Kitchen Garden Planning, Part One: Designing a Pretty & Productive Potager
Â I like to design kitchen gardens with both beauty & bounty in mind. Why does beauty matter in a vegetable garden? I’ve noticed that the prettier the garden, the more time I want to spend in it. Usually, the more time you spend in your potager, the more time you spend on your plants and the better they produce
There’s still snow in my vegetable garden, but with sunny days and drying wind, it’s melting quickly. I try to stay in the moment and enjoy the season as it unfolds. But I must confess that I can hardly wait to get back into my garden and sink my hands down into the rich, dark, fragrant earth. April through late November, I spend a great deal of time working in my kitchen garden. So, I’ve made the space welcoming and comfortable by adding room to relax; placing comfortable chairs here and there, and conveniently positioning a table to set down my coffee cup or indulge in a late afternoon snack. In fact, I treat my edible garden as I would any other outdoor room;Â enclosing the cozy space with a rustic, sapling fence andÂ decorating with hand-woven teepees for climbers, pots for edible flowers and wicker baskets for weeding. I can’t imagine a more pleasant place Â to spend my weekend hours. Tending the beds in my pretty potager never feels like a chore.
I’ll be talking more about kitchen garden design next Saturday (April 13th – 10am with Jack Manix), at Walker Farm’s first spring seminar,Â The Art and Science of Vegetable Gardening.Â For those of you too far away to attend this free event, I will be posting notes on the topic of edible gardens both before and after the seminar. Whether you grow a few pots of veggies on your terrace or have an entire acre devoted to culinary delights, there’s nothing more important to your success than properly planning and regularly tending your garden.
Â A handmade sapling fence is pretty to look, but it’s also practical for growing vertical produce like peas, melons, cucumbers. A tall fence also keeps out the white tailed deer, and green, coated chicken wire —extending from lower bar, below ground level— keeps out rabbits and burrowing rodents. The paths of my garden were lined with a weed-barrier of old cardboard and rug scraps. Of course no one ever notices my thrifty recycling with the pretty top layer of golden straw mulch.
While there are individual crops suited to a wide variety of situations, most vegetables prefer full sun, good soil, excellent drainage and room to grow. Choose your vegetable garden’s site accordingly. Shady yard? Consider growing leafy greens and herbs suited to filtered sunlight and head to the farmer’s market for your tomatoes. Poor soil or water-logged location? Raised beds or containers are the simplest solution. In fact raised beds —either natural, earthen mounds where drainage is good or constructed soil retainers built from rot-resistant wood or stone where it isn’t— are my preferred planting style for vegetable gardening in any location. The soil in raised beds tends to warm up faster in my cold climate and I like wide, deep beds —enriched with well-rotted manure and/or homemade compost— for growing a wide variety of crops. Always test your soil’s pH as well as N,P,K and amend accordingly with organic supplements. Read more about basic soil testing here.
Â Testing your soil with a kit is quick and easy, and I recommend you do it at least once a year. Click here for details. If you think you need more information, you can send soil samples out to your local university extension service for more detailed analysis.
Â Making and using your own compost from kitchen scraps, lawn clippings and other organic debris is one of the easiest ways to improve garden soil. New to composting? You don’t need to spend a fortune on bins and tumblers, click here and travel back to my previous post on composting basics to learn or review the simple steps.
Â Flowers are attractive to beneficial birds and insects, as well as to our own eyes. Draw pollinators into your garden by adding flowering plants to your potager. If you grow edible blossoms, you’ll be able to enjoy both the sight and the taste of your blooms. Learn more about edible flowers in my previous post, here.
In addition to providing room-to-grow, wide beds provide extra growing space for pretty edging plants like herbs, edible flowers and tiny, alpine strawberries. More than merely decorative, herbs and edible flowers make great companion plants; attracting beneficial insects like bees and butterflies, and deterring or distracting a few of the less-than-desirables. I like to include annual flowers for cutting in my vegetable garden, where I can easily harvest a bunch for the dinner table while collecting produce.
No room to plant flowers in your vegetable garden beds? Consider scattering flower pots here and there at the ends of rows, the edges of pathways, or hang them from your garden fence or balcony rail with hooks. Drawing bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators to your garden will help your garden and the environment. If you grow edible blossoms, you’ll be able to enjoy both the sight and the taste of your blooms, but be sure to do your research before consuming any flower, as some are quite toxic. A few particularly colorful and safely edible additions for small spaces include pansies, marigold, nasturtiums and chives. Read more about edible flowers in my previous post, here.
I love the flavor of homegrown potatoes, so I plant a pound or two of many different varieties; trying new introductions and long-forgotten favorites each year. This method allows me to have potatoes of all shapes, colors and sizes throughout the season while also providing a fall crop for root cellaring. Consider how you will use your produce —immediately, for storage or both— before you plan your garden and order your seed or shop for vegetable starts. Planting too many vegetables leads to over-crowding and smaller yields. Read more about potato varieties here.
Before the gardening season moves into full swing, I like to consult last season’s journal before I layout this season’s planting plan on grid paper. Crop rotation in vegetable gardens helps to deter pests and diseases and can help to build and protect your soil. I avoid planting the same vegetables —or those within the same groups; such as those in the tomato family like eggplant, pepper, tomatillo and potato— in the same beds year after year. When rotating crops and planning this season’s garden, consider the plant family, height (for sun and shade considerations) and the nutrient demands of each crop. Avoid planting your tomatoes in the shade of cornstalks and in order to prolong the fertility of your soil, avoid planting heavy feeder crops —such as brassicas and tomatoes— in the same position year after year. Rotate crops that require high fertility with legumes —such as peas and beans— or light feeders such as herbs and potatoes, or other root vegetables. If you are building a smaller garden this year, and a vegetable bed or two fall out of use for a season, try to plant a green manure cover crop like buckwheat, alfalfa or winter rye to help build the soil and keep down weeds. You can turn the green manure crop over with a hoe and replant the space with veggies or flowers next year.
Â Keeping a record of my kitchen garden is more than just an excuse to buy a pretty, handmade journal. Taking notes on successes and failures as well as the position of various crops, provides essential information for my planting plan in following years. Read more about garden journaling here.
In addition to the regular posts you will find here on the topic of potager design and planning, I have a few beautiful and inspirational books on edible gardening to recommend. Rosalind Creasy’s Edible Landscaping (pictured above) is a great book, just chock full of gorgeous garden design photos and practical, inspirational ideas. I mentioned it in this post (here),Â and I still highly recommend it. And Jennifer Bartley, author ofÂ one of my favorite potager design books,Â Designing the New Kitchen Garden, recently released another beautiful and informative title,Â The Kitchen Gardener’s Handbook, from Timber Press. If you are looking for inspiration, these titles will really get you going!
I’ll be writing much more about creating enchanting edible gardens in the coming weeks. And, if beautiful and productive vegetable gardens appeal to your senses, you may want to revisit my potager page at the left (click here) and past-posts; including The Art of French Vegetable Gardening (click here) and Dreaming of Springtime’s Sweet Veggies: Planning a Lush, Welcoming Potager.
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