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Kitchen gardens are compact, productive vegetable gardens that give you easy access to super-fresh garden vegetables grown in your backyard.
Conceptualized during the World Wars, victory gardens were a source of food for troops and citizens. Millions of kitchen gardens sprang up and started a cultural shift where 77% of Americans grow some of their food, and Brits grow about 154 million kilograms of food annually.
Table of Contents
- Table of Contents
- What is a Kitchen Garden?
- The Growing Popularity of Kitchen Gardens
- Starting a Kitchen Vegetable Garden
- FAQs Kitchen Gardening for Beginners
- In Summary
What is a Kitchen Garden?
A kitchen garden, also called a potager garden can be spacious or small as long as the primary purpose is growing a supply of vegetables and herbs for the pot. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a potager (noun) as a cook whose specialties are soup, broth, and bouillon (a clear seasoned soup made usually from lean beef).
A potager garden, initially, was a garden for leeks, potatoes, and the like, produce to be used in broths. That was then; now, a potager or kitchen garden is a space where you can grow whatever edible plants that take your fancy, even some soft fruit like strawberries.
Size is less important than a supply that meets the cook’s requirements. The aim is to use your kitchen garden to supply some of your kitchen’s needs (if not all).
The size of your kitchen garden depends on your available growing space. It’s better to start small and succeed, expanding as you get comfortable with growing your food.
The Growing Popularity of Kitchen Gardens
During and after the COVID pandemic, there was a huge kitchen garden revival, with seed sales doubling. According to the recent National Gardening Survey, 39% of Americans had vegetable gardens in 2018, which shot up to 77% in 2021.
The older generation (35%) is the most prolific kitchen garden growers, but the younger generation (29%) is rapidly catching up, adopting kitchen gardening. A kitchen garden is imperative in a world where food prices are escalating, and planet Earth is groaning under the burden of commercial farming techniques.
Nothing beats the taste (and nutrition) of homegrown organic food. If you have not yet done so, now is the ideal time to start a kitchen garden. This article covers all the steps needed to grow your own (#GYOFood).
Starting a Kitchen Vegetable Garden
Let’s assume you’re a novice and what to start a kitchen garden to cut your grocer’s bill without losing access to delicious produce. You may have heard how good gardening is for your mental health; we all need some self-care. So, here are ten steps you can follow in starting a kitchen garden:
Step One: Start a Container Kitchen Garden Outdoors
The best way to learn any skill is by practicing and failing forward. It’s no different for vegetable gardening. In your first kitchen garden project, you will:
- Grow a herb garden or salad greens in a container. You may want to grow other food plants like editable flowers, but let’s start with lettuce and herbs.
- Sow seeds indoors (or outdoors), the start of your kitchen garden. Spring instructions will be on the seed packets, but most plants need soil temps of about 77°F/25°C. Lettuce prefers a lower temperature and can germinate in the soil as low as 45°F/7°C. Always sow seed in an inert material like pumice and lightly cover with vermiculite for the best kitchen garden results. Heat mats can help keep seed soil temperatures constant.
- Create your moisture-retentive soil that drains well. Plant roots need water and oxygen, so mix a part of each compost, perlite, peat moss or coconut coit for the best garden results.
- Harden seedlings for transplanting into containers that should be kept outdoors and exposed to the elements and risks. It’s the only way to accelerate learning for more significant projects and leafy brassica greens. Hardening off requires you to expose seedlings to harsher outdoor conditions incrementally. Withholding water is not recommended, especially for lettuce.
- Nurture your kitchen garden of fresh herbs and lettuce, ensuring the herbs get full sun and the lettuce morning sun.
- Dedicate a small space to your kitchen garden to cultivate the organically grown seeds.
Herbs and Greens Kitchen Garden Growing Tips
- Lettuce can be planted in early springs as the seedlings are frost resistant, but not the grown plants. Plant small amounts every two weeks for a constant supply of fresh lettuce. Read all about growing lettuce in this article.
- Your herb container kitchen garden can be grown outdoors from early spring to late summer.
- Dill and parsley don’t do well transplanted, so direct seed these.
- Mint is invasive and can easily be planted from cuttings or division. Give mint its own container to minimize its aggressive competitive streak.
- Mediterranean perennial herbs like sage, rosemary, and thyme grow well from cuttings. Softwood cuttings can be taken in the spring, or semi-ripe cuttings in the late summer or fall.
- These can then be overwintered indoors on a sunny windowsill or in a greenhouse before being planted in the garden in the spring when the risk of frost has passed.
