Topic for June 2006
Planning and Planting Your Kitchen Garden
Provided by the Western
Massachusetts Master Gardener Association
By George Kingston, Master Gardener
June is the month to get serious about your kitchen garden. The kitchen garden began on the farm, where a small plot of land near the house was used to grow food for the family, while most of the land was used to plant crops for sale. Today's kitchen garden is still a place to grow things for ready use in the kitchen and house, including vegetables, fruit, and flowers. It is not too late to get those plants in the ground for a summer harvest of tomatoes, peppers and fresh salads. Here is how to do it.
If you are starting from scratch, begin by picking a site for your garden. It should get full sun - at least 6 hours a day, but more if possible. It should be as flat as possible, or terraced if you must use a hillside. It should be convenient to both water and the house. That usually means not more than one garden hose length from the nearest faucet. Ideally, it should have deep, well-drained soil, but don't let poor soil stop you. Soil can be built!
How big should your garden be? That depends partly on how much room you have and partly on how much time you have to tend it. A kitchen garden can be as small as a couple of containers of herbs or potted tomato plants, or as large as an acre or more. For a small family, a garden in the range of twenty-five by fifteen feet will yield a surprisingly large and varied harvest.
Once you have selected your site and decided on a size, draw an outline of the area on a piece of graph paper. Remember that a kitchen garden can be any shape that fits into your landscape. Show where the sun comes from and which parts are shaded in the morning or afternoon. Indicate where the water will be coming from. Make several copies so you can play around with planning your beds on paper. It is a lot easier to do it with a pencil than with a shovel.
Before you finalize your bed layout, ask yourself the most important question. What do you want to grow?
To answer that question, think about what you eat and how you live. How do you cook? Lots of salads? Fresh herbs? Fresh vegetables? Lots of fruit? Do you favor a particular cuisine, like Italian, Greek, or Latin American? Do you want fresh flowers for cutting? Do you entertain outside near the garden? Make a list of the things you want to be as fresh as possible. Don't worry about varieties yet, just write down the general categories. Be sure to make room for flowers in your kitchen garden. Not only do they make the garden look better, flowers can be cut for arrangements. Edible flowers, like Nasturtiums, can even be added to salads as a garnish.
Small fruit like strawberries, blueberries and raspberries can easily fit into a kitchen garden. You can even have dwarf fruit trees, if you have room enough. A traditional kitchen garden trick is to espalier a fruit tree on a south-facing wall. Of course, the core of a kitchen garden is the vegetable selection. The most popular vegetable among home gardeners is the tomato. Right behind it are lettuces and greens; sweet and hot peppers; green beans; and, summer squash and zucchini. But don't forget the possibilities of new potatoes, herbs, cucumbers, radishes and carrots. You may wish to avoid vegetables that take up a lot of room and can be purchased locally with good quality, such as sweet corn, pumpkins, mature potatoes, and common onions. But, if these crops are important to you, if you want to try varieties that are not available in the supermarket, or if you just like to experiment, go ahead and grow them.
When you have decided what you want to grow, you can begin to plan your beds. Beds in the kitchen garden should be narrow enough for you to work them from the sides - no more than 3 or 4 feet wide for most people. The paths between them should be wide enough to allow easy access for you and your tools, and to let the sun in - 2 to 3 feet wide at a minimum, more if you have trouble walking or turning around. Orient your beds so that all of the plants get sun. Plant short things in the south and tall things in the north. If one spot is a little shadier, use it for lettuce or other crops that tend to bolt in the heat of summer. Remember, your kitchen garden is a part of your landscape, so plan it to please the eye, putting the flowers where they can be seen and keeping the rows and paths neat and orderly.
I recommend that you use raised beds in a kitchen garden. Raised beds are easier to work in. They are easier to maintain good soil structure in and make it easier to enhance the soil. They provide good drainage and are good looking. Depending on your budget, you can construct them from treated or plastic lumber, concrete, or plastic forms, or you can simply build them up by mounding the soil. If you use treated lumber, be sure that it is the new variety, which does not contain arsenic.
The soil is the most important ingredient. Most vegetables and flowers like a neutral soil, but blueberries like it acid and lavender likes it sweet, so think about what you are going to grow, then have your soil tested for pH. The Master Gardeners do soil testing at farmers' markets and other events throughout the summer. For a schedule of soil test events in Western Massachusetts, click here. In other areas, contact your local master gardener program, or buy a commercial soil test kit. Once you know the pH of your soil, you can add the recommended amounts of lime or sulphur to adjust it to the ideal level for your crops. Then look at your soil structure. For a kitchen garden, you want soil that is rich in organics and well drained. If your soil is either excessively sandy or heavy clay, you can improve it by working compost, peat humus, peat moss, or other organic material into it. If you are using fertilizer, read the recommendations on the label. Different types of plants need different types of fertilizer. Leafy crops need more nitrogen, while root crops and vegetables need more phosphorous and potassium. Be sure to use the right fertilizer on the right plants.
Water is vital to a successful kitchen garden, but too much water or water in the wrong place can also be bad. Avoid using sprinklers or overhead watering in a kitchen garden. Wet leaves can be susceptible to fungal diseases. If possible, use a soaker hose or drip irrigation. In a pinch, use a watering can or a hose with a low flow to water plants at their bases. Water early in the morning, so plants can dry out before nightfall. Figure on at least one inch of water per week, but give plants more if they appear stressed. Many vegetable and flower seeds can be sown directly into the garden in June and still yield a crop during the summer, but if you have not started tomatoes, peppers, or eggplant seeds indoors in mid-April, you should buy healthy plants now and set them out. When buying vegetable plants, look for those with well-developed leaves but no fruit. Check to make sure that they are not root-bound and look for signs of stress, like dry leaf edges. Keep the soil in the pots moist until you can plant them, and be sure to water them in when you do.
Remember, your kitchen garden is all about you, how you live and how you eat. Start working on it now and you'll reap the benefits for years to come.
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Provided by the Western
Massachusetts Master Gardener Association