Start a Simple Kitchen Garden Now
Our green-thumb guide to a kitchen-ready backyard transformation
Now that I am the ripe age of 31, many of my friends are getting “settled”—marrying, having kids and buying homes. Because I’m known as the “plant guy,” I get a lot of questions about setting up their backyard gardens. One of my childhood friends, Kait Schulhof (above) of A Clean Bee (she gave us her sustainable summer living tips last month), recently moved into a gorgeous home in Rancho Bernardo but the backyard was an untamed mess. Here’s how we turned one small section into a gorgeous, thriving kitchen garden.
Converting the Space
The first step was clearing out a small section of the backyard patio and building two basic raised beds. Kait recruited the help of her dad, and together they built large, 2-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide wooden raised beds out of Douglas fir. I like this choice for a few reasons:
- Two-foot-tall beds save your back and make working in the garden much easier.
- The 3-foot width is easy to reach into from any angle.
- Untreated Douglas fir looks good and lasts 10 years or more.
The beds were positioned close to her kitchen door, and she built a small pathway in between to make access from all sides simple and easy. When designing your kitchen garden, I can’t overstate how much ease and accessibility matter. You want to be able to walk out into the garden, pick some produce and bring it right into the kitchen. If you locate your garden in a lonely corner of your backyard, you’d be surprised at how rarely you’ll go out to visit it.
Next, Kait had to fill these massive beds with soil. Initially, she was going to buy a mix from The Home Depot, but for a project of this scale, it’s more cost-effective (and, frankly, you’ll get higher-quality soil) if you call up a soil company and order soil for delivery.
If you go this route, make sure to calculate how much you’ll need by multiplying the length, width and depth of your raised beds. This will give you the volume of your bed in cubic feet. Most soil companies sell by the cubic yard, which is 27 cubic feet, so you can do the math to see how many yards you’ll need.
Give the soil company a call, ask them for their “raised-bed mix” or “vegetable mix.” It’s usually a combination of forest products, perlite, peat moss and compost—everything you need for a healthy, productive kitchen garden.
Finally, the moment of truth! This is where I stepped in to assist Kait in her planting plan, starting with deciding what to grow. This depended on two major factors: the season, and Kait and her family’s taste in produce. You can’t grow veggies that aren’t in season, and you shouldn’t grow anything you don’t like to eat. Sounds simple, but many first-time gardeners make one of these two mistakes!
First, herbs. Every kitchen garden needs a section for favorite herbs, so we partitioned one-third of one bed for 12 of Kait’s favorite herbs. (Read my how-to article on starting an outdoor herb garden.) Next, we picked some of her favorite summer crops: tomatoes, peppers, everbearing strawberries, melons and zucchini.
Before we hit the nursery, we quickly plotted out her beds on graph paper and mapped out where the plants should go. This helps quite a bit in preventing “nursery overbuying disease,” where your eyes are bigger than your raised beds and you buy far more than you need!
We planted the 12 herbs closest to the kitchen, as Kait will be coming out and clipping fresh herbs to incorporate into her dishes often. Next, tomatoes and peppers went in to make up the bed’s center segment. We finished that bed out with a patch of 12 strawberry plants. Strawberries send out “runners” that shoot out and develop roots themselves. Given enough time, Kait’s strawberry patch will be overflowing with delicious, juicy berries.
The second bed was filled with zucchini, squash and melons. All of these are large, sprawling plants that will completely overflow her bed, which will look amazing when they are fully grown in. If Kait wants, she can attach a trellis to make use of vertical space or she can just let them sprawl naturally for an unkempt but beautiful look.
Your own kitchen garden will likely look quite different, but if you follow these rules of thumb you’ll have an abundance of fresh, delicious, and—most importantly—nutritious food to feed your family all year long here in San Diego.
Watch the transformation in this in-process gallery of Kait’s garden. Pictures by Kait Schulhof.