- Basil is a half-hardy annual that thrives in the sun and warmth and is best grown in pots from seed.
Step Two: Start a Gardening Journal
I realize this may seem unrelated to kitchen garden growing, but it will help you in future years and may even become your own book on kitchen gardening or vegetable gardening.
Use your gardening journal to record events, aspirations, and learning. Topics like “Plant to Grow,” “Edible Flowers,” and “Companion Plants That Work” can all be added, and many more. Record the progress of tomato plants and sweet peas.
Establish the habit of recording what you do in your kitchen garden, using your own code and abbreviations. It’s not meant to be a War and Peace from the onset, but it will have great value as the years pass and you become a master gardener.
Later you may include everything about growing fruit trees and plants in different seasons in your hardiness zone.
As your kitchen garden expands, or even earlier, keep a record of
- How you used your outdoor space
- Kitchen garden layout designs
- The plants you grew to attract beneficial insects
- Growing early vegetables to extend a growing season
Keeping a garden journal helps you keep track of your learning in growing a kitchen garden. You may never be a landscape designer, but even Frederick Law Olmsted, the New York Central Park co-designer, started by keeping a garden journal.
Step Three: Consider What You Want to Grow in Your Kitchen Garden
If you’re an experienced gardener, you may want to start here. Your garden journal is already a treasure trove of localized gardening knowledge.
During the first year, while growing your first kitchen garden, use your garden journal to track the vegetables you buy. We’re starting to plan our second year of kitchen garden expansion—moving to raised beds.
Start by using a single raised bed; the size depends on your available space. If you’re thinking of building a wooden raised bed, check out my article on why you should consider alternatives.
The USDA has an excellent seasonal guide for Nothern hemisphere gardeners. For Southern hemisphere kitchen gardens, switch summer and winter, spring and fall. The lists include fruit planting.
According to the USDA Economic Research Services, the per-capita consumption of fresh veggies in 2021 was as follows; I’ve arranged it in descending order:
|Garden Vegetables||Pounds per Person|
|Lettuce, leaf/ romaine||12.75|
|Snap/ green beans||1.33|
One of the many advantages of growing your kitchen garden is your freedom to break away from conventionally grown plants. You may want to
- Grow Swiss chard, a hardy plant packed with iron, vitamin C, magnesium, and potassium.
- Grow edible flowers – check out my list of 17 Edible Flowers To Improve Your Diet.
- Try the Three Sisters’ indigenous American agriculture crops – corn, pumpkin and vining beans.
- Try kitchen gardening that includes cherry tomatoes or scarlet runner beans.
- Grow root vegetables and tubers (yams for anyone?)
Whichever fresh veggies you choose to plant in your kitchen garden, check out the vegetable growing section of the Simplify Gardening site for help.
Step Four: Expand Your Kitchen Garden to Raised Beds
Raised beds have several advantages over flat beds, so let’s consider a few.
Advantages of Growing Your Kitchen Garden in Raised Beds
A raised-bed kitchen garden is a planting space higher than the surrounding ground. Raised beds keep walkway weeds out of your garden soil, minimize soil compaction, improve drainage, and act as a barrier against pests like slugs and snails.
During severe rains, the sides of the raised beds safeguard your prized garden soil from eroding or washing away. Some of its advantages are as follows:
- Save time
- Prevents compaction, ensuring loose soil.
- Reduces weeds
- Longer growing season (faster soil heating)
- Deterring Pests
- It adds aesthetic value to a vegetable garden
- Can increase soil temperature
The primary benefit of building raised beds is it allows you to grow your kitchen garden in a tailored soil mix that offers an optimal growing environment. The soil used to construct the raised bed is typically lighter, fluffier, holds more water, and contains more nutrients.
The Ideal Soil for Growing Vegetables and Herbs
I apologize for the heading; there is no universally suitable soil for all plants. Some plants, like tomatoes, grow faster in fast-draining soil but produce better in slower-draining soil. Others, like lettuce, can handle acidic soil better than other plants.
Still, the general idea is to ensure your plant roots have ready access to nutrients, water, and oxygen. Let’s look at these separately:
Kitchen Gardens: Soil OXYGEN
Roots, like humans, cannot survive in an anaerobic environment. The weight of water expels air from the soil, but nature, if allowed to, has ways of preventing this from happening.
Microorganisms use a glue-like substance to create tiny pores in soil aggregates. This increases the soil’s saturation porosity. Saturation porosity is the air trapped in the soil when it’s flooded.
