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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Feed Body and Soul with a Kitchen Garden

The Garden Media Group, a public relations firm that focuses on gardening, issues a yearly report on what they predict will be the year's hottest trends in gardening. They have labeled 2013 as the year for "finding your bliss" in the garden. Many of their predictions point to consumers finding spiritual fulfillment in the garden, no matter what is being grown. Vegetable gardening is one route that reportedly consumers are choosing as a way to soothe their spirits.

I have definitely witnessed an upsurge in questions on vegetable gardening at the Extension office over the last 5 to 6 years. Most people with vegetable gardening questions didn't start out in search of their own personal Zen though. Economics and perceived safety have been the initial driving forces for most people that contact me with vegetable gardening questions.

The rising cost of groceries seems to be a major reason local interest in vegetable gardening is increasing. Many also desire to control application of chemicals to the food they eat, whether they are proponents of organic gardening which uses no artificial pesticides or fertilizers, or simply choose to limit their use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers. Also, after scares in recent years with Salmonella and E. coli contaminated produce, some people feel safer growing their own food.

Many gardening catalogs and magazines encourage growing "kitchen gardens". The definition of this type of garden is many and varied. Basically, the idea is to have a small planting of food crops near your kitchen door, making it easy to step outside and pick what you need when making dinner. The garden may be planted in a container, or in the ground, depending on your situation. This time of year, a large pot planted with lettuce would be a great way to start your kitchen garden. A small plot or several pots of your favorite herbs would also be a flavorful option.

One way to maximize production in a space as little as four feet by four feet is to consider the Square Foot Gardening method, described by author Mel Bartholomew in his book by the same name. Each crop is grown in a one foot by one foot square, in a raised bed with a rich mix of peat, vermiculite and compost. I have grown my vegetables in wide rows or blocks for years, but two years ago I made my first attempt at the "true" Square Foot Gardening method, and I am hooked.

I have found several advantages to growing plants in blocks or wide rows. One is soil compaction. When you plant in blocks or wide rows, ideally you never step on the row, you step around the edge. So the soil stays nice and loose, perfect for root growth. In the square foot garden, I had the added advantage of very little weeds because I created my own planting mix.

Another advantage I see in my garden is weed control as the season progressed. Planting seeds such as green beans in a grid over a wide row or broadcasting tiny seeds such as lettuce in a block creates an environment where the mature plants will mostly shade out any weeds as they appear. Since the soil remains nice and loose in a block or wide row planting, it is very easy to remove any weeds that germinate while the desirable plants are still small and unable to shade out the weeds.

Last year in just a four by eight foot Square Garden, I had 32 square foot sections to work with. I chose a few crops that needed more than one square foot of space, but still I was able to grow 24 different crops in that single four by eight foot plot.

My family has always had a large vegetable garden. Our garden was always a huge undertaking, requiring everyone's help. My dad would probably argue with me on this, but your options are not to grow a gigantic garden or grow none at all.

Starting with a small kitchen garden is a great way to start for people new to vegetable gardening, or for people with busy schedules, or limited space. Maybe you don't have room for a four by eight foot square garden, but how about a four foot by four foot plot, or even a few containers? Better to be encouraged by success in your first years of growing a few plants than discouraged by a too-large garden that is overwhelmed with weeds by July.

Last summer I planted a large container of lettuce, peas and a few carrots and beets for my mom, who had grown tired of my dad's "go big or go home" mentality about vegetable gardening. She was very happy to have enough produce to harvest for a few lunches and dinners with a minimum of effort.

Keep in mind that nothing says you have to have a dedicated vegetable garden. In our first years at our home, my husband and I planted vegetables in the beds around our patio, just outside the kitchen door. Even though we have a dedicated vegetable garden today, we still continue to plant vegetables around the patio. All these years we have had a kitchen garden without really realizing it! Having the plants so close to where we spend a lot of time outdoors is convenient, and the plants get a lot of attention as a result.

In my opinion, the Garden Media Group is spot-on in including vegetable gardening as a way to "find your bliss" in the garden. Most of the people I know that have "discovered" or "rediscovered" vegetable gardening in recent years did so for very practical reasons. But sooner or later most vegetable gardeners find that there is something about growing your own food that doesn't just feed your body–it feeds your soul too. I've seen it in the faces of my own friends, family and Extension office clients time and time again. I hope the trend continues.


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