Kitchen Garden Planning, Part One: Designing a Pretty & Productive Potager

April 7th, 2013 § 12 comments § permalink

Potager_Planning_michaelamedinaharlow_thegardenerseden 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; enclosing the cozy space with a rustic, sapling fence and decorating with hand-woven teepees for climbers, pots for edible flowers and wicker baskets for weeding. I can’t imagine a more pleasant place  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, The Art and Science of Vegetable GardeningFor 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.

Potager_Planting_michaela_medina_harlow_thegardenerseden 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.

Soil-Sample-for-Testing_MichaelaMedinaHarlow_thegardenerseden 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.

Compost-in-Hands-Heart-Shape-michaela-medina-thegardenerseden 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.

Chives_in_the_Potager_michaelamedinaharlow_thegardenerseden 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.

Zinnia-in-Basket--michaela-medina-thegardenerseden Zinnia, planted in a wicker basket, decorate an old, worn-out garden chair in the corner of my potager

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.

Heirloom-Potato-Harvest-ⓒ-michaela-medina-thegardenersedenI 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.

Garden-Journal-Keeping-ⓒ-Michaela-at-TGE 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.

To find out more about Rosalind Creasy’s Edible Landscaping or purchase a copy, click 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), and I still highly recommend it. And Jennifer Bartley, author of one of my favorite potager design books, Designing the New Kitchen Garden, recently released another beautiful and informative title, The Kitchen Gardener’s Handbook, from Timber Press. If you are looking for inspiration, these titles will really get you going!

Jennifer Bartley’s The Kitchen Gardener’s Handbook

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.

Photography and Text ⓒ Michaela Medina Harlow/The Gardener’s Eden. All images, articles and content on this site (with noted exceptions), are the original, copyrighted property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be reposted, reproduced or used in any way without prior written consent. Contact information is in the left side bar. Please do not take my photographs without asking first. Thank you! 

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Is It Time Yet? Getting a Jump-Start on the Vegetable Growing Season………. {Plus a Special Anniversary Give-Away}

April 7th, 2010 § 18 comments § permalink

Herbs and vegetables acclimating to conditions in the great outdoors before planting. A process known as “hardening off”…

Well here we are in early April, and it’s finally almost-but not-quite-growing-season. What, you say, is she talking about? Why, haven’t you heard of almost-but-not-quite-growing-season? You see, this is the time of year when people start to go a little crazy in cold climate gardens. They load up the back of the car with six packs of warm-weather plants from the local greenhouse, and when they bring them home, sometimes they take unnecessary risks. If frost isn’t an issue in your area, then you have little to worry about. However in the Northern regions of the country, new gardeners can be easily seduced by a week of warm weather in early April; tempted to plant out their tender crops too soon. Just the other day, while talking with my friend Daisy at Walker Farm, I mentioned that I’d overheard some folks planning to till their soil and plant the vegetable garden. Daisy, who is an amazing horticulturalist specializing in greenhouse growing and plant propagation, noted the same thing: it seems that the unseasonably warm weather in New England is tempting some gardeners to plant out the sunflowers. Whoa there partner! Check on your last frost-date before turning those little seedlings out into the cold world! Over the years, I have learned to bite my tongue when it comes to handing out unsolicited advice to strangers. But there are no strangers here! And I must be direct with new gardeners, coming to The Gardener’s Eden for a bit of advice. Perhaps you live in a warmer climate, south of zone 7, and if so, you can probably afford ignore my worry-warting, (somewhat anyway). But if not, given the gardening frenzy developing out there, I feel I should issue a warning: please be patient and don’t plant warm weather crops too soon!

Getting a jump-start on the growing season is smart gardening practice in cold climates. However, it’s important to be prepared and protect both your plants and your soil. If you have mulched your vegetable beds, and/or covered them with black plastic, your soil will likely be warm and dry by now and you may begin adding compost and other amendments, and perhaps planting cool-weather crops like spinach. But first, scoop up a handful of soil and check on its moisture content. When you squeeze it, does it form a wet, mushy ball? If so, wait until the dirt just holds its shape when pressed, but then breaks apart into a texture resembling crumbly chocolate cake when you let go. If you till and turn your garden while the earth is still wet and mushy, you will risk compacting your soil. It’s best to wait till things dry out a bit more. Covering your soil with IRT, (infra-red transmitting), plastic will help warm and dry your soil and keep down weeds – so if you are impatient, this is a product worth investing in for quicker results. It’s also important for the soil to warm up enough for seed to germinate. For cool crops, like peas, spinach and radishes, this date is quite early, (as soon as soil is workable), but for other crops, such as cucumbers and squash, it’s important to wait until the last frost date. A soil thermometer is an inexpensive tool, and a worthwhile addition to your garden tote. Use it to match soil temps to the guidelines on the back of seed packets, or charts available online, (see below for more)…

