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What to Grow When You Do Not Have Space
WORDS BY ELLEN ECKER OGDEN / ILLUSTRATION BY RAMSAY GOURD

Waiting for winter to end always involves thinking about food. I gaze longingly out my kitchen window for signs of the first tiny, tender shoots to emerge in the garden. Even a lowly dandelion would be a welcome sign, knowing that a flush of green is on its way. I am like a plant ready to break dormancy.

It only takes a few seconds to push a seed into the soil, so I tear open a packet of mesclun, shake the seeds into the ground, press, water and walk away. It’s like an unspoken promise that a harvest of frilly Lollo Rossa, tender Claytonia and baby arugula will follow. It is sure to rival anything I can buy at the farmers market.

Over 85% of what we throw out of our refrigerator comes from the produce drawer, yet that won’t happen when food is harvested one meal at a time. Growing a vegetable garden is a choice we make for pure flavor, and it is the next logical step beyond local for environmental and ecological reasons. It can even save you money if you plan it right.

Sowing seeds and watching food grow goes back to the first hunter-gathers, but in this land of plenty growing food has become both a luxury and a necessity. Too often, gardeners plant the same thing in the same way every year, when there are so many better options. What we choose to grow and how we play with the design elements can make the difference between an ordinary garden and one that is extraordinary.

THE ART OF GROWING FOOD

I planted my first garden in 1980, fresh out of art school and starting a small design business. I thought it would be a good way to feed myself. Drawing a garden design to fit the small rectangle in my backyard started with a visualization exercise to envision the kitchen garden of my dreams. I pictured a kitchen garden filled with waves of color that engaged all of my senses. I was not going to grow a garden with ordinary straight lines, nor plant generic food crops that I could buy at the store. It was easy to fill graph paper squares with loops and spirals that made my garden beds look more like paisley fabric or floral wallpaper than a ridge of corduroy typical of most gardens.

My new small salad garden allowed me to be a food artist. Instead of the canvas, I painted a wild collage with seeds and plants; mixed lettuces splashed with dabs of red radicchio, fronds of fennel and swirls of mache. The beds were edged with Peach Melba nasturtiums alternately planted with Lemon Gem marigolds. And the thrill of dashing to the garden barefoot with a harvest basket and scissors started a natural contempt for returning to the grocery store ever again.

That summer, I taught myself basic farm wife skills such as making jam, freezing pesto, drying herbs. As my garden (and family) grew, I filled hoop houses with heirloom tomatoes, tended poultry and livestock and planted fruit trees. My background garden project evolved into a self-sufficient lifestyle until 2003 when I moved back to a small house and lot.

At first, I gave up growing my own, joined a CSA and become a regular at the farmers markets. But I missed my garden and the following year, I designed a small kitchen garden facing south just large enough to squeeze in essentials, defined by what I can’t find at the local markets and what I use on a daily basis for my cooking. This includes all salad greens and culinary herbs with a few varieties that are new and different each year just to keep it fun. This past year it was artichokes.

WHAT TO GROW

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 plan on paper before cracking open the seed catalogs. A kitchen garden is smaller than a traditional vegetable garden, and is often a reflection of ourselves: painterly, methodical or just plain practical. Take a close look at what you can’t live without and what you use everyday in your cookery to guide you in what to grow. And never, ever plant zucchini or corn because it takes up too much space.

If you have a small plot of land, consider a raised bed that can be as small as four feet by four feet. For apartment dwellers, set up a matrix of large pots with space to grow and enough airflow in between to keep the plants healthy. Fill with only natural or organic potting soil verses a chemically laced soil commonly available in garden centers. Water frequently, but not too much, with an occasional feeding of organic fertilizer (liquid seaweed is my favorite) or side dressing of compost to the roots. After all, you are growing food. Keep in mind that soil will need to be replaced each season, to maintain bountiful nutrients.

When faced with limited space and a budget, it is key to select plants that will give you the most for your money and time. Compare what you can buy verses what you can grow from a cook’s perspective as well as a practical evaluation. Many first-time gardeners think big, and plant too much variety, when often thinking small actually improves the quality and the experience enough to make a kitchen garden successful.

Five Top Picks for Small-Space Gardens

Tomatoes are America’s number one crop to grow in a garden, but you won’t find them on my list. Not because I don’t love them, but they take up valuable space, and time to grow, plus they are heavy feeders that deplete the soil. Leave tomatoes to the experienced growers who have space to spare, and instead focus on fast-growing, nutritious crops that offer you something you can harvest every day.

