Whether you’re gardening to secure a nutritive food source in these uncertain times, to connect with the earth, or to simply get your hands dirty, we want to see you succeed. So we created this guide to help you find success as you plant and maintain your kitchen garden. What is a kitchen garden? A place for edible plants like fruits and veggies rather than ornamental flowers.
1. Choose and Prepare Garden Site
Make sure your kitchen garden plot is in full-sun and close to a water source. In my ideal world, my kitchen garden would be right outside my back door so I could easily grab that sprig of thyme or one more tomato in the process of cooking. However, I recognize this ideal spot isn’t always possible. Back in college, since we couldn’t tear up the lawn behind our dorm, Dan and I gardened at our philosophy professor’s house, such was our desire for fresh veggies. Any sunny space (8+ hours of sun) will do!
From Farmer Dan: How to prepare your garden site
- Don’t use a rototiller if at all possible. We don’t use one on 1 acre of veggies because they do more damage than good.
- Ideally the fall before you start your garden you would amend the soil (based on soil testing from below) and lay down tarps to kill sod, or mow down/remove the season’s garden crops, and then tarp. Here is a video of tarping technique. It is a powerful and sustainable way to garden without tillage! Plus it makes gardening easier.
2. Check and Improve Soil Fertility
From Farmer Dan: The number one question we get in this sandy soil region–“How do you guys get such great produce year after year? Our garden seemed to peter out after 3 years . . .” The answer is a combination of science and artistry.
Get a soil test. I recommend you send a sample to A&L Great Lakes Laboratories. For your first year, I recommend the more expensive test, then get the cheaper test every 3-5 years. Their submittal form has sampling and submittal instructions.
Act on the results. I can help you address any issues from the above soil test through my consulting services. Assuming you understand the basic chemistry of the soil, we can move on to enhancing your soil biology, organic matter, and basic management to get the best kitchen garden results. Here are my top two tips.
- First, watering. On both sandy and clay soil, even and consistent watering is a must. Ready for one of our big secrets? We water everything 10-20 minutes every day because of how sandy our soil is. No moisture in the soil means no soil life or nutrient release. Most veggies draw water and nutrients from the top 8 inches of the soil. We have farmed both clay and sandy soil, and water management is key before everything else.
- Second, soil amending. This usually takes the form of adding organic matter. Adding your neighbor’s old livestock manure pile is the worst possible choice. It will be a weed nightmare. Actually a full horror movie for the next 20 years. Don’t do it. Get good compost! We can help with that too!
3. Choose What to Grow
If this is your first time gardening, choose 5 or fewer vegetable to grow. What??? But the seed catalog has so many varieties … yes, yes it does. But remember that part about having a SUCCESSFUL kitchen garden? Gardening has a learning curve. Each vegetable has it’s own quirks and preferences. Get to know your 5 veggies this first year, then consider adding a couple more next year. So, what are your favorite fresh-from-the-garden veggies? Start with those. When choosing, consider the following:
- Is this a spring, summer, or fall veggie?
- Will I direct seed or use transplants?
- Do I have any trips planned that will keep me from my garden for a significant amount of time during one of the seasons?
- Does this vegetable require any additional supplies (e.g. tomatoes needs support / peas needs trellis or something to climb / strawberries need mulch)
4. Choose Seeds or Transplants
First-time gardeners, I recommend starting with plants if possible, especially if tomatoes, peppers, and/or any herbs made it into your top 5. Experienced gardeners often have grow lights, trays, soil, and systems to grow their own transplants during the winter. If you’re gardening for the first time, you may not want to invest in the time and energy for this until you’ve given yourself a season to find out if you actually like gardening. However, there are some plants that are more easily directly sown into the soil, whether you’re experienced or not.
Direct-Seed: arugula, beans, beets, cilantro, corn, cucumbers, dill, baby kale, okra, peas, radishes, salad greens, summer squash, spinach, and zucchini.