Turning green sand, leaves and compost into recently uncovered raised beds. To the right, wire mesh for snow peas is embedded into the mounded soil…

It’s always important to test your soil’s pH and nutrient levels in spring, and again in fall. If you need some information about testing your soil, click back here to my post on the subject from last year. The best time to amend garden soil is in the fall, but if you need to adjust your pH, get on that right away, as it takes awhile for the soil’s natural chemistry to adjust! Adding compost, and perhaps green sand, (a natural soil conditioner), is the first thing you will want to do when your soil is friable. Deep, loose soil is key to growing good produce – particularly root crops. Using a garden fork, work compost into the top layer of soil, loosening the layers with a rocking motion as you go. When your soil is thoroughly dry, turn it again  – ideally with both a shovel and a fork-  removing any rocks and/or weeds. When you have prepared the soil to your satisfaction, rake it over smoothly and let it rest and warm….

Turning in compost and edging the raised mounds…

If your have been gardening for awhile, you likely have some activity going on in the garden already. In my own garden, some perennial herbs, garlic greens and cold-crop seeds are already emerging. After pulling back mulch this weekend, I was pleased to see that the sorrel, (Rumex acetosa) , is looking -and tasting- fine! New green growth is showing on the chives, mesclun greens are popping up everywhere I look, and the ‘Spanish Roja’, ‘Music’, ‘German Red’ and ‘Continental’ garlic -planted last fall- are all off to a good start. Crops in the hoop-houses are about to be re-sown, and I am just now planting my spring snow peas, (hoop-houses and row-covers are two excellent choices for protecting early season crops). Some gardeners start peas very early, but I have discovered that seed started in early April catches up very quickly with peas started in March, with no delay in harvest. Earlier sowing wasn’t possible this year due to the wet weather, but peas are a fast-growing and reliable crop to plant throughout spring. I like to sow a few rows in succession, insuring a steady supply of peas throughout the spring and early summer.

I will be writing much more about vegetable gardening as the growing season progresses. But for now, my best advice is to start slowly. Test and amend your soil as soon as it is friable. Check your seed packets for optimum soil temperature, and sow when the soil consistently reaches this level. Be sure to harden off seedlings, (in a protected outdoor place during the daytime), of all kinds before transplanting. Need help with last frost dates? Seed Planting Dates? Check with the Old Farmer’s Almanac online. The Almanac is a great resource for all growing region…

Uncovering sorrel, protected by leaf mulch, in the herb garden

Emerging Mesclun Mix…

Spanish Roja Garlic emerging in the raised beds, with a new layer of compost added…

Beautiful emerging mesclun mix on a rainy day…

Presenting The Gardener’s Eden Anniversary Give-Away # 1

The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible (10th Anniversary Edition)

I’m a professional gardener, so I need to have an extensive library of horticultural titles on hand, from the simple to the complex. And, as the result of my workshops and coaching work, I recommend many books to gardeners throughout the year. But there is one vegetable gardening book I recommend above all others: Edward C. Smith’s The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible is simply written, scientifically sound, and beautifully organized. This is the perfect book for vegetable gardeners of all levels. If you don’t own one, I suggest you flip through a copy at your local bookstore – it’s a gem. And at the end of this month, one lucky reader will receive a complimentary copy of the new, 10th Anniversary edition of this vegetable gardening classic from The Gardener’s Eden! Today and every Wednesday though out the month of April, in honor of our first anniversary, The Gardener’s Eden will be giving away a special gift to one reader. In order to enter, correctly answer the question below in the comment section of this article. Be sure to post your answer prior to the 12:00 pm Eastern Time cut-off. Only one entry per reader, per give-away please. The winner will be chosen at random from all of the correct entries received, and will be notified by email. Gift recipients will also be announced both here on the blog and on our Facebook Page. So now…

The first question is, (this is an easy one): What is the name of Michaela’s garden? In order to enter the contest, please post your answer in comments here on the blog, (not on the Facebook page). All email addresses will remain unpublished and kept in complete confidence. Your email will only be used to notify you if you have won. Good Luck!

