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Consider joining the kitchen garden revival

“A kitchen garden is the missing piece in the pursuit of a whole and happy life.”

— Nicole Johnsey Burke, “Kitchen Garden Revival,” 2020

I’m impressed with the level of enthusiasm that author Nicole Burke demonstrates for kitchen gardens, and after reading “Kitchen Garden Revival,” I’m convinced she means every word.

In her book, Burke shares how her kitchen gardens have helped her turn an eating disorder into a healthier relationship with food. Creating kitchen gardens have also helped her turn each of several houses over the years into real homes.

Burke is so sure it’s time for a revival of kitchen gardens that she started a nationwide garden consulting business called Gardenary (www.gardenary.com) and a Houston-based company called Rooted Gardens. Her book is the result of several years of experience designing, installing and maintaining small-scale, low-maintenance, raised-bed gardens.

So what is a kitchen garden? They’re called potagers in France, which derived from “pottage,” a term used for thick vegetable soup. A potager is a garden where vegetables, fruits and herbs are grown for everyday use in the kitchen.

“Instead of a rambling field or an entire yard planted with vegetables, a kitchen garden is separate from the rest of the landscape and created to be a central feature. It’s not something to tuck behind the garage and hide from neighbors,” Burke writes .“It’s set up to be beautiful – front and center.”

Not only are aesthetics an important part of kitchen gardens, Burke says they should be designed as a gathering place for family and friends. Her recommendations for raised-bed designs makes kitchen gardens easier than vegetable patches to tend all year.

During the next few weeks, I’ll share some of the insights from Burke’s book, and you can download a free kitchen garden journal on her website.

Once you’ve decided to become a part of the kitchen garden revival, the first step is to locate the best site for a kitchen garden. Burke says there are four key factors to consider: sunlight and wind exposure; proximity to a water source; convenience to the house; and aesthetics.

Ideally, kitchen gardens should receive at least 6 hours of direct sun each day throughout the year. This is difficult to find in the free space I have because of surrounding buildings, fencing and tall trees.

There’s a 20-by-25-foot grassy area facing southeast that’s protected from the wind; during the late spring and summer, this area gets about 3 hours of sunlight in the morning and another 3 hours later in the afternoon. But in the winter when the sun is lower on the horizon, this area receives only 3-4 hours of direct sun each day.

That doesn’t mean I can’t have a kitchen garden in this space, only that I need to consider which plants will grow well under these conditions. During the summer, I could grow beans, peas and root crops that require 6 hours of sunlight, as well as herbs and leafy greens that require 2-4 hours of direct sunlight. In the winter, I can still grow different kinds of greens. Plants that like a lot of sun, such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and melons, would not grow well in this spot.

The next thing to consider is how to water the garden. Most edible crops need about 1 inch of water a week, so it will be important for the garden to be located close to a spigot or other water source. There’s a water spigot attached to the house about 15 feet away from this area. Unfortunately, the spigot is behind a pond, but I can attach a hose and connect driplines for the kitchen garden from it.

The third factor to consider is the kitchen garden’s proximity to the house – as close to the kitchen as possible. “Out of sight, out of mind” is absolutely true when it comes to a kitchen garden. Luckily, the area I have in mind is steps away from my back door, so there’s no chance it will be forgotten.

Fourth, Burke recommends thinking about how the kitchen garden will tie into the aesthetics of your home and the surrounding landscape.

“By selecting existing elements in your landscape to match to the garden, you’ll give your garden a sense of belonging, she writes.”

The area I’m considering is in between the house and a detached cottage, so I can mimic the wooden siding of the buildings and the wooden fences with raised beds made out of untreated cedar.

Finally, before moving to the design process, which entails sketching a garden layout, Burke says it’s important to consider input and output goals. How much time, energy and money do you have to spend on your kitchen garden? In return, how much do you want your garden to give to you?

One of the things I particularly like about Burke’s book is the level of detail she provides in thinking through the decision to have a kitchen garden. For example, she calculates gardeners will need about 2 minutes per square foot of garden space each week for planting and harvesting and about 1 minute per square foot each week for tending the garden. If I have two raised beds 4 feet wide by 8 feet long, that’s 64-square-feet of space that will require around 2 hours a week for planting and harvesting and 1 hour for maintaining. In my experience, that sounds about right.

In terms of monetary input, Burke estimates gardeners will need between $25 to $50 per square foot if they make their own kitchen garden or $100 per square foot if they hire a professional to install the garden. For my 64 square feet of garden space, I can expect to spend at least $1,600 on a DIY installation project.

For this amount of input, Burke estimates the output from my kitchen garden will be an average of 1-2 harvests a month from each square foot of growing space.

Rather than viewing my kitchen garden as a way to save money on food costs, Burke advises gardeners to see it as an investment in our home and landscape, as well as an investment in our physical and mental health.

Next week, I’ll go into more detail about building and installing a kitchen garden, but for now I’ll end with why Burke believes a kitchen garden revival is necessary.

“With the input of technology and industry, our food systems have changed dramatically over the last century. And while not all the change has been bad, the kitchen garden is something that should’ve stayed. To create whole and happy lives, for the beauty in our homes, for the benefit of our community and for the good of the world, it’s time for a kitchen garden revival.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener and her blogs at www.literarygardener.com.

My garden to-do list this week

Continue process of sowing seeds, pricking out, potting up, hardening off. Focus on sowing seeds for warm weather crops: cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, squash, tomatoes, as well as warm weather annual herbs: basil, cilantro, dill, fennel, chives.

Take stock of seedling attrition so far and sow more seeds accordingly (particularly spinach and Swiss chard).

Plant out cool weather crops in raised beds: peas, beets, carrots, cabbages, leafy greens, leeks, spinach, cilantro

Plant seed potatoes in grow bags and continue covering foliage as it emerges.

Transplant or remove herbaceous perennials that aren’t thriving in their current location.