Design Before You Dig: Easy Tips for Planning the Perfect Kitchen Garden

TakePart talks to author Ellen Ogden
Jul 14, 2011
Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.

It's tough to find food that's more local than your own backyard. But the idea of growing your own food can be pretty intimidating for even the most dedicated locavore. 

For Ellen Ecker Ogden, however, growing beautiful, healthy produce on your own is just a question of a little bit of planning.

Her book The Complete Kitchen Garden: An Inspired Collection of Garden Designs and 100 Seasonal Recipes features tried-and-true gardening tips with delicious recipes for maximizing the flavor from your new backyard bounty.

She presents 14 different garden designs suited for every backyard "personality," from the Salad Lover's Garden, to the Chef's Garden, to the Country Garden. Each chapter features easy-to-follow plans for laying out the particular garden, choosing which plants to grow, and figuring out exactly what to do with them once they're ready for the kitchen. 

Here at TakePart HQ, we were such fans of Ellen's book, that we decided we wanted to give away a free paperback copy of The Complete Kitchen Garden to one TakePart reader. All you have to do to win is leave a comment on this post that answers the question:

Which fruit or vegetable do you think tastes best from a backyard garden?

The contest closes at 5 p.m. PT today, July 14, 2011. We'll choose one commenter at random to win the free book. You can find the official rules here. (Editor's Note: the contest is now closed).

TakePart spoke with Ellen about her new book, her tips for beginners, and her favorite type of backyard garden:

TakePart: It’s already July. Is it too late to start planning your own garden?

Ellen Ecker Ogden: Well, that is a great question. I consider gardening to be a yearlong activity and it starts now. You can plan ahead. Often people put in their gardens too fast and don’t think about the design, how it’s going to integrate into their lifestyle or how it fits into their landscape. It starts by observing the landscape and seeing where the sun hits and where the water runs off after a rainstorm. It might be a little late to be planting, but you can still get in lettuce, salad greens and some fast-growing crops. Starting right now is great.

TP: How can people use the book to begin that process?

EEO: It starts with design. The idea behind the book is to make vegetable gardens sexy. People often plant vegetable gardens in straight rows and a lot of paths. Redesigning these pathways gives gardeners more space inside their garden. The designs in the book are to inspire gardeners to think outside the rectangle and figure out what will work in their space, be it a small salad garden or a larger garden, like the Four Friends Garden, which allows a community to work in the same garden.

TP: After observing the landscape, sun, and water of your garden area, what’s the next step?

EEO: You have to ask yourself what kinds of beds you want. What’s your soil like? Do you have the potential for nice soil? Most people don’t start with nice soil. It’s something you really have to build. I often see people putting in raised beds because they don’t think they have good soil. Strip off whatever you have and start building your soil with good compost and cover crops; whatever you can do to nurture your soil.


Ellen in her own Salad Garden. (Photo:

TP: What If I was looking into getting started next season? What is the time commitment and how should I be planning in the coming months?

EEO: Being mid-summer, you can, of course, plant things in containers. Start clearing out weeds for your potential new garden. Cultivate the land now and start growing things in big containers. I like big containers; the smaller the container the faster the plant will dry out. In Vermont, I would be planting fall crops of broccoli, lettuce, spinach and salad greens—kale and chard—crops that love the cool weather that will go through the first and second frost. You might lose basil, cucumbers and tomatoes. We want things that might get better like beets, carrots and garlic.

TP: Is this only a book for people, like you, who live in Vermont and have space or land? What about someone who lives in a big city and might only have a little space?

EEO: The reason I wrote this book is because I was very frustrated seeing people putting lots of effort into flower gardens instead of ornamental edible gardens from which they could feed themselves. I’m an artist, a cook and a gardener, and I wanted to write a book to inspire people to plant food gardens that were artsy, whimsical, fun and creative. We think of gardens as work. But if you make it artsy, it makes it a much more engaging atmosphere.

TP: There are 14 different garden themes in the book. Which one is your favorite?

EEO: Well, there is my own garden, the Cook’s Garden. I also like the Organic Rotation Garden, because it teaches gardeners about high nitrogen crops, high phosphorous crops, high potassium crops and the building crops. Once you start thinking of your plants not just as plants but also in terms of what they need from the soil, it will help you in successive gardens each year.

TP: What do you say to someone who says that starting his or her own garden sounds like too much work?

EEO: I really feel that everyone needs to experience putting a seed in the ground and growing something they will eat. Even if it doesn’t work for you, for whatever reason, you will have an appreciation for those who do grow food. It helps you understand food is not a commodity; it’s something we need to connect to for spiritual and physical sustenance. You’ll go to the farmers' market with a much greater appreciation for what you are buying. 

Click here for official rules. (Editor's note: The contest is now closed). 

Click here to get your own copy of The Complete Kitchen Garden, by Ellen Ecker Ogden

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