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Fresh is best: 5 tips on cultivating your own kitchen garden

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We all know the buzz words: eat fresh; buy organic; buy local; add more fruits and vegetables to your diet; etc, etc. So, now that the cold winds and freezes are gone (for most of the country anyway...sorry Wyoming), and the warmth of the sun of spring is here, this is the perfect time to begin to tap into those buzz words and play in the dirt...or...plant!. Farmers markets abound with fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs but harvesting your own garden can be a fun and rewarding way to add some of that freshness to your diet as well. And, what can be more local than your own backyard? Not to mention, that growing your own herbs can actually save you hundreds of dollars a year (most herbs cost $2.00 a pack at the grocery store, for a tiny pack that lasts two days).

Here are just a few benefits of growing your own kitchen garden:

  • Knowing where your food is grown and what was used or not used, i.e. pesticides;
  • Learning the beauty of patience in watching your food grow and ripen (this is also a great lesson in patience for kids);
  • Harvesting only the amount of herbs or veggies you need for dish, rather than entire packs of cut herbs;
  • Saving money by growing what you like, and what can grow, then supplement with store or farmers market bought goods; and
  • Having FUN (and maybe even a little exercise along the way)!

Kitchen gardens have been around for centuries. They were essentially used to provide all of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that a family needed to thrive. Planting, growing, and harvesting your own garden may seem daunting, but after years of trial and error with my clay nemesis of the Santa Barbara and central coast soil, I have 5 tips that will get you jump started.

  1. Know your environment.
    Understanding the environment that you will be working with is the key to planting a successful garden. Is your spot in full sun, shade, or a little of both? Will it be in a container, raised bed, or in the ground? Is the ground hard, sandy, rocky, or clay? Answering these questions will help you in designing the garden and knowing what you will need to do to the soil in order to be successful.
  2. Ask for help.
    Get to know the folks at your local nursery! As opposed to the big name home improvement stores, your smaller “mom and pop” nurseries generally have a better understanding of the unique environment of your neighborhood, the plants that grow well, and the specific amendments that your soil might need. Go to the closest one near your home and start asking questions. I've found that the growers are always willing to walk you through planning your garden (yes, even if you are there for weeks on end too).
  3. Know what you like.
    There is no use in cultivating a garden if you, or your family, won’t eat what you grow. So, once you know the types of plants that will grow in the location and soil you will planting (with the helpful knowledge of your local grower), now you can pick the ones that you will actually like and use. What herbs do you generally use in cooking? What vegetables will your family actually eat (unlike mine who refuse all squash and beets)? If you don’t like the taste of licorice, then you might not want to plant fennel! So grab some books, surf the internet, or just ponder on your own and make up your list.
  4. Prep, prep, prep, and….well, prep.
    Once you have your list, go back to the nursery and work with them on specifics. Again, they love helping, especially if you are buying your plants from them! How much space does each plant require? How many of each do you need for the space that you have? Blueberries require two or more varieties, which ones work/play well together? Once you have finalized your list, make sure your soil is ready for them. DO NOT BUY before the soil is ready for planting first. I learned that the hard way….spending money for plants that die before they get in the ground. With hard clay soil you need to loosen it and mix it with mulch, otherwise the water won’t drain and will clog the roots. What other soil amendments do you need to ensure the plants take root? Get it all ready, THEN, get the plants in place and in the ground the same day, or within a couple of days at the most.
  5. Tend to it and don't forget it.
    Having a kitchen garden takes time and care, but the rewards are worth it. When you first get the plants in the ground, they will require a lot of watering. Keep an eye on them and water as needed (at least 3 times a week, maybe more if it’s a scorcher). The nursery can offer tips on watering techniques. After a while, the roots will take hold and many vegetables and herbs do not require that much water, so you can back off to once, maybe twice a week. Keep weeds at bay by either pulling or using an organic weed killer. Weeds will literally suck the life out of your lovely new garden, so pull them as soon as you see them sneak their little leaves out of the ground.

After a while, you will see the delectable bounty of your hard work and loving care. So grab some tomatoes and fresh basil from the garden, add a little mozzarella and balsamic vinegar and enjoy! Oh, and don’t forget to sip the wine as you sit and savor your masterpiece! Enjoy!

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