Through the centuries, kitchen gardens have sustained life, and even today rural families depend on them for much, if not all, of their produce needs. City dwellers, however, due to the ready availability of fresh fruit, vegetables, and herbs for purchase, limited space on small residential properties, and their preference for ornamental gardening, are less likely to grow their own food. That's not to say they don't long for the taste of garden-fresh vegetables and sun-ripened fruit. They're just not quite sure how to go about making space for edibles in gardens that are already bursting at the seams with annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees.
Believe it or not, there are a number of ways to incorporate homegrown foods into even the smallest of gardens. If you don't have the space for a large traditional kitchen garden planted in long, single rows, then dig a smaller plot whose center can be reached from the perimeter (for picking and weeding purposes) and use a dense planting scheme. Such small vegetable gardens are very productive and can be designed to fit into the landscape. They need not be the traditional square or rectangle; even a portion of a curved flower border would work. Just remember to water and fertilize regularly; densely planted gardens are demanding when it comes to food and moisture.
Small raised beds also work well for intensive planting schemes. They warm up earlier in the spring than regular beds, so can be planted earlier, and provide a greater depth of topsoil, which is especially advantageous to root crops. Raised beds also ensure improved soil drainage, which is important here in Calgary with its waterlogged, clay-rich subsoil.
Small kitchen gardens, flat or raised, can be arranged attractively to blend in with the rest of the garden. Instead of planting vegetables in rows, plant them in patchwork fashion or in patterns similar to those of a medieval knot garden. Choose varieties of vegetables for their foliage colour to help develop a pleasing planting scheme. Remember to include some flowering culinary herbs (thyme, sage, oregano, or chives) and some annuals with edible flowers (calendula, scented geraniums, nasturtiums, or violas) to complete the picture.
Another way to incorporate edible plants into small spaces is to follow the lead of the French. Famous for their potager gardens, they began incorporating edible plants directly into mixed and perennial borders long ago. We can do the same. For example, the ferny foliage of carrots or the crisply curled leaves of parsley make a beautiful edging that, when harvested sparingly, lasts all summer. Small drifts of colourful salad greens and spinach planted at the front of borders provide a tasty treat and blend well with adjacent plants. The textured leaves and crimson, yellow, gold, pink, orange and purple stalks of 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard are a vibrant addition to any mixed border, and provide a nutritious meal. Rhubarb too, is a colourful, architectural plant for the middle of the border that quickly converts to appetizing desserts, while strawberries make a delicious groundcover.
Practical culinary herbs such as oregano, chives, parsley, sage, and thyme are at home in any mixed border. They are, in fact, so attractive with their diverse foliage, flowers, and fragrance that, even when planted together in a small herb garden close to the backdoor, they have the appearance of an ornamental flowerbed and merge with the landscape.
Vining peas and beans become a leafy screen on trellises, either on their own or mingled with other annual vines such as sweet peas or canarybird vine. Cucumbers, tomatoes, and zucchini can also be trained to grow on trellises. Why not try hardy kiwi and grape vines, for an exotic touch?
Gardeners short of space can also be adventuresome and develop a small kitchen garden in containers. Containers take up little space, and because pots are portable and easily protected, they can be planted earlier and harvested later than regular gardens. Containers can also be moved to follow the sun, ensuring good results.
Half the fun of planting containers is planning what to grow and how to grow it. Check out the seed racks at local garden centers or place an order with a reputable mail order company, for the newest, tastiest, or most unusual varieties of your favourite vegetables. Purple beans, golden beets and tomatoes, white radishes, and ruby chard are not only delicious to eat, they also look great in their pots. Mesclun, a mixture of tender lettuces and greens that are harvested young and mixed to make delightful salads, can also be grown in large containers in a sunny location. Placed at the base of a trellis, containers can even support vining crops such as scarlet runner beans, and cucumbers or squash, which are happy to clamber upwards with a bit of support.
So, regardless of the technique you try, it IS possible and easy to experience the pleasures of vegetable gardening in positively tiny spaces.