Artistically combining flowers and vegetables in their Duluth, Minnesota, backyard, Greg and Judy Bonovetz are at the leading edge of a growing trend toward kitchen gardens.
A row of tall white acidanthera keeps tomato plants contained, and pots of pink ‘Fantasy’ petunias peek out between tomatillos and bush beans. A bird bath adds an ornamental touch above the beets and carrots, and gazanias bloom below. Ruffled leaves of lettuces in shades of green and purple embroider the edge of the path. Among the couple’s favorites are ‘Outrageous’ and ‘Olga’ romaine, ‘Red Sails,’ a French crisp Batavia called ‘Sierra,’ and a mottled green and red lettuce named ‘Freckles.’ Brilliant orange spikes of crocosmia rise above ferny carrot foliage. Here and there delicate purple and white flowers of lisianthus pop up among the bush beans, and spikes of fragrant Nicotiana sylvestris add their stately presence to several beds.
According to Bruce Butterfield, market research director at the National Gardening Association, more and more American households have food gardens. He expected to see the number at 25 percent in 2008, and organic gardeners are increasing at the rate of 25 percent a year. Spurred by the popularity of organic vegetables and local eating, the suburban vegetable garden is back in style, and folks who never had a green thumb are tilling the soil.
Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee’s Garden in Felton, California, sees the same boost in interest.
“It’s more like a surge than a trend,” Renee says. “I’ve seen vegetable gardens increase hugely in the last six months. What’s encouraging is people are getting into it not just to save money but they want to know where their food comes from, they want to grow their own healthy and nutritious food, and they’re discovering staying home and having a garden is lots of fun.”
Today’s vegetable gardens are reaching attractive new heights. Jennifer R. Bartley, author of Designing the New Kitchen Garden, says, “Americans are used to putting our gardens as far away as we can in the landscape – hiding them from view, apologizing a bit because we don’t want anybody to see the working garden.” More and more of us are taking a page from Europeans who, for generations, have nurtured kitchen gardens, which they call potagers because they provide the ingredients for potage, a soup with broth and vegetables.
Although Renee doesn’t believe a kitchen garden needs to be next to the kitchen door, she feels it should be conveniently located.
“Ideally it’s better to have a small kitchen garden close by where you can walk outside and use it than to have a huge one far away,” she says. Since she uses chives, Italian parsley, basil and oregano almost every day, she grows these herbs in containers.
Northern Minnesota gardeners Laurie Benge and Brad Jones recently added a new door so Laurie could more easily access their kitchen garden. She plants the crops she puts into use every day closest to that door – lettuces, spinach, onions, parsley, celery, dill, basil, kale and pea pods.
Jennifer Bartley says the typical American garden was planted in rows, and gardeners had clung to the concept that you plant once in the spring, you harvest and then you’re done.
“A kitchen garden – a potager – is a seasonal garden,” she says. “The idea is to plant continuously. The kitchen garden is part of the landscape, near the kitchen door, handy for the cook to run out and pick some parsley or tomatoes. We make it beautiful, and we make it part of the landscape.”
For generations, Nelson’s Resort on Crane Lake near Minnesota’s border with Canada has had a kitchen garden that supplies fresh produce to their chef, and it is pretty as a picture. Dew drips from ruffled leaves of ‘Savoy King’ cabbage, and yellow marigolds and crinkled green parsley edge paths of green lawn. Rows of neatly staked tomato plants alternate with bright green and burgundy lettuces, cucumbers dangle from cedar racks and twigs of hazel brush prop up peas. Resort gardener Shelley Ward concentrates on crops that come on fast, those she can harvest quickly and replant: lettuce, spinach, snap peas, baby carrots and bush beans. She squeezes as much as she can into her 4,000-square-foot space. Raised beds serve as cold frames in early spring and as bedding boxes for new lettuce and spinach seedlings later on. Continuous harvesting and replanting mean there’s seldom any dead plant material to detract from the garden’s appearance.
Renee sells mesclun, a mixture of lettuces she selects for varied flavors, textures and colors. She plants the seeds, and when the greens are about 4 or 5 inches tall, she uses scissors to snip off as much as she needs for dinner, leaving about 1-inch crowns in the ground. She fertilizes and waters those, and they’ll grow up for a second cutting.