Plant Transplants: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, cantaloupe, cucumbers, eggplant, head lettuce, lavender, leeks, mint, parsley, peppers, oregano, rosemary, stevia, thyme, tomatoes, watermelon
Other Planting Method: asparagus, fruits, garlic, onions, potatoes, rhubarb, shallots, sweet potatoes
5. Choose Where to Buy Your Seeds or Tranplants
Source matters. We buy our seeds from High Mowing and any transplants we don’t grow ourselves from Hillcrest Nursery. My mother-in-law and master gardener Joan Perkins is a big fan of Johnny’s Selected Seed as well. We purchase high quality, organic seeds and transplants because we know that healthy seed and plants lead to excellent harvests of nutrient-dense produce–and way fewer pest and disease problems.
You may be able to purchase seed for cheap at the grocery store, but keep in mind: You get what you pay for. The worst thing is planting, waiting a week, then realizing only 50% of the seed came up.
This spring, for the first time, we’ll be selling a limited amount of vegetable and herb plants that you can purchase directly from our online farm stand and pick up at our farm.
6. Design Your Kitchen Garden Space
Your first priority for design is optimal growing conditions for your plants. This means sunshine and close proximity to a water source. However, aesthetics matter too, so consider following these steps to create both a functional AND beautiful design for your garden:
- Sketch out the size of your plot. I’ll use a 20′ x 20′ plot for the sake of example.
- Place the beds and paths within your plot. My beds are 30 inches wide, with 18 inch paths. We farm 1 acre of veggies this way, but this works great on a small scale too. Keep in mind your arm length and back strength when creating bed size. You need to be able to comfortably reach the middle of the bed from the path.
- Consider creating raised beds, or enclosed gardening areas where the soil is raised above the surrounding soil by at least 12 inches. If you have back issues or clay soil, raised beds are the way to go. Ideally, you’ll enrich this soil with compost and other amendments (you’ll know better what to put in your soil based on the results of that soil test!). You can purchase raised bed structures from some gardening centers, or you can build your own. Benefits of raised beds include better drainage, easier soil quality management, easier pest control, and a little less bending. One potential challenge of raised beds is that they do require more water. Check out the photo below to see raised beds in action at Purdue professor Tamara Benjamin’s home garden.
- Use landscape fabric. Plan to use landscape fabric with holes in the fabric for any transplanted crops to help with weed control and clean harvest. Our rule of thumb: Any crop that stays in the ground for more than 60 days goes on fabric. Examples include tomatoes, onions, broccoli, eggplant, and cabbage.
- Choose plant placement.
- Did you know some plants like each other more than others–and some don’t care for each other at all? Mother Earth News has an In-Depth Companion Planting Guide that will give you all the juicy details in the edible plants gossip world.
- For more experienced gardeners, consider succession planting. Take that sketch of your garden plot and number each bed. Then label each bed with your planting date and expected harvest date. This becomes your garden map for each year and will enable you to see when a bed will be open to plant something else. We can often get 2-3 crops in one spot in a year.
- One my favorite resources for garden design (and so many other things gardening and cooking!) is The Backyard Homestead. This book includes designs for different types of gardens, including one for a small garden throughout the seasons.
7. Time Your Planting Properly
Know your plant’s preference for cool or warm weather. Did you know spinach and carrots actually get much sweeter after experiencing a frost? Yet that same frost will kill your tomatoes and peppers in a flash. So you need to know your Plant Hardiness Zone. Knowing your zone equals knowing what plants thrive when, where you live.
To create your planting schedule, check out this handy tool from the National Gardening Assocation. Plug in your zip code, and they’ll tell you where you fall on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, as well as ideal planting times for different veggies, based on your zone. We all know it’s warmer in Florida than in Indiana (hello, spring break dreams!)–and your plants know this too. Here in DeMotte, we’re in Zone 5b, so here are the recommended planting times for DeMotte.
Keep in mind–the information on the National Gardening Association’s site is written for experienced gardeners. If you’re just starting out, don’t worry that you didn’t seed your tomatoes on March 2. Just purchase tomato transplants, then wait to put them in the ground till we’re past our final frost date of May 11.
