The Art of Growing Food

John ElderGarden design
Ellen in her garden

Written By

Ellen Ecker Ogden

Written on

March 01 , 2011

Gardeners can always learn from other gardeners, and I’ll admit that some of my best ideas have come from visiting other gardens and drawing from the past. We all start with the same basic ingredients—seeds, soil, and plants—yet the art of growing food can be expressed by a kitchen garden that goes beyond the practical straight rows of a vegetable garden to include herbs, flowers, and vegetables planted with a creative eye to balance color and height and to create an ornamental edible landscape.

A kitchen garden may be just a fancy name for a vegetable garden located near a kitchen door, filled with tender greens, aromatic herbs, and select fruits that are harvested on a daily basis, yet it can also be a way of life. A successful kitchen garden engages all of your senses through a rich tapestry of colors, fragrance, and ultimately flavors that are combined in the kitchen. Good design of a kitchen garden starts on paper, before it is transferred outdoors to the actual site. If this is your first garden, dream a little about what you would like to see in your garden—but start small. The larger the garden, the harder it will be to maintain a place of serenity and beauty.

The four-square design works especially well for organic gardens, since it makes it simple to rotate crops with each successive season, while building the soil. Learning basic skills that dovetail with growing a garden—such as how to build a compost pile to keep waste out of landfills, how to encourage natural pollinators like honeybees, and how to cook with simple, whole foods harvested seasonally—may seem like small steps, but as gardeners, we naturally become responsible consumers and reclaim our health as a nation.

Here are six easy steps to keep in mind when creating a kitchen garden

1. Site: Pick a location with ample southern exposure and take time to study your backyard. Follow the direction of the sun and how it moves across the sky in summer and winter, and watch when a heavy wind blows to know if you need to establish wind blocks with a thick hedge or tall grasses. Notice where the rain collects after a storm to see if you might create better drainage.

2. Garden beds: Beds come in all shapes and sizes. Determine if you prefer a raised bed or one that is flush with the ground. Square and rectangular shapes are easier to plant than round ones. Garden beds should be no wider than your arm can reach—preferably around 3 feet—so you can avoid stepping into the center of the beds.

3. Garden paths: Paths are the bones of a kitchen garden, holding the design together and establishing its character. Set up the paths between the beds using a practical design that allows easy movement and enough room to turn the wheelbarrow. The main garden paths are ideally 3 to 4 feet wide, while auxiliary paths can be less, just enough for a stepping stone to get into the beds for weeding. Plan your paths for easy access to the tool shed and compost pile.

4. Boundaries: A garden wall around the perimeter of the kitchen garden creates a transition between the garden and the lawn. Consider a low stone wall, a boxwood hedge, or a rustic split rail fence. Consider the type of fence or border that fits your own garden style, and how essential it is for privacy or for serving as a barrier to rabbits and other small animals.

5. Plant materials: Create a plan that involves rotating crops each year to build the soil and to enhance the nutrients that plants receive. Each spring and fall, improve the soil with compost and other amendments. Select plant varieties that you can’t buy at the farmers’ market or from local farms, and that offer superior flavor to your meals.

6. Add personal touches: Creating archways for beans, peas, and birdhouse gourds to grow vertically transcends the typical garden patch to include visual elements that establish personal style. Find a place for an ornamental sculpture that makes you smile or a simple stone bench for relaxing.

Setting an example is one of the best ways we can effect positive change, and when we bring our families together around the table to share our love for good food grown in a beautiful kitchen garden we can call our own, we are cultivating a healthy choice that has effects beyond our own backyard. Remember to have fun in the garden and to enjoy the beauty and the magic that happens when you connect to the food you grow and to your edible landscape.

Ellen Ecker Ogden gardens in Manchester. Her new book, The Complete Kitchen Garden, available in bookstores, features themed kitchen garden designs with seasonal recipes. www.ellenogden.com

Photos and illustrations courtesy of The Complete Kitchen Garden.

classic four-square design

My own kitchen garden is based on the classic four-square design, adapted from the earliest documented form of an orderly kitchen garden that dates from ancient Persia around 1500 bc. This garden was called a Paradise garden and was typically located within a walled enclosure at the center of a home. Based on a four-square design, the garden formed an outdoor room for entertaining, contemplation, and listening to poetry or music. It sheltered a vibrant collection of fruits and flowering plants, and always included a water feature in the form of a central fountain that split the garden into four squares, symbolizing the four nourishing liquids found in Paradise—milk, honey, wine, and water—as well as the four cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west.

This four-square garden style was adopted by the Greeks and Romans, and then established in monasteries throughout Europe, grown behind high walls and colonnades of tall trees. They were largely the domain of the monks and nuns who cultivated both medicinal and culinary plants for the benefit of the community. Intricately patterned beds were laid out with espaliered fruit trees, climbing vines, and vegetables planted in geometric grids. These monastery gardens served as a retreat for meditation and prayer, as well as a primary source of nourishment.

When you plan your garden this spring, draw inspiration from classic garden designs of the past to add to your own style.

—Ellen Ecker Ogden

—Illustration by Ramsay Gourd

About the Author

Ellen Ecker Ogden

Ellen Ecker Ogden

Ellen Ecker Ogden gardens in Manchester. Her new book, The Complete Kitchen Garden, available in bookstores, features themed kitchen garden designs with seasonal recipes.

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