* In order to provide each reader with an equal chance to win, your comment/ entry will not appear until 4/8*

Entry Deadline is Midnight, Eastern Time, 4/7/10

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All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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Rich, Beautiful, Dreamy Dirt…

November 6th, 2009 § 7 comments § permalink

A nice delicious bowl of…. dirt?

Has someone been making mud-pies? Sometimes I think I got into gardening because I never grew up. Yes, I know, that is a silly photo. But I couldn’t help myself. All the cooking blogs and magazines showcase gorgeous, slightly-off center bowls filled with the most mouthwatering food. So I got to thinking – what about the plants? They need to eat too! If plants could read cooking blogs, this photo would really pull them into the recipe – rich, beautiful, dreamy DIRT !

There is nothing more exciting to me than playing in a big, sun-warmed pile of dirt. I just love it. And of all the gardens I work in, it’s the vegetable plots I get really excited about – think of all those mounds and mounds of dirt! So, right now I am having a ball, because fall is when I usually plan and prep new vegetable plots. This is the best time of year to test and supplement garden soil, because it takes awhile for organic materials to decompose and for pH to change, (more on that in just a bit…). If I make adjustments now, the soil chemistry will have plenty of time to correct before next year’s planting season rolls around. So I have been playing with dirt a lot lately. Glee !

Great vegetable gardens always begin with beautiful, fertile earth. And every kitchen gardener wants a productive potager filled with healthy plants and colorful, plump, delicious vegetables. The good news is that building productive soil isn’t magic – it’s simple science. But in order to give plants what they need, a gardener needs to observe soil structure and learn a bit about chemistry…

compost, marigold, spinach

I am going to keep this as simple as possible, because most of us aren’t aiming to turn our backyards into farm-schools – we just want our little plots to produce good food! It really only takes a half an hour, a few supplies, and a little effort to get the basic answers you need about your soil’s fertility and, if need be, how to correct it.

Plants require Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus, (P) and Potassium, (K) in order to steadily grow a strong framework and create vigorous, richly colored leaves. Plants with insufficient nitrogen often look yellowish and unhealthy, and if a garden is low in phosphorus, plants will be stunted and produce poorly, (a purplish cast on tomatoes is a common sign of phosphorus deficiency). Potassium deficiency is harder to detect, but equally problematic. Plants suffering from potassium deficiency are internally weak; unable to control moisture and distribute nutrients, among other things. And perhaps most important of all, in order for a plant to absorb N, P and K, the soil needs to have the correct pH level. Nutrients will not dissolve in water that is too acid or too alkaline, and unless nutrients dissolve in water, plants can not absorb them through their roots. No one wants to starve their garden! How can a garden feed us, unless we feed it ?

A simple and fun way to find out about your garden’s soil chemistry is to buy a home soil-testing kit. This is a great project to do with kids. Basic soil chemistry kits are inexpensive, (almost always under ten dollars for a basic kit, and under 20 for more extensive testing), and can be purchased in most garden centers and mail-order supply stores online. The kit I use most frequently requires a one to five ratio of dirt to water for testing nutrients. So I begin by scooping up a cup of soil from the garden, or if I am working in a large garden and want to do various tests, I will take a cup from several different areas, (marking the sample with a location note)…

Soil Sample for TestingSoil sample scooped from the vegetable garden. Take your sample 4-5 inches below the surface for best results…

I usually test soil pH first, since I only need a small amount of dry soil, (see photo below). This particular soil-testing kit requires that I add soil to the first line of the test-tube. I then add pH reactive powder, (it’s non-toxic and safe for kids to handle), from the color-coded kit, add water to the top line, replace the cap and shake the vial, (ideally distilled water, which you can get in most supermarkets, should be used for all of these tests). This test-tube is set aside while I continue with the rest of my experiments…

Dirt in a vile for pH testing...The first test is for pH…

Next, I take my cup of garden soil and place it in a glass, ceramic or plastic bowl. To the dirt, I add five cups of water and stir thoroughly. This muddy mixture needs to settle for at least ten minutes. So, while I am waiting, I investigate the results of my pH testing…

Dirt in a Bowl plus WaterNext, five cups of water are added to one cup of soil, stirred and left to settle 10 minutes or so…

Below you will see pH test-results from two different vegetable gardens. The color of the water will range from dark green to bright orange, with green indicating alkalinity and orange, acidity. It sometimes helps to put a piece of white paper in back of the tube when comparing the color-results with the pH chart. The first test, (A: directly below), indicates that the pH is just slightly more acidic than neutral. Most plants prefer a pH in this range – but it is always a good idea to know the exact preference of your crops. Soil testing kits usually come with a small pamphlet about this, but if not you can look this information up in a good gardening book, (see recommended book linked below). The third photo, (B), indicates alkaline soil. The soil in this garden will need to be amended in order for plants to properly absorb nutrients…

pH test in progressTest A: Slightly acidic soil

soil testing kit color barTesting chart

Ph test alkalineTest B: Here is an alkaline soil sample, (it actually looked darker greener than it appears in this photo). This soil will need to be amended with organic matter and/or agricultural sulfur this fall in order to bring it closer to the acid-neutral range.