8. Maintaining Your Kitchen Garden
Once those plants are in the ground, they still require your attention and care. I recommend creating a flexible schedule for each of these tasks: watering, thinning, weeding, fertilizing, and pest/disease control.
Why a flexible schedule? Because nature is unpredictable. Let’s say you’re planning to water your plants every other day at 10 am. Then let’s say it rains. This may seem common sense, but I’m going to say it anyway: If it’s raining at 10 am, you probably don’t need to water your plants at 10 am.
So, what do you need to consider for each of these plant-care activities?
- Soil type: How quickly does your soil drain? If you have sandy soil, your soil will drain more quickly and your plants will need to be watered more often. The goal is 1 inch of water per week. On sand you need to be watering every other day at a minimum. If you have clay soil, you can water 2 times a week and be fine.
- Timing: The best time of day to water is before lunch. A timer on a sprinkler or drip hose is great for this if you’re at are work. In this way the moisture will dry on the plants before sunset, which prevents a host of diseases.
- Thinning: Don’t worry, this doesn’t refer to a diet plan! Thinning is removing the plants that are growing too close together. While it may be painful to pull a baby carrot or beet plant, it will be worth it down the line when you’re harvesting full grown carrots or beets. Thinning is most often done for plants that have been direct seeded.
- Timing: The best time to get weeds out of your garden is before you see the weeds. We weed everything 5-7 days after a rain and every 10-14 days otherwise.
- Tools: Our favorite weeding tool is the mutineer. The mutineer is fast, flexible, and lightweight, and is best used before you see the weeds or on very small weeds. According to Farmer Dan, with this tool weeding becomes a pleasurable evening or early morning activity. Each one of our crew is armed with one at all times. No weed goes to seed on our farm!
- If your weeds get bigger than those in the image below, you’ll have to resort to hand-weeding. So weed sooner than later!
- There is a difference between organic and natural. If you’re using organic growing methods, make sure you choose the organic label–not just “natural”–for your fertilizer. Consider products such as compost, leaf compost, pelleted organic fertilizers, and other soil amendments. Alsip Nursery in St. John and Woldhuis Farms in Grant Park have good organic growing supplies.
- Pest/Disease Control
- Prevent: The best way to prevent pests and disease is to make sure you’re planting in healthy soil. Like with humans, the healthier you eat, the healthier your immune system and ability to fight off sickness.
- Treat early. Pay attention to your garden. (Weeding weekly helps with this!) It’s always easier to deal with a pest problem when caught early. Each pest/disease takes it’s own treatment, ranging from organic sprays to beneficial insects. This is a great reference chart from Johnny’s for knowing what to use.
On our farm, we take daily farm walks. This practice is enjoyable in and of itself, but it also serves a greater purpose: to connect with what we’re growing and catch any issues with our plants BEFORE it’s too late.
Now for the best part: eating the veggies of your labor! Yay!
Surprise, surprise–each plant you grow has its own harvest preferences too. (Kind of like children. Beginner gardeners, for real–don’t get carried away with that seed catalog!)
For instance, leafy greens like to be harvested in the cool of the morning. Lettuce harvested on an early summer morning will taste sweet. Lettuce harvested on a sunny spring afternoon will taste bitter and wilt fast in your fridge.
Many vegetables–tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, peppers, and more–should not be harvested when wet with morning dew or raindrops. While the taste won’t be affected, you’ll increase the chances of spreading disease if you harvest these wet compared to dry.
For detailed information on when to harvest specific vegetables, check out this resource from Purdue University.
10. Resources for Digging Deeper
We feel this guide is a great way to get you started on the path to your very own successful kitchen garden, but of course there’s always much more to learn! Our list of resources for further study could be longer than this post itself, but we’re limiting ourselves to several we think will be especially helpful for the home gardener.
Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Ed Smith
Mother Earth News – If you’re not ready to subscribe, you can read some articles online or read the hard copies at the library.
Storey Publishing – Storey publishes practical books for creative self-reliance, covering subjects from homesteading to natural health.