“There are a lot of good organic fertilizers on the market now,” Renee says, “but for those who can’t find a good one, an old standby is 1 tablespoon of fish emulsion and 1 tablespoon of liquid kelp per gallon of water. We use that on the lettuce bed after cutting and every two weeks.”
By constantly planting, harvesting and replanting, gardeners save space. Each time Jennifer changes crops, she adds a little bit of compost. She gardens vertically by using trellises for pole beans, squash and cucumbers. By staking, fencing and elevating crops on racks, the garden has a more three-dimensional effect. This method makes it easier to harvest crops and helps minimize diseases.
Iowa gardener and horticultural photographer David Cavagnaro stresses the importance of knowing the maximum size each plant reaches in optimum conditions. “Plant to fill all empty spaces, but not overcrowded,” he says. “Know the length of harvest so you can have other crops timed to plant or transplant into vacated spaces for rotation.”
Since he gardens in eight raised beds separated by a central walkway, Massachusetts gardener Kevin Fielding says, “The secret is to plan carefully with charts ahead of time; what, where and how much. It is amazing how much you can squeeze into a small space.” He recommends novice kitchen gardeners start small, maybe only 100 square feet, and begin with just herbs. Kevin defines his kitchen garden as “a living addition to my refrigerator,” and he says being able to run out and gather fresh herbs while preparing dinner makes quite an impression on his guests.
Renee is a firm believer in thinning vegetables for best results. “You’ll get 10 times the production and healthier plants from five well-spaced chard plants as two dozen that you didn’t have the heart to thin,” she says.
Minnesota Master Gardener Jennifer Behm believes companion-planting flowers with vegetables helps deter pests. She tucks scented geraniums between broccoli and cabbage plants and uses dill and parsley to accompany other vegetables.
“The bugs don’t like things that smell,” Jennifer says. She takes cuttings of ‘Citronella’ and ‘Rose-scented’ geraniums in the fall and overwinters them as houseplants. In Laurie Benge’s garden, dill weaves its way through the cucumbers, shades the ‘Walla Walla’ onions and towers over the cabbage, emitting its sweet fragrance and attracting pollinators in the process.
David Cavagnaro likes to combine edible flowers like nasturtiums, calendula, borage and monarda with annual herbs such as basil, chervil and dill. Greg Bonovetz plants vining flowers – sweet peas, nasturtiums, cup and saucers and morning glories – on trellises along with his cucumbers and pole beans.
“Not only do the flowers add a colorful element to the garden,” he says, “but they also attract pollinators, an essential element for a successful garden.”
Renee couldn’t agree more. She lets herbs like arugula and thyme flower for the same reason.
“Good bugs, like ladybugs and praying mantises, are those that eat aphids and whiteflies,” she says. “With the shortage of bees in the country now, having flowers that feed the bees is really important for good pollination.” Sweet alyssum, with its tiny white flowers and sweet fragrance, is one of her favorites for attracting beneficial insects, and she often edges her vegetable beds with the familiar annual flower.
Although there are no design rules for kitchen gardens, Jennifer Bartley says the typical, historical potagers were laid out in a four-square pattern with a central feature. Such a design is attractive and functional.
“The rectilinear form works very well,” she says, “and it’s very compatible for fencing. Four-foot-wide beds are a good working dimension because you can easily reach in to weed or harvest without stepping in the bed and compacting the soil. And when you lay it out that way, it’s easier to think about rotating crops.”
David doesn’t believe raised beds are necessary unless gardeners are dealing with hard soil and difficult drainage, but he agrees they are convenient and says some type of border is often necessary to ward off invasive plants like quack grass. Greg Bonovetz, who gardens in heavy clay soil, finds raised beds beneficial because they dry out earlier in the spring and allow for early planting. “In addition,” he says, “as a gardener gets older, raised beds mean less bending when harvesting the produce.”
Renee offers two kitchen garden plans on her website (www.ReneesGarden.com): one for long summer, mild winter gardens, and one for short summer, cold winter gardens. She believes planting in beds instead of in rows is a much more efficient use of space and means less weeding. She thins the plants as they grow so they just touch each other and crowd out weeds.
Kevin’s eight raised beds ensure drainage and help control watering.
“This year we had more rain during the summer months than we required,” he says, “and the raised beds helped save the tomato crop from serious blossom end-rot disease.” He also prefers raised beds because “access to the crop without needing boots each time is a big plus.”
