Food Gardening 101
By: National Gardening Association Editors
It's a great treat to go shopping in your own garden to harvest fresh food.
A small, well-tended garden can be just as productive as a large one that is ignored, so it is a good idea to start small and expand it as you need more space.
If you are gardening in small spaces, your taste and budget will shape your garden plan. Here are some examples:
The herb garden. Cooks love to have a supply of fresh herbs on hand. As a rule of thumb, use twice the amount of fresh herbs as dried herbs to achieve the same taste. Herbs are just weeds with special-tasting properties. Flavors intensify as they dry. You can have an herb garden mixed in with vegetable or flower gardens, separately outside the kitchen door, or on a sunny windowsill. Favorites are basil, chives, parsley, tarragon, oregano, and thyme. Herb seeds are very slow to germinate, so get started with young plants from the garden center. If you love pesto, be sure to get enough basil to freeze some for the winter. For frozen pesto, add the garlic after you thaw it for best flavor.
The hidden garden. If you only want an occasional tomato or other vegetable for fresh use, plant vegetables among your flowers. Instead of a border planting, use a few feet of leaf lettuce. Cut it instead of pulling it and it will produce two more cuttings. Tomatoes, eggplant, even bush varieties of cukes can be tucked into a flower garden.
The kitchen garden. This can be a small garden planted in 1-, 2-, or 3-foot-wide blocks or rows (you have to be able to reach into the middle of the row). It is "shopped" daily and meals can be planned around what is coming in. It might contain two or three varieties of lettuce (make plantings three weeks apart in spring for a long harvest), onion sets that can be pulled as scallions or allowed to mature, two or three varieties of tomatoes ('Sweet Million' cherry tomatoes for salads, 'Roma' for sauces, and an early variety for slicing), cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash, and two or three varieties of peas (snow peas for stir fry and salad, snap peas for salad and fresh eating, and 'Sugar Snaps' for snacks), and bush or pole beans such as 'Roma' or 'Tendergreen Improved'). Your herb garden can occupy one corner, if you choose. A few flowers will brighten it up. As you set out broccoli plants from the garden center, plant some seeds as well. It will stretch the harvest.
No kitchen garden is complete without a fruit tree. If you live in coastal California, plant a 'Meyer' lemon tree, and you'll enjoy a year-round supply of the best lemonade you've ever tasted. Or if you live in Minneapolis, make it an apple tree.
Let your taste dictate what you plant. A kitchen garden is designed to be small, for daily use. Crops like potatoes and carrots are fun to grow, but are inexpensive to buy, so they might not be a top priority. An early crop of beans can be pulled out when it is done producing, composted, and the space replanted with a late crop of beans. If you know your first frost date and the number of days a crop takes to bear, you can make sure the space is constantly producing.
If you have the time and space, a large garden can be planned to produce enough for daily use and to be frozen, canned, or dehydrated for use all winter long (sundried tomatoes are easy to make, but expensive to buy, for example).
The generous-sized garden makes room for the sprawling vine crops like winter squash that store well without processing. Potatoes, carrots and lots of tomatoes, peppers, and onions for sauces have a place too. Yellow onions are best for storing into fall. While canning used to be the principal preservation method, freezing now presents another option.
The secret of a successful vegetable garden is to plant it with the things you love to eat and keep it small enough to make tending it a joy.