If you think cooking a meal from scratch is satisfying, just wait until you experience the unparalleled thrill of harvesting, cooking, eating, and sharing the bounty of a your very own garden. Bonus: gardening makes people happy. The folks in lab coats have found microbes in soil that produce happy chemicals in the brain!
Starting a kitchen garden is not as hard as it might seem to the uninitiated, it just takes a little knowhow, a bit of elbow grease, and time. Oh, and luck. Some green thumbs like to say it’s all about sweating under the noonday sun and gardening secrets passed down through the generations, but truthfully, much depends on Mother Nature. Think of it like this: Mother Nature wants to grow things. The gardener’s job is to facilitate that, to be a midwife of sorts.
If this is the spring you’re determined to start your own happy, healthy edible garden, here are some basics to get started:
Pots on a south- or east-facing balcony; a small sunny spot in the back- or front-yard; a few half-barrels on the deck – size doesn’t matter. Gardening is for apartment-dwellers and urbanites with tiny lots, too! It’s amazing what can grow in a few planters. What does matter is light, so spend some time tracking and timing the sun around your property, then pick a place that gets a solid six hours of sun each day.
Once a sunny spot has been selected, the soil needs to be considered. What is it: sand? Heavy clay? Does it look dead and depleted? Hard-packed or dusty? What about possible toxins? Before planting directly into the earth, ask neighbors or your landlord about the history of the land. If there was a lead paint factory sitting there 100-years ago, don’t garden in that soil. You can also get the soil tested for contaminants – kits can be purchased at garden shops or sometimes through City Hall – but when in doubt, garden in containers or raised beds. Raised bed kits and DIY instructions abound.
Amend the Soil
Before planting, bring in fresh soil – a rich black loam or triple mix is good – and start fresh and clean. Also, this is the time to add nutrients. It’s vital to add composted manure or leaf mold – buy the stuff in bags at the garden shop or grab it for free at many community environment days. Some bone meal, old eggshells, and coffee grinds are also great for the soil biome and whatever is planted there. Dig it into the ground. This is where the sweating under the noonday sun bit comes in – and it feels really good!
If going the planter or raised bed route, all the same rules for sun and soil apply, but more attention to water and drainage is needed. Plants growing in porous pots (terracotta, wood) can dry out faster and therefor need to be watered more often; plants in plastic containers can rot because of slow or inadequate drainage. Use specified potting soil, add a layer of gravel to the very bottom of the container, and make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom of the pot. Add a layer of mulch on top; more on mulch later.
What to Plant
For the novice vegetable gardener, start with tomatoes, peppers, edible flowers – nasturtiums, marigolds, daylilies – beans, cucumbers, zucchini, and herbs. They all grow fairly easily, look great, produce well, and taste delicious. Start from seed inside in late February, or wait until seedlings are available in the shops. Look up your gardening zone and plant after the threat of frost has passed.
How to Plant
When setting the seedlings into the ground, add another small handful of bone meal into the awaiting hole, place the plant and soil plug into the hole, cover and mound up with soil and press firmly. Once planted, water generously for the first few days to weeks – depending on rainfall – to get those tiny roots established. Watering in the early morning or night is best; watering in the heat of the day loses water to evaporation.
Some plants need support; they’re either climbers, have a tendency to flop over, or get too heavy with fruit to hold themselves up. It’s easiest to install tomato cages over tiny seedlings – once they’re big it’s nightmarish corralling all the leaves and branches. Same for beans, zucchini and cukes; they want to climb, so plant them with that in mind, and either add the supports to where they’re planted or plant them where there is an existing support structure: a fence, trellis, arbor, or south-facing wall.
This is important for a few reasons: it looks lovely, it’s the best use of space and plants enjoy symbiotic relationships. Planting marigolds at the base of tomatoes keeps pests away; pesky aphids love nasturtium, so plant a few sacrificial plants around the veggies to create a distraction. Beans and others of the legume family – clover, lentils, peas – add healthy nitrogen to the soil, so they are always good for everything else. Some plants trail, grow tall or short, reach up or spread wide, so can be grown fairly closely together. Think: a row of well-spaced tomatoes, with alternating basil and marigolds underneath. Or, in a pot, one cucumber in the center, climbing up a trellis, surrounded by trailing nasturtiums.