Choosing vegetables for their ornamental value goes a long way toward creating an attractive kitchen garden. Just as you would in planning a flower bed, think about leaf form, height and texture, and foliage color, contrast and juxtaposition. ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard is one of the most striking examples with its multicolored stems and shiny, ruffled leaves. ‘Romanesco’ broccoli has pale green spiral florets that resemble a minaret. Ornamental kale and cabbage are sturdy plants that hold their purplish hues until snow covers them.
Jennifer Bartley grows scarlet runner beans on a trellis. Their bright red flowers attract hummingbirds, and both the beans and the blossoms are edible. Once asparagus stops producing, its feathery foliage adds interest to any border or fence line. With its silvery, carved, angular leaves, topped by thistle-like flowerheads, cardoon is positively statuesque. The deep magenta leaves of ‘Bull’s Blood’ beets are edible as well as attractive. ‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’ squash is reminiscent of the fairy tale pumpkin stagecoach in Disney’s Cinderella.
‘Green Zebra,’ ‘Striped German’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’ heirloom tomatoes, ‘Rosa Bianca’ eggplant, and coiled garlic scapes are popular with gourmet chefs. ‘Harlequin’ corn’s dramatic variegated leaves brighten any vegetable patch, and the deep purple curds of ‘Graffiti’ cauliflower turn blue when cooked. ‘Rattlesnake’ pole beans not only have an intriguing name, but the stunning mottled green and purple beans lose their purple streaks and turn green when cooked.
Gardening as therapy
“There’s something very therapeutic about any kind of garden,” says Jennifer Bartley. “It’s not just the labor of being out in the garden that’s healthy – it’s actually seeing the garden, looking at the flowers, enjoying all the birds and butterflies and hummingbirds that come to the garden.”
Consider creating a kitchen garden near your house. Start small with good soil and a few vegetables and herbs you love. Then add a few of your favorite flowers. Place a bench in the garden where you can sip a cup of coffee and appreciate the scene. Soon you’ll have a garden that is as beautiful as it is productive, and you’ll be part of the healthy ‘slow food’ movement.
Margaret Haapoja tends her kitchen garden outside the back door of her Bovey, Minnesota, home.
Space-saving Veggies & Herbs
‘Sweet 100’ tomato
‘Tom Thumb’ lettuce
‘Cherry Belle’ radishes
‘Ichiban’ and ‘Bambino’ eggplant
‘Super Bush’ tomato
‘Garden Babies’ lettuce
‘Pot of Gold’ chard
‘Bush Slicer’ cucumber
‘Pizza My Heart’ pepper
‘Fine Leaf’ chives
‘Slow Bolt’ cilantro
‘True Greek’ oregano
‘Thumbelina’ and ‘Baby Spike’ carrots
‘Two Inch Strawberry’ popcorn
Read descriptions in seed catalogs to find more dwarf varieties.
‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard
‘Outrageous’ and ‘Olga’ romaine
‘Red Sails’ and ‘Freckles’ lettuce
Ornamental kale and cabbage
Scarlet runner beans
‘Bull’s Blood’ beets
‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’ squash
‘Green Zebra,’ ‘Striped German’ and ‘Cherokee Purple’ heirloom tomatoes
‘Rosa Bianca’ eggplant
‘Rattlesnake’ pole beans
‘Mariachi’ chile peppers
‘Lacinato’ Tuscan kale
‘Purple Passion’ asparagus
‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon
‘Turk’s Turban’ squash
‘Red Express’ cabbage
Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum spp.): orange or scarlet flowers, bold, peppery taste, flavorful addition to vinegar.
Pansies (Viola X wittrockiana): blue-flowered ones have mild wintergreen flavor.
Dandelions: flowers edible when young, flavor of a mushroom when dipped in egg and then cornmeal and fried.
Calendulas or pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) can be used like saffron.
Sunflower (Helilanthus annua): wonderful border plant and birds love the seeds.
‘Lemon Gem’ and ‘Tangerine Gem’ marigolds: only edible marigolds, citrus-tarragon flavor.
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum): mint that attracts bees and butterflies.
Bee balm (Monarda spp.): perennial bees and hummingbirds favor.
Johnny jump-up (Viola tricolor): dip the flowers in sugar to decorate a cake.
Herbs: Most herb flowers are safe to eat, and their flavor is milder and sweeter than their leaves. Try dill, fennel, arugula, basil, chives, cilantro, garlic chives, mustard and society garlic.