Soil that is too acidic for vegetable gardening can be corrected, (or ‘sweetened’ as farmers sometimes say), with lime. Limestone and wood ash both raise pH. Organic lime can be purchased at most garden/home centers. Be sure to follow instructions and wear a mask when spreading lime on soil. Wood ash is an old-fashioned remedy for poor soil, and it is useful because ash also adds magnesium and potassium. If nutrient testing reveals low potassium, then wood ash is a good, economical supplement for an acidic vegetable garden. However, if the garden soil is alkaline, (as in test B), wood ash should not be added.

If test results reveal alkaline soil, (as in vial B, above), there are two ways to lower the pH. The best long-term solution for improving alkaline soil is to add organic matter. Composted oak leaves, pine needles, peat moss or untreated sawdust are all good supplements. However, it takes time for these additives to work. So, if you are looking for faster results, or your soil is very alkaline, (like test B, above), then adding agricultural grade sulfur makes sense. This supplement can be purchased at garden centers and it is applied in the same manner as lime. Always work additives into the soil with a garden fork after they have been applied, and then cover the bed with a good, thick layer of compost.

For the next three tests, (N,P,K), samples are drawn from the bowl containing the soil-water mix. Take care not to disturb the settled soil when obtaining the samples. There is a bit of organic matter floating in the tubes shown below. A small amount is OK, (it can be tricky to get a clean catch in super organic soil, especially for little hands), but try to keep as much as possible out. Your results won’t be skewed from a bit of floating debris, so no worries if some gets in the tube. Next add the reactive powder to each vial, replacing the color-coded cap to match the test. Be sure your caps are on tight! Then, shake the tubes and wait another 5 to 10 minutes for color-results…

soil test with some depletionsHere are some test results for K, N and P  – The Potash, (orange) content is good. Nitrogen, (purple) is very low, and the Phosphorus is depleted, in fact it’s just about non-existent !

When the color in the tubes has developed, match your results with the chart provided in the testing kit. Low and depleted levels of nutrients can be corrected with organic supplements. Low nitrogen? Good compost will raise the nitrogen in garden soil and fish emulsion or blood meal will also correct low nitrogen. During the growing season, cover crops like alfalfa can also be turned into the soil to raise nitrogen levels. How you improve soil fertility depends upon when you are correcting the situation and how depleted the soil is. In cold climates, adding a rich layer of compost to the soil in fall will often do the trick for correcting fertility in the long term. But if levels are particularly depleted, additional supplements may be needed. The phosphorus test above indicates complete depletion. To improve this situation, rock phosphate is recommended. Like the other supplements mentioned, this can be purchased at any garden center. Always follow instructions on the bag. The orange-capped test above indicates ample potassium. If potassium is low however, it can be improved by adding granite-dust, greensand or wood ashes. But remember, wood ashes will raise pH. Only add wood ashes if your pH test indicates acidic soil. And remember, you can add supplements like greensand and rock phosphate to your compost as well – they are all natural…

compost:hands

In addition to checking soil chemistry, it is important to have a look at soil structure. If a garden has particularly sandy soil, or clay soil with poor drainage, now is a good time to add organic matter to the garden. Compost, leaf-mold, clean straw and other organic matter can be worked in and raked over the garden in the autumn. This healthy mix of ingredients will continue to decompose over the winter months, building a healthy, hearty stew for next year’s plants.

Building a vegetable garden, testing and building soil can be fun and rewarding for kids. This soil testing process is a great way to teach young gardeners about practical science. For less than $20, a real-life skill can be acquired while having a great time. For more information about creating great vegetable gardens, I highly recommend Edward C. Smith’s book, The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible , linked below. This book is easy to read and follow, and it makes a great gift for beginning vegetable gardeners, (and even the more experienced, for reference!)…

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Article and photographs copyright 2009, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without express written permission. Inspired by something you see here? It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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