Spreading a good, thick layer of natural mulch – not that horrid black or orange dyed stuff – is vital to suppress weeds, protect roots, and retain water in both the garden and containers. Pea gravel is gorgeous but can be costly; black plastic really does the trick but it’s ugly. Black garden fabric is a good compromise, but layers of wet newspapers and cardboard also work, though again, not so pretty. Straw is great, and will break down, fortifying the soil. Wood chips and shavings work well too, but be careful of the source, as some wood is chemically treated. There are ever more and more clever, natural, repurposed sources of mulch, such as bark chips, coco husk, nut shells, and crushed brick.
After all the prep, it’s just a matter of weeding the ground, watering and tending the plants, then enjoying the harvest!
Later in the summer, create a vivid salad made with your freshly picked cucumber and edible flowers. For the greens and herbs in this salad pick any combination of exotic or conventional, wild or domesticated: arugula, spinach, dandelion, lamb’s quarters, nasturtium leaves, baby kale, or even experiment with a few tender springtime maple leaves!
Likewise, pick whatever edible petals and berries you have on hand at the moment; the daylilies, nasturtiums and marigolds listed in the recipe work well, but you can go even more exotic. Think sweetly scented maple, hawthorn, linden or eastern redbud blossoms, or pluck petals from arrowhead, bee balm, chicory, eastern spring beauty, red clover, roses, evening primrose and spiderwort. Even better, this salad can be tailored to celebrate the garden harvest during any season. Simply change up the combination of ingredients to reflect what’s growing in the garden!
Summer Celebration Salad with Feta, Watermelon, Berries and Petals with a Blueberry Honey Vinaigrette
Serves 4 as a starter or side salad
Recipe by Signe Langford
Total Cooking Time: 25 minutes
Active Cooking Time: 25 minutes
- 1 cup (250 mL) tender new peas, wax beans or haricot vert; blanched
- 1 small purple onion, halved, then thinly sliced
- 1 cup (250 mL) feta, cubed
- 2 cups (500 mL) watermelon, cubed
- ½ cup (125 mL) fresh blueberries; or raspberries, serviceberries, mulberries, etc.
- 5 small radishes, trimmed and very thinly sliced (about 1 cup/250 mL)
- ½ of an English cucumber, very thinly sliced
- About 1 cup (250 mL) of mixed leaves, domestic and wild
- 1 Tbsp (15 mL) finely chopped mint or Thai basil
- 4 daylily flowers, stamens removed, petals separated
- 4 nasturtium flowers, whole or petals separated
- 1 frilly type marigold, green part removed, petals separated (if using single bloom marigolds, use 4)
Blueberry Honey Vinaigrette
- 3 Tbsp olive or local cold pressed canola oil
- 1 Tbsp verjus or apple cider vinegar
- 1 Tbsp blueberry honey; other varieties will work fine
- 1 tsp Dijon-style mustard
- ¼ tsp (1 mL) sea salt
- Black pepper to taste
To make the vinaigrette, add the oil, verjus or vinegar, honey, mustard, salt and pepper to a medium bowl and whisk until well blended. Set aside.
Blanch the peas; bring a medium saucepan of salted water to the boil over high heat. Add the peas and boil for 1 minute. Drain and transfer peas to a bowl of icy water. Allow to sit in the cold water until the peas are completely cooled, then drain and set aside to dry a bit.
Into a very large bowl add all the salad ingredients, add the vinaigrette, and very gently toss; petals bruise easily. Tumble onto a serving platter and garnish with a final drizzle of honey.
Words, recipe and egg & tomato photos by Signe Langford – Lettuce photo by Cathie Berrey-Green – Salad photo by Donna Griffith