In the town I grew up in, growing tomatoes was almost a sport. People competed to see who had the earliest, the biggest and the tastiest tomatoes. By the end of summer, we had so many tomatoes, we were all giving them away to anyone who would take them!

Pathways

Kitchen gardens can be just as playful and pretty as flower beds.

Photo Credit: Mary Moore

Interplanting

Take advantage of the space between large plants to grow short-season vegetables.

Photo Credit: Mary Moore

Arbor

You can use arbors to support twining fruit like grapes.

Photo Credit: Mary Moore

Sage and tarragon

Herbs are great in kitchen gardens – they dress up a vegetable bed and deter some insects.

Photo Credit: Mary Moore

Fig tree

Larger plants like this fig tree can add structure, beauty and, of course, fruit!

Photo Credit: Mary Moore

Plantots p

Use ornamental pots for plants with special soil needs, like this young rhubarb.

Photo Credit: Mary Moore

Lavender

Lavender attracts pollinators and acts as a trap plant for squash borers and other pests.

Photo Credit: Mary Moore

In recent years, however, more people have turned to growing “kitchen gardens” – small, carefully planned gardens for growing just enough to feed the family. It doesn’t take much to get these plots going. You just need a spot with at least six hours of sun and good drainage.

Once you know where you’ll plant, you can start planning your kitchen garden. If this is your first garden, start small and add to it gradually. When you decide on your overall plan, divide it into different sections and prepare each spot one at a time. As your skills grow, so will your garden –and you’ll be less likely to quit because you won’t feel too overwhelmed.

Don’t know what to grow? Take some time to consider the foods you and your family like to eat. Do you use many tomatoes and peppers, or do you prefer hearty root crops like potatoes or carrots? Do you eat a lot of salads or dine on squash and cabbage? Are there any fruits you particularly enjoy, like grapes, blueberries or figs? Thinking your needs through will help you figure out which plants and seeds to purchase, as well as how many you’ll need. (It may take you a few years to get it down just right, but think of the fun you’ll have feasting on your garden’s bounty when you miscalculate!)

Be sure to pay attention to what season each vegetable grows in, too. You can plant cool-season veggies in fall and spring, but many warm-season selections can only survive if planted after the last frost has passed. The great thing is that if you’re thorough in your initial planning, you can have a harvest in spring, summer and fall!

Once you’ve figured out which foods you’ll grow, design your kitchen garden like a flower bed. Instead of planting rows, consider planning squares, circles or triangles! Use pathways to divide your garden into large, simple shapes, and make the individual sections just large enough to work from the paths so you don’t have to step on the soil and compact it.

Consider planting your vegetables in patterns, too, using their natural colors and textures like flowers in a decorative bed. Red-leaf lettuce looks great next to green onions, or try red cabbage with green broccoli. Yellow squash really brightens up a bed of green beans, while eggplants add depth to tomatoes and peppers. Use smaller plants like marigolds, lettuce or nasturtiums in borders and taller plants like tomatoes to create structure for your kitchen garden.

Of course, fruit trees and bushes also add structure and texture. Don’t forget that grapes and vining vegetables are great on arbors, and the same trellis you use for your roses can be used to hold up peas or cucumbers! Ornate pots are great for veggies that need lighter soil, or use them for containing herbs that tend to spread, like mint.

No matter what you grow, the key to success with many different crops in a small space is preparing the soil so it’s light and well-amended. The two quickest ways to do this are digging up the soil and mixing in amendments, or building raised beds. (Either way, be sure to add several inches of compost!)

If you’re preparing your soil well in advance, consider adding cattle or chicken manure to the mix – but do allow a couple of months for the manure to break down and mix into the soil by earthworms. Other good ingredients include fertilizer, like a balanced 10-10-10 mix, and a soil conditioner. Peat moss is also traditionally added to lighten heavy soils, or you can try coconut hulls. (Coconut hulls are a byproduct of processing coconut products and are a renewable resource.)

Once you know what you’re planting where and your soil’s been prepared, you’re ready to plant. Follow any instructions you’re given. If a seed packet label says to plant radish seeds 3 inches apart, make sure those radishes are at least 3 inches apart in all directions. If you’ve got two different plants next to each other with similar life spans, space them according to the larger plant’s needs.

After planting, be sure to mulch your garden to keep moisture in the soil, reduce the need to water and suppress weeds. Aged hardwood is a good choice because it gradually breaks down, feeding the soil. Some research even indicates that mulch made from the heart of red cedar may deter ants. However, cedar can pack down and prevent water from permeating, so use it lightly.

No matter what you plant in your kitchen garden, use your imagination to create beautiful, simple designs. Try a rectangle divided into more rectangles or a circle with pathways that create a wheel pattern – maybe even a yin and yang design. You’ll soon find your vegetable garden can be as beautiful as your flower beds – and just as enjoyable!