[May] Kitchen Gardens

May 3rd, 2012 | By | Category: Flavor of the Month

Kitchen GardenAsk experts in the field to describe the ideal kitchen garden, and you won’t get two answers alike. As with any gardening project, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the tastes, both aesthetic and culinary, of the individual.

A few common threads emerge, however. The kitchen garden is often a combination of herbs and other vegetables and sometimes flowers, grown in an accessible location, and designed for beauty as well as function.

Kitchen gardens throughout history are just as diverse in size, design, and components as their modern day counterparts. The French “jardins potagers”, or kitchen gardens, reached spectacular proportions in the chateaux of the 16th and 17th centuries, like the 20-acre extravaganza at Versailles, or the vast ornamental potager at the Chateau de Villandry. While these gardens were comprised of herbs and vegetables, their design, symmetry, and cultivation compare to the most impressive ornamental gardens.

Not surprisingly, when it came to cultivating food, the French were more experimental and diverse in their tastes than their neighbors in England. But both French and Dutch influences made their way across the Channel to England and eventually to the New World.

Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has recreated an early 1700s kitchen garden, known as the Sherburne Garden and Orchard, located on the museum property. Through careful research into historical records, combined with pollen and soil analyses, the museum has found evidence of raised beds as well as indications of what was grown in this early kitchen garden. Unlike the field crops that were grown outside of town (their evidence points to somewhere off current day Islington Street), the kitchen garden was the domain of the woman of the house, and contained not only the more tender vegetables but culinary and medicinal herbs as well.

Unlike the survival gardens of the frontier, Portsmouth’s early kitchen gardens benefited from a more peaceful and prosperous settlement with ships bringing both necessities and luxuries from across the Atlantic. Affluent families had the luxury of a garden that went well beyond subsistence. By the 1750s, there was a distinct movement towards ornamentation, and the sort of style and beauty apparent in architecture and interior design, became apparent in outdoor spaces as well.

Imagine the delight of watching the first spring greens emerge after the long, cold New England winter of 1720, and as the season progressed, picking the delicate early spinach, deer-tongue lettuce (or lettice as it was sometimes written in those days), as well as shallots, leeks, chives, parsley, thyme, basil, and coriander. In addition, there were crops like loose headed varieties of cabbage, edible-pod peas, radishes, turnips, broad beans, and cardoons, a relative of the artichoke.

The same diverse pleasures await the 21st century kitchen gardener. Each year, Jacquelyn Nooney, a self-described “maverick” and owner of Jacquelyn Nooney Landscape Design, Inc. creates the lovely 800-square-foot annual kitchen garden that adorns the grounds of Stonewall Kitchen in York. With more than 20,000 visitors each year, this particular kitchen garden needs to incorporate plants that are not only attractive and of culinary value, but will hold up to the rigors of being in a public space.

As Nooney says, in a kitchen garden especially, “The more senses you can engage, the more successful you are.” She stresses the importance of color, scent, taste, and texture. In addition to herbs and vegetables, she likes to include flowers like snapdragons, heliotropes, and zinnias as well as a vertical element like a topiary. Her designs tend toward the geometric, often using “blocks” of plants and using borders to define spaces that can then be “colored in” with different plants. Her designs recall the so-called “knot gardens” that use historic design motifs like diamonds and stars in quilt-like patterns.

Lucinda Clarke, who has managed the Wild Iris Herb Farm in York since 1978, has good advice for the home kitchen gardener. When helping a client with design, she says, “First, we decide on the basics, on what you have to have. . .then we have fun.” The basics, as the other experts agree, are the herbs and vegetables most in tune with the kind of cooking you do. There are no hard and fast rules.

One of her specialties is introducing people to the huge variety of plants, not only those grown at Wild Iris but available from specialty seed catalogs like Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Windslow, Maine and Renee’s Garden Seeds formerly Shepard’s Seeds. Clarke  encourages people who have very limited space to explore the many dwarf and container varieties of both herbs and vegetables. Bush cucumbers and cherry tomatoes can be grown on trellises or in containers on a porch, and bush basil can be grown in pots and produces small round plants with tiny aromatic leaves. In fact, as Clarke points out, container gardening has advantages like offering greater resistance to pests and greater control over the quality of the growing medium.

Other favorites of Clarke’s include lavender, lemon verbena (from which she made a lovely infusion that she served while we talked), and scented geraniums. She also encourages people to explore the many specialty varieties of herbs like pineapple and licorice mint, winter savory, and lemon basil. Common mint varieties, she warns, can easily choke out everything else so she advises planting these outside the defined garden space. Herbs like catnip encourage neighborhood felines to cavort in your carefully-tended space.

Edible flowers like nasturtiums, calendula, and violas provide both color and distinctive tastes. (Don’t be surprised however, if you have to reassure your dinner guests the first time flowers appear in a salad.)

Just planning a kitchen garden in the waning days of a long New England winter is enough to help us see the light at the end of the tunnel. And the first colors, tastes, and smells of a kitchen garden are surely some of the great delights of our long-awaited spring.

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