The main contributor to soil oxygen is a diverse population of microorganisms. A second contributor is ensuring that most water drains out, drawing oxygen into the soil. Soil drainage speed is measured in inches per hour and healthy soil drains.
The University of Maryland Extension has a great article on soil drainage. Here’s a summary:
- If the water drains faster than 4 inches per hour, it’s too sandy.
- If drainage is slower than an inch per hour, you risk anaerobic conditions, root rot, and general poor health for your kitchen garden.
- Organic matter dug in will help create well-drained soil and improve sandy soil water retention.
Kitchen Gardens: Soil WATER
Your kitchen garden plants need a consistent water supply to produce fresh vegetables. A drip irrigation system prevents leaves from getting wet, reducing the risk of pathogens spreading and foliar diseases.
While some plants like wet/dry cycles (waiting for the soil to dry some before watering), shallow-rooted vegetables like beet, broccoli, carrot, cauliflower, celery, greens & herbs, onion, pepper, radish, and spinach need consistently moist soil.
Kitchen Gardens: Soil NUTRITION
Kitchen garden soil must provide plants with their required plant nutrients, and each plant has its specific requirements, mainly of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), but also boron, magnesium and iron.
It’s advisable to take samples of your soil and have it tested. Test results will advise you on what nutrients are deficient and what to add to your growing crop. The test also gives you a CEC reading, the garden soil’s cation exchange capacity.
CEC is essential as it provides the grower with the soil’s ability to hold nutrients in a bioavailable state. The higher the organic content, the more the soil can provide roots with the required nutrients. A low CEC allows nutrients to wash out.
Step Five: Start Planning Your Own Kitchen Garden
We started our kitchen garden in pots, graduated to a raided bed, and now we’re planning to plant a vegetable garden consisting of several beds – it all depends on how much space you’ve got or want to make available.
Our plan includes cultivating border flower beds to attract beneficial insects to protect our kitchen garden from common pests, including aphids (the main disease spreaders in vegetable gardens). In a compact space, grow crops under covers to protect them from pests.
A Basic Guide to Starting a Multi-Bed Vegetable Garden
- Use a garden bed only once every four years to plant vegetables from the same crop family. Crop rotation helps break the cycles of pest development unique to specific families.
- Ensure there is enough space between beds.
- Incropping can help fight pests and ensure better garden outcomes
- Consider investing in low-tunnel covers if you live in colder regions.
- Use mulch to insulate the soil, limit weed growth, and minimize moisture loss by evaporation. Mulch also helps prevent soil compaction.
Vegetable Plant Groupings
Vegetables are grouped into four groups that affect how they should be managed.
Cool-season or Warm-season kitchen garden plants. Most plants can’t stand the mid-summer heat; summer harvest garden plants love it.
- Shallow (6 – 12 inches/15 – 30 cm): Beet, broccoli, carrot, cauliflower, celery, greens & herbs, onion, pepper, radish, and spinach. These garden beds need to be kept moist.
- Medium (18 – 24 inches/45 – 60 cm): Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cucumber, eggplant, pea, potato, snap beans, summer squash, sweet corn, and tomato. While you can grow potatoes in a garden, I prefer growing them in containers.
- Deep (36 inches and deeper/>91 cm): Asparagus, Lima beans, pumpkin, sweet potato, watermelon, and winter squash. Asparagus is a perennial, so consider creating a perennial garden. These gardens don’t need crop rotation.
There are 16 garden plant families, but the eight most prominent vegetable families include most of the plants.
- Brassicaceae – the cole family
- Fabeacea – the legumes – peas, beans, etc.
- Cucurbiteae – the pumpkin, squash, and cucumber family – mainly fining fruits that are not legumes
- Solanaceae – the nightshades – tomato, eggplant, potato, and peppers
- Lamiaceae and Apiaceae – most of the herbs and leafy greens
- Liliaceae – mostly the allium family – onions, chives, etc. Also includes asparagus
- Poaceae – the grass family – includes small grains and sweet corn
Finally, there’s the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pest and disease management grouping. These are pretty much aligned to the families, but a group like fruiting vegetables will include okra, for instance.
FAQs Kitchen Gardening for Beginners
In closing, a kitchen garden revival is happening as increasing food prices force people to start a vegetable plot to grow a few vegetables. You can grow vegetables in small gardens if you provide some fertile soil.
Wishing you all the best in starting or expanding your kitchen garden. Enjoy!