Jane Says: It’s Easy to Start a Kitchen Garden

Our food advice columnist has great tips for planting a bountiful backyard plot.

lettuce in a garden
The best way to get fresh produce? Grow your own! (Photo: Andrew Dernie/Getty Images)
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

At Manhattan's Union Square Greenmarket, vendors are already setting out flats of herbs and tender baby lettuces. Even though the displays are more alluring than any Madison Avenue shop window, it’s still too early to plant that sort of thing outside here. But I’ve got kitchen-garden fever, and bad. And judging by your queries, you do, too.

Lyana Snow writes, “How can a stay-at-home mom of two start a kitchen garden from scratch? And what are the best multi-purpose heritage breeds of chickens for a family (i.e. calm chickens that will let me hold them)?”

How’s that for an “in for a penny, in for a pound” mindset? Let’s deal with the chickens first; check out backyardchickens.com, which, as of about a year ago, had more than 50,000 subscribers. But do your due diligence and become informed about the risk factors before getting too up close and personal.

Okay, now to kitchen gardens, one of my favorite subjects. Have I got a website for you! Take a look at Kitchen Gardeners International, a Maine-based nonprofit community of more than 23,000 kitchen gardeners from 100-plus countries.

Dale Myers, from Boston University, has a third of an acre to use for gardening, and he’s looking for some help as well. There is a lot of great information on KGI’s “Kitchen Gardening 101” page alone. The suggestions may sound obvious—start small, grow what you like to eat, choose a sunny spot instead of one that’s close by—but they keep you from making one rookie mistake after another.

The thought of starting from scratch is overwhelming—growing your own food can be expensive, after all, when you factor in the price of tools, fencing if necessary, soil amendments, seeds or plants, and your precious time, but take heart—and advice from KGI founder and director Roger Doiron.

“One of the easiest and most rewarding kitchen gardens is a simple salad garden,” he writes. “Lettuces and other greens don’t require much space or maintenance, and grow quickly. Consequently, they can produce multiple harvests in most parts of the country. If you plant a “cut-and-come-again” salad mix, you can grow five to 10 different salad varieties in a single row.”

Your local Cooperative Extension Office is another handy source of information; you can find your local office here. And I am completely besotted with the 2012 interactive USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. The zone boundaries have shifted since the map was last published; it’s about half a zone warmer than the 1990 map throughout much of the United States. Please join me in bellowing “No kidding!” on the count of three.

Another swear-by source that goes a long way toward demystifying gardening in general is the instant classic The Garden Primer (now in its second edition), by Barbara Damrosch. I met Barbara, along with her husband, Eliot Coleman, in 1999, at the first Joe Baum forum on Sustainable Cuisine. Their Four Season Farm, in Harborside, Maine, has long been a model of innovative market gardening and a source of inspiration to organic gardeners and farmers worldwide.

I thought of Barbara, who also writes “The Cook’s Garden” column for the Washington Post (and blogs for Kitchen Gardeners International), when I read this query, from Nancy Wilhelm Martin, in Seattle:

“I love to compost all my veggie scraps. However we have more compost than my bin can handle. I have started blending my saved vegetable scraps in my Ninja blender every few days and mixing it directly into the soil that will be my garden this summer. Is this a good way to compost? I doubt that it will hurt anything, but will it help?”

According to master composter Paul Stessel, who conducted a workshop on the subject during last week’s Small Farm Summit at Hofstra University, “That’s a veggie ‘juice’ and not considered compost. It will not have any of the benefits of composting.”

Chopping up food scraps will make them start to compost faster, Barbara elaborated. “But you still need to hold off on planting anything until decomposition is well underway.”

She went on to suggest buying or making a larger compost bin. “You can never have too much compost!” she declared. “The whole idea of compost is that it does the work for you.”

I’d take that and run with it.

Any gardeners out there? What are you planting this year? Tell us in the comments!

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