Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kitchen Garden Designs

Town meeting day in Vermont coincides nicely with when I work on my spring garden design. In between votes and the long-winded discussion of police salaries and library funding, I am doodling in the margins, plotting out my garden. Sure I am listening, but thinking about my garden not only keeps me awake, and at the end of the day I can go home with plan that keeps me focused on good things to come.

I planted my first garden with four sticks and a ball of twine, measuring out a large square, and removing a thick layer of rugged turf. I turned the stony Vermont soil with compost before planting long straight rows for basil, lettuce and beans. I would be lying if I said the garden thrived, but the thrill of harvesting my own food gave way to a larger garden the following year. As the garden grew, the harder it was to decide in the spring where to plant until I realized I could start the design on paper first.

As any good cook will tell you, the key to success is following a recipe exactly before you let the imagination go wild. For gardeners, this means starting with a garden plan before even cracking open the seeds catalogs. When faced with the blank canvas of freshly tilled soil it's much harder to limit the choices down to just a few essential items. Fitting a long list of seeds onto a piece of graph paper require the gardener to be more selective. Taking a bird's eye view of the paths and the beds can bring out the artistic side, drawing inspiration from a paisley fabric or floral wallpaper design, rather than a straight ridge of corduroy. Adding a bench or a fanciful arbor is easy to draw in, regardless of whether they will actually take form.

I recently taught a vegetable garden design class with some of the techniques I share in my new book, The Complete Kitchen Garden. I had expected the class to be full of new gardeners ready to learn basic skills such as sowing seed and turning compost. Instead, there were fifteen experienced gardeners who were seeking fresh ideas for how to reinvigorate their tired plots. We started with a visualization exercise to envision the kitchen garden of their dreams. This simple exercise allowed these gardeners to step out of their comfort zone of straight rows to picture kitchen gardens filled with waves of color that engaged all of their senses. The results were magical.

Since my own garden follows a 4 four square organic rotation, it's fairly easy to know where to grow each crop and how to group to make the most of the soil fertility. I am never tempted to plant space hogs such as zucchini or corn, and the bush beans from last year were a total disaster since I never picked them - so those are out, too. This year, I am focused on lettuce and salad greens from Wild Garden Seeds, and heirlooms from Seed Savers Exchange. Simplicity is the key, as well as a few quirky additions such as artichokes and Italian Treviso radicchio. I have my tried and true favorites, but it is always good to try something new.

Monday, February 14, 2011

March Flower Shows

If you are a plant person, be ready to break dormancy. March is the month for flower shows all across the northeast. Flower shows offer so much more than just beautiful flowers and colorful exhibits. Every day there are horticulture professionals who share their expertise that will inspire you to reach new heights with your garden.

This year, I'll be a speaker at the Vermont Flower Show, the Boston Flower Show and thePhiladelphia Flower show and will share the colorful photos from my new book, The Complete Kitchen Garden. Come to my lectures and you will learn how to transform your ordinary vegetable garden into an extra ordinary kitchen garden with six easy steps. Learn how to site your garden, build the soil and enclose your garden with the right fence. Be sure to bring a notebook to jot down ideas for the best varieties to plant, too.

The shows can get busy and crowded, and pushing a stroller with small children is no way to truly enjoy the magic and the enormous effort that landscapers put into their displays. Leave the kids at home, and arrive on a weekday when the crowds are less. Take time to circle the show several times and plan time to listen to the speakers. You'll be amazed at how much you can learn and how the fragrance will linger in your memory, bridging the gap from late winter into spring.

Each show offers a different theme, so check out the links below to find out more. Mark your calendars and meet me at the flower shows:

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Complete Kitchen Garden

Soil before Seeds

Seed catalogs may be the focus for most gardeners this time of year, because who can resist the charms of colorful vegetables, fruit and flowers when the white snow provides the perfect canvas for fresh ideas. Yet underneath all that snow is a garden waiting to be planted, and soil that is yearning to be fed.

Soil is one of the most important components to a successful garden. It is a living, breathing organism and provides the nourishment that allows roots, shoots, and fruits to mature. Most soils contain the basic elements that plants need to grow, but not always in the right proportions. A lot happens in the soil that we can’t even see. Understanding how all the elements work together in the soil will help you build a natural blend of nutrients that will reward your plants—and you—with good health.

The first garden design in my new book, The Complete Kitchen Garden, embodies the fundamental principles of organic gardening through the four square organic rotation method. It is the oldest and most practical design ideal for first time gardeners, and a method I teach in my upcoming garden class. When plants are grown in the same location year after year, soil-borne diseases can weaken them and may tempt the gardener to find a short-term chemical solution to keep the plants alive.

When you combine this classic design with the principles of organic gardening, you can appreciate how the basics of organic rotation work, making it easy to follow a successful planting routine each year. The end result will be healthy soil, healthy plants, and a harvest that is vitamin-rich and packed with flavor.

Take a short course on the chemistry of plants to learn what they require in order to grow. Design your garden into four beds, and keep the plants grouped by what nutrients they need, then rotate the beds each year to keep the soil healthy. Here's how it works:

Bed One: High Nitrogen (N)—Leafy Greens: Lettuce, Kale, Mesclun, Arugula, Mustard, Cress, and Spinach
Bed Two: High Phosphorus (P)—Fruiting and Flowering Crops: Tomatoes, Summer and Winter Squash, Eggplant, Peppers, and Melons
Bed Three: High Potassium (K)—Root Crops: Onions, Garlic, Shallots, Radish, and Carrots
Bed Four: Cleansers and Builders (B)—Peas, Beans, Potatoes, and Corn
And always include flowers that attract beneficial pollinators to your garden, too.

By following the Organic Rotation Garden method, you are creating a garden that will be self-sustaining as well as self-improving every year. You are working with nature to constantly upgrade the natural balance in your vegetable garden. And it makes it easier to figure out what to order from the seed catalogs and how to plan your garden for the most successful harvest.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Chicken and Garden Sheds

Everything you need to know about how to survive winter can be learned from a chicken. They know how to fluff up their feathers and huddle next to each other for extra heat, how to linger in the warm nesting boxes before breakfast and murmur deep comforting sounds like the chants of Mongolian throat singers. Nothing beats the comfort of a warm chicken house on a cold winter morning, except perhaps the garden shed.

This morning, I trudged through the snow to my garden shed to gather gear for the first of my winter garden workshops at the Rowe Conference Center. As I stood quietly looking at my the garden tools hanging from pegs: bamboo hoops and trellises against the wall, my rugged canvas garden bag overflowing with fiskars, dibbles, and a pair olive green gloves soiled from the fall clean up, I felt like was waking up the dormant plant inside of me. Inhaling the crusty soil that clung to the garden fork and the empty clay pots under the potting table, my heart fluttered with excitement. Chickens and garden sheds are essential to the gardener, and are a true source of contentment when the winter ceases to satisfy.