The New Kitchen Garden

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The kitchen garden is making a comeback. There are farmers’ markets in every Virginia town, farm subscription plans (also called CSA), produce delivery services like Relay Foods, and community gardens like the ones at Friendship Court and West Street in Charlottesville. The local food movement is lively. What could be more local than your own back yard?

 
Or your front yard, if you live on Graves Street near the Belmont Bridge. Several residents here have planted streetside with cabbage, broccoli, asparagus, beets, raspberries and fruit trees. The vegetables coexist with box and privet hedges, roses and beds of iris. Ivette Soler wrote a book about this practice, The Edible Front Yard (Timber Press, 2011). Soler is a garden designer and writer in Los Angeles with a blog called Germinatrix. Her message is that with a little artistic help, veggies can have curb appeal.
 
With variations, the message crops up everywhere these days. While it overlaps with the city farm movement, also called urban agriculture, the new kitchen garden aims to look as good as it tastes. The English cottage garden and the French potager are models. They include fragrant herbs and colorful flowers along with vegetables for the pot. Food plants mingle with ornamentals, and some plants are both. The yard is both productive and a place to play, and refresh the senses.
 
Kitchen Gardens of France, by Louisa Jones (Thames & Hudson, 1997) is a beautifully illustrated book with color photographs. A more recent English take is The Kitchen Garden, by Alan Buckingham (DK, 2009). If you prefer a book specifically addressed to Americans, look at Designing the New Kitchen Garden: an American Potager Handbook, by Jennifer Bartley (Timber Press, 2006). Or browse the magazine rack. Garden magazines are bursting with how-to articles that mix leaf lettuce and lavender, rosemary and roses.
 
 Even a small plot of ground can yield a healthy dividend, so long as it gets several hours of sun each day. Plant species vary in their needs, so check labels and garden guides. At least four hours of direct sun are recommended. You may need to improve the soil, loosen packed clay, add humus or compost, or correct for too much acid or alkali, measured as pH. Some urban reclamation schemes involve breaking up asphalt or concrete to get access to the soil.
 
 Make sure that rainwater drains properly. Some plants are sensitive to overly wet or dry roots. They rot or harbor fungus in the wet condition. Sandy soil that drains too quickly has the opposite drawback, and growth slows for lack of water. The raised bed is a way to ensure drainage, and incidentally make working in the garden easier. Depending on the neighborhood, you may need a fence to keep out visitors, both the four-legged kind and your fellow citizens.
 
Older garden guides show neat rows of squash, beans, potatoes, corn and peas surrounded by bare earth. They need constant weeding, spraying and watering, and such “monoculture” is now considered less healthy than “biodiversity.” Besides, the industrial aesthetic is passé. The new kitchen garden is informal, arranged to make the best use of small plots, and create landscape effects in limited space. Permaculture encourages you to combine species, use natural means of controlling pests, and use less water. Low maintenance is the goal. The keyhole bed, the spiral mound and the companion cluster are new garden forms.
 
Some people like the precise geometry of medieval garden beds, though. What with seeds brought in by wind and birds, storm damage, and rapid summer growth, there is something to be said for neatness as an organizing tool. It can also be a way to combine garden and grass area in a small yard.  Old methods of pruning, pleaching and espalier are useful for working fruit trees into your scheme. An espaliered tree, attached to a wall that collects sun, is also a way to extend the growing season, or extend the hardiness zone of a species.
 
In some cases, private gardens perform a valuable public service by providing a haven for heirloom plants. Some varieties are in danger of dying out, for example, fruits that have a shorter shelf life than grocery stores demand. Roses with strong perfume and brief blooming seasons are losing ground to showy, scentless roses that bloom all summer. Since the 1970s, commercial agriculture and seed companies like Monsanto have concentrated on a few varieties, not always the most nutritious or flavorful. The tomato is a case in point.
 
Two local sources deserve mention here. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Louisa, VA, is a farm and catalog operation that is “saving the past for the future.” Edible Landscaping in Afton, VA does online and catalog sales, and their nursery makes a wonderful day trip.
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