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Create a ‘booking calendar’ for kitchen garden guests

"It's time to prioritize and select a specific number of each type of plants to invite as guests into your garden each season of the year based on your food preferences, garden space and how long you're willing to wait for the harvest.

— Nicole Johnsey Burke, "Kitchen Garden Revival," 2020

We’ve been busy the last couple of weeks building raised beds, borders and pathways for our new kitchen garden. I’m really pleased with the way everything looks so far, but the project has stalled a bit. I’m still searching for just the right trellis for my vining plants, and I’ve been waiting for Jerry to come home from out of town with the truck so we can pick up the soil mixture to fill the beds.

In the meantime, I’ve taken Burke’s advice and given lots of thought to planning a year-round calendar for the kitchen garden. She suggests that we think of the kitchen garden as a guesthouse for plants, and creating a “booking calendar” for the guests helps to maximize the garden’s potential for productivity.

For years, I’ve found the lists in the “Garden Guide for the Rogue Valley” (2017) very helpful for planning which vegetables to sow indoors, direct seed, and transplant outdoors during particular months of the year. After reading “Kitchen Garden Revival,” I have a better understanding of the factors involved in making successful decisions about what and when to plant in the garden.

For instance, it’s useful to know the local growing seasons, which Burke bases on average high temperatures: a cold/dormant season has an average high temperature of 30 degrees or below; a cool season has average high temperatures between 35 and 65 degrees; a warm season has average highs of 65 to 85 degrees; and a hot season has average high temperatures of 85 degrees or higher.

Based on these guidelines, here are the growing seasons where I live in east Medford, which is within USDA Hardiness Zone 8a (or Sunset Climate Zone 7): January, February, March – cool season; April – cool/warm season; May – warm season; June – warm/hot season; July and August - hot season; September – hot/warm season; October – warm season; November – warm/cool season; December – cool season.

Based on average high temperatures, my area in Medford doesn’t have a real “cold” season; however, the wide temperature fluctuations from daytime to nighttime and from one day to the next make gardening year-round challenging. Several months of the year start off in one season and end up in another with temperatures zigzagging wildly in between.

One of the first things I learned about gardening in Medford is to always have plant protection ready, whether it’s to provide shade on a scorching day or some warmth during a sudden cold snap. Floating row cover to the rescue!

Despite the challenges, Medford has a long, official growing season of about 176 days. Although the average last frost date is April 27 and the average first frost date is October 20, the last freezing nighttime temperature actually occurred this year April 11 (unless we have a freak cold snap), and the first freezing temperature last fall occurred Oct. 26. Not only is warmer weather extending the growing season in our area, but there are also crops, such as Brassicas, that don’t mind a light frost before harvesting.

Burke provides a useful way to think about the particular plants that will thrive in our kitchen garden during each season. The plants we want to grow in the kitchen garden fall into nine plant families that share characteristics and cultivation needs, such as their size, growing habit and the temperature range within which they will thrive.

Here are six cool season plant families and the size of the plants for planning the space they will need in the garden. They can be planted out as early as January or early February with protection during cold nights and the hardest winter rains. Small plants can be sown in succession; others can be planted again in the fall for the second cool season or to overwinter in the garden.

Apiaceae (small to medium): carrots, celery, cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley, parsnip

Asteraceae (small to medium): lettuces, radicchio, endive

Amaranthaceae (small to medium): beets, spinach, Swiss chard

Brassicaceae (medium to large): cabbage, arugula, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, radish, mustard and collard greens

Amaryllidaceae (small): onions, garlic, leeks, chives

Fabaceae (medium to large): shell, sugar and snap peas

Here are four warm season plant families and the size of plants in each category. They can be planted in the kitchen garden in late April and May with protection during cold nights and the hardest spring rains (I wish!)

Cucurbitaceae (large): cucumbers, watermelons, squash

Solanaceae (medium to large): tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, eggplant, potatoes

Lamiaceae (medium): mint, basil, lemon balm, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage

Fabaceae (large): pole beans, bush beans, dried beans

My kitchen garden receives only 6 hours of direct sunlight each day during the summer, so I’m going to grow peas and beans on the trellis and avoid growing plants in the other three particularly heat-loving families.

Burke recommends making use of every square inch of growing space in the kitchen garden, not only to maximize production but also to reduce weeds. She says for each square foot, plant 6-12 small/short plants, 4-6 medium plants and one large/lengthy plant.

For raised beds that are accessible on all sides, plant the lengthy plants on the trellis, large plants in the middle, medium plants around the large plants and small plants in the front. If there’s room, border the garden with low-growing annual flowers that attract pollinators such as nasturtiums, marigolds, alyssum or pansies.

OK, my kitchen garden ‘booking calendar’ is filled up; now I need to go shopping for a trellis!

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

My gardening to-do list this week:

Plant potatoes (I’m experimenting with grow bags)

Transplant hardened off starts into the garden

Direct seed beets, carrots, cilantro, Swiss chard

Prune photinia branches off the ground for better air circulation underneath hedge

Pot up houseplants before setting outside