Grow a Kitchen Garden (Even If You Have a Black Thumb)

A kitchen garden is quicker and easier than people think. Follow these simple steps to get started with your own garden.

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by Unsplash/Jonathan Hanna

No greens for your smoothie? No problem! Do you have wilting herbs in the fridge? What a waste of money. Try a trendy kitchen garden, it’s easier than people think. There is nothing to it but to do it, the experts say.

“A plan is not necessary. Start small. Grow what you are going to eat in the kitchen,” Susan Brown, Consumer Horticulture Agent for New Hanover County, North Carolina Cooperative Extension, suggests.

By following a few simple steps and making the right choices for your garden, you will be harvesting tender greens in a couple months.

1. It’s all about the SOIL!

“A beginner gardener needs to start from the ground up,” Brown says. The soil is the foundation for any plant growth, including; annuals (plants that only grow for one season) and perennials (plants that come back each year.)

Oregon-based Master Gardener, Kristena LaMar recommends skipping mixing a DIY soil combination the first year. “Amending soil is complex,” she says. “Your first year stick to bagged potting soil.”

2. Step away from the hoe; novice gardeners should start with containers or an easy-to-build raised bed.

“It can take years to build the soil so it retains moisture and encourages microbial activity when gardening in the ground,” Brown says.

Brown and LaMar both suggest that beginners use containers or raised beds.

“Use well-draining containers,” LaMar recommends. Without proper aeration and drainage, the plants can get root rot, a soil borne disease or fungus, she says. Drainage is optimal in a simple raised bed built from four pieces of untreated wood.

3. You’ve got the container, you’ve got the soil. All that is missing is the plants!

A gardener can “direct sow” seeds or plant “transplants”, which are already started before they get to their growth destination. Some seeds, like root vegetables, should always be directly sown in their final dirt home. Other plants, such as tomatoes, thrive in a garden once they’ve been nurtured as a seedling and ready to transplant.

“Newbies should wait for healthy transplants,” LaMar suggests. “Adapt to four to five plants at a time.”

She also recommends a simple herb garden and swears by oregano as a great container plant. Oregano is a woody perennial that will overtake the neatest of gardens with its spread. “A lot of people use it in various types of cooking.”

“Grow what you eat,” LaMar stresses.

Also recommended for spring planting are cool weather crops, such as lettuce, kale, swiss chard and spinach. When harvesting leafy greens, pick the outer leaves and the innermost leaves. “Never cut off more than one-third of the foliage,” LaMar warns. “Once you cut it off, that’s the end of the plant.”

Brown maintains that plant choice is a predominately important factor in successful gardening. “Start with easier plants first and get some experience behind you before you try more challenging plants,” she recommends.

4. Timing is everything when it comes to the garden.

Plants are fussy and are subjective to the “Zone” in which they are planted. Brown and LaMar are garden experts on separate coasts and both maintain the importance of zone-based planting advice.

LaMar suggests using the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to determine your planting zone. Most seed packets and transplants have Zone information on the label, stating when it safe (warm enough) to plant them.

Another great resource for all things gardening, including when to plant, is the local cooperative extension office, Brown recommends.

5. Keep them alive!

Plants are basic; they need sun, water and food (fertilizer).

“Plant conditions vary based on the type of plant you are planting,” Brown says. Each plant or seed packet will be labeled with its sun needs.

To determine just how much water a plant needs, or if its deficient or being overwatered, LaMar says the “finger test”. “Put your finger in the soil. If it is wet up to the second knuckle, no need to water.” Overwatering is a big mistake, she says. Watering too much will wash away nutrients and rot the roots.

Feed your plants and they’ll feed you. LaMar recommends applying a “regular fertilizer labeled 10-10-10 (equal parts nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium–yummy plant food!)

6. The final step is the most delicious; harvest and feast!

Heed the picking advice from the master gardeners and don’t cut the entire plant if you want continual grown (as with greens and herbs.) You only have one shot with other plants, like carrots and beets. Once you pull them, their next stop is your stomach.

Remember, Brown says, “Failures in the garden can be learning experiences and each year can bring different challenges but don’t give up!”

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