall into this category," she says. "You want them to have enough room to develop."
How to Keep Pests Out of Your Kitchen Garden
One downside to a culinary garden is that it's commonly invaded by animals and insects, but there are a few precautionary measures you can take to protect your space.
One of the best ways to protect your garden is to plant pest-resistant varieties of plants, which Putnam says have been specifically selected to be tasty and nutritious for humans, but less appealing to bugs. "If a plant has been bred for pest or disease resistance, this information will likely be noted on the plant tag at the nursery or home and garden center," he says.
Creating a physical barrier with chicken wire, fencing, or mesh, around your garden may also protect it from pests. "You can purchase ready-to-assemble systems online, or custom create your own using garden stakes and materials from your local garden center," Putnam says.
Of course, pesticides are always an option if you suspect pests are invading your garden. Charles says she likes to use two different pesticides—neem oil and diatomaceous earth—when spots or holes arise on her plants. The neem oil should be sprayed all over the plant, including the leaves and soil. Charles likes to put diatomaceous earth in a condiment shaker, like one you'd use for mozzarella, and shake it all over the plant, focusing on the soil.
When to Harvest Items From a Kitchen Garden
The best part about harvesting items from your own garden is that you can wait until they're at peak ripeness to pick them. "Produce from the grocery store often has to journey many miles to the supermarket shelves, so it's typically picked before it's ripe and subsequently ripened on the shelf, which some believe diminishes the flavor," Putnam says.
According to Rose, most vegetables will have information on the seed packets that indicate when the food in your garden is ready for harvest. "That said, you can also use your own taste testing," she says. "Head out to the garden and taste a few things that look like they're ripening. If they taste good, then you know they're ready.