Blame the locavore movement, food-security concerns or the nearly forgotten pleasure of coaxing seeds into plants, but kitchen gardens (or, as the French call them, potagers) are the urban plots of the moment. Indeed, many city dwellers are even growing food in their front yards, which makes a lot of sense: Front yards are often exposed to at least six hours of sun a day and tend to be underused (among the eco-conscious, lawns are passé anyway). Just make sure, if you are using your front space for such a purpose, that you don’t plant food anywhere near idling traffic. And wherever you do site your kitchen garden, consider aesthetics, as the French and English do: Just because a garden is functional doesn’t mean it has to be ugly. By incorporating herbs, perennials and filler-type annuals, you can create a garden that will complement almost any style of house as well as add to your table.
But first thing’s first. The most important advice I can give when planning a kitchen garden is: Choose vegetables you love to eat. (There’s no point planting radishes if you detest them.) Next, think about plant placement, starting with borders. For this purpose, I’d choose several varieties of lettuce that can be harvested on a regular basis (lettuces are attractive edgers, as are various kinds of basil), then proceed with filling in the space or spaces I’ve created, keeping in mind the size, spread, height and texture of the plants going within them. For instance, the curly leaves of kale in all its varieties (black, Portuguese, rainbow) and cabbages look great alongside arugula (scattered for constant reaping), basil (the ever-blooming sort), rosemary (with its low, fragrant spikes) and alliums (including onions, shallots, garlic, chives and leeks). Add a few other vegetables with handsome foliage, such as Swiss chard, beets or carrots. And for height, think peas and beans, which can be trailed up stakes, trellises and obelisks (obelisks look great planted squarely in the centre of small gardens or lined in a row in big ones). Growing these plants from seed is the most economical way to go about it. Planting seeds right now will beget an autumn harvest.
After you’ve chosen your vegetables, consider perennials and annuals to give plots an aesthetic boost, choosing organically grown seeds and specimens that will complement the food plants you’ve picked. For instance, combining vegetables with fine foliage (such as beets) with shrubs like Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ (an elderberry with edible fruit and flowers that also attract pollinators) offers appealing contrast; annuals such as nasturtiums will also attract good bugs. Artichokes, which are perennial, boast silvery foliage that looks great even if you don’t get anything else from them. The options for non-edible plants suitable for a kitchen garden are endless (see the plant list below for just a few of the options).
Before you begin planting, make sure, as you would with any garden, that your soil’s in good shape. Most plants won’t put up with poor soil, so start with the basics: To create a new soil profile as quickly as possible, excavate down to a minimum of 10 to 30 centimetres. If drainage is a problem, add more organic matter (compost, manure, well-rotted leaves and layers and layers of newspapers buried deep in the ground). Once the soil has been prepared, allow it to settle, throwing a 10-centimetre layer of compost atop it (if you don’t have enough of your own making, use sheep manure). The soil should now be plant-ready, but refrain from planting any until the temperatures are at least 10 C at night on a regular basis. (This year has been challenging for growers because everything is late, so don’t be daunted by the size or price of perennials – they may be a bit smaller and more expensive because they’ve been sitting in chilly hoop houses for longer than usual).
Finally, make sure that you leave enough space between each planting. Plants need room to stretch and jamming them together will end up looking chaotic. Read the tags that come with all plants; they offer valuable info on correct planting. And if a specimen comes from the United States, add 1 to your own growing zone to ensure that it’ll thrive where you are (or just push the zones, installing that zone-above plant in a sheltered spot out of the wind).
By incorporating a judicious mix of vegetables, fruits, herbs, perennials and annuals into a kitchen garden, you’ll end up with a dynamic visual tableau as well as delicious edibles. Food for thought.
Consider these varieties for various functions in your plot
Veggies and herbs for borders
• Kale (such as Portuguese, black or rainbow)
• Cabbages (wide spacing produces bigger heads)
• Lettuces (a good cool-weather choice)
• Basil (pick ever-blooming types)
Interesting edible filler plants
• Spiky herbs (such as rosemary)
• Alliums (including onions, garlic and leeks)
• Root plants with pretty foliage (carrots, turnips, beets)
Plants requiring staking or structures
• Beans and peas
• Certain berries such as blackberries
Nicely contrasting perennials
• Bergenia ‘Pink Dragon’ (big cabbage leaves, generous blooms in early spring, a classic edger)
• Gentiana ‘True Blue’ (offers a gorgeous hit of cobalt in mid-summer)
• Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ (pink flowers in late summer, bronze foliage that stays that way)
• Tricyrtis spp (an autumn beauty with gorgeous blooms resembling miniature orchids)
• Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’ (abundant pea-shaped blooms that pull the tall stalks into a fountain shape)
Plants that attract pollinators
• Nasturtiums (also edible)
• English lavender (great for sachets and cocktails)
• Heather (low-maintenance and colourful)
• Red-flowering currant (native to coastal B.C.)
• Elderberry (should be planted at least three metres apart) – Staff
Check out these books to help hone your green thumb:
Niki Jabbour’s Groundbreaking Gardens: 73 Plans That Will Change The Way You Grow Your Garden includes a wide range of design schemes incorporating vegetables, fruits, herbs, edible flowers and more. It was published by Storey in March.
Written by Sharon Hanna and Carol Pope, The Book of Kale and Friends: 14 Easy-to-Grow Superfoods (Douglas & McIntyre) covers all aspects of the title green, arugula, basil, mint and 10 other plants, from cultivation to cooking (130 recipes are included).
In Power Plants: Simple Home Remedies You Can Grow, Frankie Flowers and Bryce Wylde explore the healing power of plants, showing how a kitchen garden can also serve as a pharmacy. It’s published by HarperCollins. – Staff