Cape Town - It might still be pretty chilly, but it’s definitely time to look forward to summer. This month, consider the fantasy of growing your own food and having herbs just 10 paces from your kitchen door.
World Kitchen Garden Day was celebrated last week to raise awareness of the benefits of healthy eating from our gardens, and supporting local farmers’ markets where seasonal produce is sold.
Vegetables, fruit and herbs grown in community or private gardens are beneficial to our health and well-being, providing insecticide- and pesticide-free food and outdoor exercise.
The kitchen garden
“If well managed, nothing is more beautiful than the kitchen garden,” wrote William Cobbett in 1829. A kitchen garden is practical, productive and visually pleasing – a garden that tempts taste buds with fresh vegetables and herbs, and attracts bees and butterflies to pollinate colourful flowers.
Edible gardens are not new. Monks grew vegetables, herbs and flowers in beds in cloistered courtyards to heal the sick, provide pot herbs and vegetables for their kitchens, and flavour wines.
In 16th-century cottage gardens, plants were grown for homemade remedies and to supplement and flavour cottagers’ meagre diet. Sweet-smelling herbs were strewn on earthen floors, and flowers were grown to supply nectar for beehives.
Many herbal plants have survived down the ages because of their attractive flowers.
The orange-and-yellow flowers of calendula (pot marigold), used to flavour broths in years gone by, now brighten our spring gardens, and the flowers of borage, botanist and herbalist John Gerard grew in the 16th century, still add that wonderful touch of blue to our borders and decorate bowls of punch.
Planning a kitchen garden
A kitchen garden is best positioned near the house for easy access. Choose a level area that gets at least five hours of sunshine a day. Raised beds are the answer if drainage is poor, and there should be a convenient water supply.
The most important part of growing vegetables is preparation of the soil.
Vegetables are tastier and tender if grown quickly, so dig in generous amounts of compost to encourage strong, healthy growth.
What crop you grow will determine whether to add manure, as not all crops like freshly manured soil. These include most root crops, such as carrots and beetroot.
Re-energise soil between each planting by adding generous amounts of compost, and fertilise with 50g of 2:3:2 per square metre.
Not only does a fence define the boundaries of a kitchen garden, it also keeps out animals.
Fences can be purely decorative, such as a picket fence, or constructed of wire that can support climbing crops.
Paths should be wide enough for a wheelbarrow and made of bricks, pavers, concrete or gravel, with an underlay of weed-proof material. Fill in gaps along paths and between stepping-stones with thyme.
Planting a kitchen garden
A kitchen garden should be enjoyed visually and also as a source of food. Only grow vegetables you and your family enjoy eating.
Instead of planting in rows, plant in small beds in the ground or in raised beds. Depending on space, a circular design is attractive. Include pots of herbs and dwarf fruit trees in large containers for additional height and interest.
Plant so that tall varieties do not block out the sun from lower-growing plants. To avoid soil exhaustion, it is good gardening practice to rotate plantings – leaf followed by root, then legume.
Grow climbing vegetables up trellises and on wigwams. This vertical gardening frees ground space and provides healthy plants with good air circulation, plenty of sunlight and easy harvesting.
Avoid filling your kitchen garden all at once. Start with something simple in a section of the garden, such as a salad garden. Lettuce is a quick-growing crop. Lettuce needs rich soil and regular water, and as the weather warms, will do better given some afternoon shade.
Colour in the kitchen garden
The kitchen garden need never be lacking in colour if plants with colourful foliage, such as purple basil, variegated thyme and golden sage are introduced. Crisp cos and butterhead lettuce have leaves that are frilled or plain edged, in shades of green, pink or deep red.
Sweet peppers and chillies can be red, yellow or green, cabbages blue or shades of green. In many gardens, Swiss chard has replaced spinach, not only because of its milder flavour, but because modern cultivar “Bright Lights” has stems of yellow, apricot, pink and red. The red stems of “Ruby” Swiss chard compliments ruby-red lettuce and dark-leaf basil.
Caring for the kitchen garden
Fertilise once a fortnight with a liquid fertiliser such as Nitrosol or Margaret Roberts Supercharger, an organic fertiliser that helps plants build resistance to disease, and encourages strong, healthy growth of the crops.
Vegetables that attract the same pests and diseases are best separated by other types of vegetables. Grow marigolds as a soil cleanser between vegetables, because they contain a substance that is toxic to nematodes in the soil. Nasturtiums are a trap-plant for aphids that damage new growth.
When you plant a productive kitchen garden you are making the choice for yourself and for your family to live well and eat healthily.
Kay Montgomery. Weekend Argus