January 29, 2011
SPRING PUTTERING is the ideal activity for shrugging off the winter doldrums. Growing food is satisfying for newbies and seasoned urban homesteaders alike, no matter how humble or grandiose the effort. One gardener might have goals of harvesting greens every day for salads
and stocking her pantry with homegrown pickled beets, while her next-door
neighbor is perfectly content with an occasional handful of chives.
You don't have to dedicate large or even specific areas of your space to food crops. Intersperse vegetables and herbs with ornamental perennials and annuals, but make sure the needs of your ornamental plants align with those of your crops. Lettuce, for example, needs full sun, regular irrigation and rich soil for success, so pairing it with a drought-tolerant grass won't make either plant happy.
If you are challenged for space, don't despair. Lots of successful kitchen gardeners rely exclusively on containers to grow their crops. Many food plants, including herbs, lettuce and chard do well in pots.
If you've maintained a kitchen garden for a while, spring is a great time to revitalize your relationship with it. Grow herbs you haven't tried in the past, or sow seeds for vegetable varieties you can't find at grocery stores or farmers markets. You can travel the world in your vegetable patch. If you fancy a kitchen garden in the traditional French potager style, try growing French Breakfast radishes or Merveille des Quatre Saisons lettuce. For a virtual trip to Italy, plant Chioggia beets, an heirloom variety that reveals beautiful red and white rings when sliced. For visual impact, contrast the burgundy shades of Rossa Di Treviso Precoce radicchio with Cuor d'Oro (Golden Heart) endive. If color is your bliss, dig in seeds for Purple Haze, Purple Rain and Purple Dragon carrots.
You can grow crops that mature over a longer period of time and provide one harvest per seed or plant (such as carrots and leeks) or crops that produce harvestable food from each plant on an ongoing basis, such as lettuce, chard, parsley and peas. Having both crops has its advantages. With "cut and come again" crops, gardeners get the satisfaction of eating from the garden while waiting for the long-growing crops to develop to harvest size. Harvesting those fast-growing herbs and leafy vegetables a few times a week also increases the likelihood that you will get out into the garden to water, weed and address any pest problems you might encounter with your long-term crops.
When browsing the seed rack at your local nursery or through seed catalogs, look for adjectives such as "fast-growing," "early" and "vigorous." Also check descriptions for the "days to harvest" indicated; this gives
you a general idea how long it takes that variety to reach harvestable size.
The advantage to planting early, quick-maturing varieties is that getting them in and out of the ground in a revolving-door fashion will free up space in your garden for summer crops.
Seasonal herbs such as chervil, chives, dill and cilantro are easy to start from seed and appreciate the cool, early spring weather. Unlike store-bought fresh herbs, you won't have to race against time to use them up before they go limp in the vegetable crisper. Sow Italian parsley in cool weather and enjoy a few stems to season or garnish a dish. As long as you pick and use it often, parsley will continue to thrive and put out new growth for a few months. Don't despair if you don't see anything emerging
in the seedbed two weeks after sowing parsley, chives or cilantro; these herbs take up to 21 days to germinate.
Dig in plenty of compost before planting. Spring kitchen gardens need regular water and regular applications of fertilizer, such as worm tea or fish emulsion. Weed diligently, pulling weeds before they get large enough to compete with your crops. As your vegetables develop and grow, thin plants to proper spacing. Use tender thinnings in a salad or add them to a stir fry.