Here are the mainstays of my kitchen garden:

  • Mesclun offers convenience to the gardener. In each mixed packet you’ll find a range of piquant herbs including mustard, arugula, herbs, lettuce and chicories. Mesclun is cut-and-come–again, which means the once harvested the seeds re-sprout for second “free” harvest. Mesclun is rich in vitamins and minerals and ready in under 30 days from seed to salad bowl. Keep sowing seeds successively every two weeks to guarantee fresh harvest from April through November.
  • Fresh culinary herbs enhance cookery like nothing else and are adaptable to most soils. The ornamental and aromatic qualities of homegrown herbs surpass anything you will buy at the store. If you are unfamiliar with culinary herbs, growing them is the best way to let them teach you how to taste, smell, savor. Full sun is required for most, and start with plants instead of seeds for most abundant growth. Start with seeds for basil and dill; buy plants for chive, thyme, sage, summer savory and Marjoram.
  • Edible flowers add a splash of color and I’ll admit I’m a sucker for gorgeous garnish. They add color on the plate, and in the garden to enhance the full experience of growing your own. Flowers attract beneficial pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds, which is a win-win for everyone. Start with seeds for nasturtiums and calendula; buy plants for lavender and Signet marigolds.
  • Rainbow chard and kale are an exception to the rule “don’t grow what you can easily buy.” Because these are easy to grow, they provide an abundance of healthy greens over a long season. Like magic, the more you grow the more they will produce. It will become a challenge to learn new ways to add kale and chard to your diet. Start with seeds or plants for Rainbow chard and Black Tuscan kale.
  • Lettuce: There are over 150 types of lettuce available to gardeners that offer a range of colors, leaf patterns and flavor. Yet you will only find a dozen or more in the markets. Seek out the most beautiful lettuce you can find and sow seed directly into a pot. Choose loose-leaf varieties for cut-and-come-again convenience or heading types that will be ornamental as well as edible. Seeds or plants, either will be ready for harvest after 30–45 days.

Seeds or Plants?

Seed catalogs tempt the gardener with full-color photos and the promise of instant success. The truth is that not everything grows easily from seed, and sometimes it makes more sense to start with an established plant. Knowing when to grow from seed and when to buy as a plant can take a few years of trial and error. Learn to read the seed catalogs carefully because prices for seeds will vary between companies. Look for information on the number of seeds per packet, germination time and days to maturity. Avoid the big-name companies in favor of smaller, more regional seed companies throughout New England. Become a seed saver and allow one or two plants to ripen into seed pods and harvest those seeds at the end of the season for next year’s garden.

SEED SOURCES: THE BEST CULINARY CHOICE

Go beyond the pretty pictures of seed catalogs to read the information provided that will help you become a better gardener. Learn what the seed requires for germination, the days to maturity and the light and space necessary for successful growing. When selecting varieties, I prefer heirloom over hybrid, because heirlooms tend to offer the most flavorful harvest, and also look for hard-to-find in order to try something new and different. The issues around seeds are as multi-layered as an onion, so find a source you can trust.

High Mowing Seeds

www.highmowingseeds.com

Mostly tried-and-true open pollinated seeds, high Mowing seeds is mostly focused on beans, squash and main season crops, yet has expanded to include a range of lettuce and salad greens. Think red salad bowl, lollo rossa, red sails, outredgeous, rouge d’hiver, spock and galactic lettuce all in one small seed packet.

Johnny’s Selected

www.johnnyseeds.com

A long-time favorite among market growers and home gardeners as a reliable source for organic seed, Johnny’s offers both open pollinated and hybrid seed. sold in small packets or bulk, the catalog is a one-stop resource for seeds, garden tools and season extenders. a good source of information on starting seeds, too.

Organica Seed Co.

www.organicaseed.com

Buying local seed is the next step beyond local food. Jim Weinberg, owner of organica seed in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, is committed to growing seeds without chemicals on a farm that has been saving seed since 1850. organica seed offers heirloom and organic seeds for a variety of edible crops as well as cotton, rice and tobacco. no print catalog, online only.

Seeds of Italy

www.Growitalian.com 

Growing Italian vegetables is the next best thing to being there, which is why i like this catalog so much. Seeds are packed and imported, so there is no local element here and they’re a little pricey, but the variety offered is exciting and represents the best culinary types of classic italian vegetables.

Wild Garden Seeds

www.wildgardenseed.com

Looking for Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled Cress, Purple Osaka and horned Mustard, or maybe Persian Cress? Wild garden seeds grows certified organic seeds on a farm in the Pacific northwest. Dedicated to open pollinated varieties and unusual, hard-to-find greens for the salad lover.

Ellen Ecker Ogden, cookbook author and kitchen garden designer, is the author of four books including her most recent, The Complete Kitchen Garden (2011 Stewart, Tabori and Chang) featuring designs and recipes for cooks who love to garden. Contact her at ellen@ellenogden.com.