• Publishers' Note Spring 2011

    Publishers' Note Spring 2011

    Who doesn’t love the first signs of spring? As soon as we see the sap buckets being readied and hung on waiting maple trees, we know for sure that winter’s grip is beginning to ease. We also know that soon we’ll be making our yearly trek to the sugarhouse near us to witness the age-old rituals and to get a taste of that wonderful sweetness in all its variety, from fancy to dark amber. In this issue, you can learn about the subtle and not so subtle taste differences in maple syrup.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • The Art of Growing Food

    The Art of Growing Food

    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.

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  • Lambing Time

    Lambing Time

    It’s 5:20 a.m. and a pale glimmer of dawn shows in the sky above the Northfield Range. I can just make out the ghosts of the sheep’s breath in the open doorway of the shed, and their dark forms nestled in the deep straw. They hear me coming and rise, grunting, their girths almost impossibly huge this late in March. Two of my 23 pregnant ewes gave birth the day before and the new lambs—two sets of twins—are cuddled close to the warmth of their mother’s bodies.

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  • What Washington Just Did—Food Safety

    What Washington Just Did—Food Safety

    In May of 2009, then-governor Douglas signed legislation that created the Vermont Farm to Plate Program. Over the following 18 months, hundreds of Vermonters came together at Farm to Plate Regional Food Summits to share ideas and strategies to support new farm and food enterprises and to strengthen local and regional markets for Vermont’s agricultural products. On January 12 of this year, in a packed room at the Vermont State House, the fruit of this excellent effort was presented in a comprehensive, 10-year strategic plan for new investments, programs, and legislation to support the continued development of Vermont’s local food system.

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  • Plant, Weed, Blog

    Plant, Weed, Blog

    When Vermonters think of local food, we tend to think of farmers’ markets, where each purchase comes with a personal exchange. Or we imagine a tour through Vermont’s characteristic working landscape. Or we recall fresh flavors and home-cooked dishes shared with friends.

    Or maybe we think of computers.

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  • The Best Farm Products You Can’t Eat

    The Best Farm Products You Can’t Eat

    We usually think of “food” when we think of “farming,” but many agricultural crops are turned into products that humans can’t eat. Such products are manufactured throughout Vermont today using various crops and livestock, and are therefore, like food items, creating jobs for Vermonters, keeping farmland in active use, and leading our state toward greater self-sufficiency. What follows is a series of articles about nine inedible farm products.

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  • Spring Cartoon—Localvore Picnic

    Spring Cartoon—Localvore Picnic

    If you go out in the woods today, you're in for a big suprise...

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  • Farmers' Kitchen Nitty Gritty Grains

    Farmers' Kitchen Nitty Gritty Grains

    Corn in Vermont fields is not uncommon, but wheat? In the 1800s wheat was a common sight on the rocky hillsides of the state, but as the country expanded westward, other land appeared to be more hospitable and profitable for the large production of wheat needed for a growing population. During the past decade, however, wheat in Vermont has had a rebirth of sorts. A small cadre of farmers have, individually and independently, decided to again give it a try by attempting to grow small quantity, high quality wheat—and they’ve been finding success.

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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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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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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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