5 Lessons Learned from a New Kitchen Garden
It’s midway through July in 2019, and my new kitchen garden is growing beautifully. We’ve been enjoying wholesome, garden-fresh meals, and also indulging in the crunch of fresh vegetables straight off the vine. But it’s not all abundant harvests and beautiful flowers. Even when you’re an experienced gardener, starting a new garden can teach you new lessons. Here are 5 lessons I learned from my new kitchen garden.
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One of my big projects in 2019 was creating a new kitchen garden. This garden features 3 large hugelkultur beds designed to look like regular raised beds that surround a central gathering area with a picnic table. Eventually, this central gathering area will function as an outdoor kitchen with a rocket oven and amenities, making it easy for my family to spend our days outdoors.
The garden has been shaping up nicely, but it’s still a work in progress. I purposely avoided bringing in new soil or soil amendments, so my soil is still poor in organic material. Before we moved here, it was an old lawn on degraded pastureland. The soil turns white and hard when baked by the sun and is very sticky and a dull brown when wet.
Over time that will change dramatically, of course. But in the meantime, I’ve been testing the limits of my veggies.
Some plants have thrived, and others have struggled. It is not the 100% success I had hoped for, but working with nature means taking the long view.
I know each year, this garden will become more and more lush. Despite some plants falling behind, the garden is still an amazing place to be.
As I sit here on the picnic table writing this post I’m surround by my garden in every direction. At this moment, there’s a humming bird chittering from the archway supporting runner beans, bumble bees are visiting the nasturtium flowers, birds are singing, and a light breeze is blowing—I’m surrounded by abundance of life.
Not a bad place to sit and write a blog post!
But part of cultivating abundance is observing and learning. Here are 5 lessons I have learned from my new kitchen garden.
Before you scroll down make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet all about planning your own garden from the 5 Essential Steps to Plan Your New Garden blog post.
1. Lessons Learned from a New Kitchen Garden – You Can’t Control the Weather
My poor snap peas just don’t know what to do. First, since it took longer to build my new kitchen garden then I expected, (due to a late-winter snow storm, I might add…) I got the peas planted late. Then in May, we hit 90° F (32.2° C), and our spring was very dry.
But now it’s mid-July and we have gotten frequent rainfall with temperatures staying in the upper 60s and low 70s F (18.6 – 23 C).
Normally, we don’t hit 90° F until late July or August, and May should be rainy while July should be bone dry. This year is not a normal year!
The snap peas were sapped of energy by the early heat, but now they’re actually putting on new growth from their base. But I suspect the heat will come back before the peas can do much.
In the end, I’m just saving seeds from the peas that did do well, and hopefully those seeds will grow stronger plants that can handle the crazy weather that is so common these days.
You can’t control the weather, but you can design your garden to be resilient to the extremes that we are facing in our warming world. Here are 3 blog posts with more information on how to build a resilient garden.
2. Lessons Learned from a New Kitchen Garden – Don’t Forget How Big Plants Can Get
I’ve been gardening my whole life, but I have a bad habit of planting too many plants in too small of an area. Now there is something to be said about dense plantings—they shade the soil, which helps control weeds and reduce evaporation.
But they can also compete with your other plants. You need to find a balance, and I almost always end up overplanting.
This year in my new kitchen garden, I was excited about growing a bunch of kale. The kale I grew last year survived our unusually harsh (for this area) winter, and they’re still providing new leaves for harvesting despite going to seed.
But I forgot how big kale can get.
The result is a section of my garden has been taken over by kale. There are still a few other plants mixed in, and the climbing beans don’t mind, but the chard, onions and lettuce are not happy with their leafy overlords.
Next year I’m going to have to spread the kale out a bit more to make sure they play nice with my other plants. But at least I’m getting a fantastic kale harvest for my berry smoothies!
The way I grow my vegetables is often called a polyculture—which basically means growing multiple types of plants together instead of just one plant per row (a monoculture). This approach can be great for getting abundant harvests and reducing pest issues, but it can be more challenging to set up than traditional monoculture beds.
A great resource for learning more about growing polycultures and just about anything else you want to learn about gardening with nature is the book Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, by Toby Hemenway.
3. Lesson Learned from a New Kitchen Garden – Save Your Seeds
Every garden is going to be different—from light levels to soil quality to water availability to your local climate. But seeds are often sold in a one-size-fits-all way, and often from nurseries that pamper their plants with fertilizer and an abundance of water.
Not really a good fit for someone who wants to grow food in a way that can heal our living world.
But you can save your own seeds from the plants that do best in your garden. My snap peas have struggled this year, but one patch did much better than the rest.
Despite these peas representing my best harvest, I have avoided harvesting them. I’m letting them dry out on the vine.
This way, I’ll get an abundance of peas that I can plant next year that should be more productive than if I bought seeds from the store.
My orach has also not done as well as I expected. Last year in my hugelkultur hedgerows, the orach thrived and almost took over. But in my new kitchen garden they have struggled.
Some of this is because I planted them late and I was slow to mulch my garden, which meant the early heat in May was very hard on the plants. But the garden soils are also poor.
But 3 orach plants have done decently well—and again, like with the snap peas, I have avoided harvesting them so they can put their energy into seed production. I plan to save all the seeds from these 3 plants so that hopefully, next year, I will get a much better orach harvest.
I will also be saving seeds from my climbing beans and my scarlet runner beans. The climbing beans are actually the 3rd generation of bean seeds I have saved, and they gave me 100% germination in the new kitchen garden and are doing great.
Learning about saving seeds can be a challenge. Each plant is different and there can be a lot to learn and remember. Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth is a fantastic book that can help you save seeds for your garden.
4. It is Easy to Run Out of Time
Between having a new baby plus a 2-year-old, our day jobs, our property to manage, in addition to this blog, my wife and I have very busy lives. Sometimes you just can’t get everything done, and chores get left undone.
And there are always surprises like a pesky deer breaking through my deer fence. I really don’t like that deer…
The result was that, not only was I was late building my new kitchen garden, but I have not had much time to manage my garden. Because of this, the tomatoes have just gone crazy and are overwhelming their cages. I’m watching one tomato plant blowing in the wind right now, threatening to fall over.
But It looks like at least we'll be getting a big tomato harvest! If they don’t fall over...
This is partially why I chose to work with nature. Despite the lack of management, my new kitchen garden is abundant and filled with life. I could have gotten more of a harvest with more careful management, but I simply did not have time for that.
By working with nature, I was able to walk away from the garden with the knowledge that it could take care of itself—just like a wild, natural forest.
But next year, I might build bigger tomato cages…
Interested in learning more about how you can work with nature to make the living world around you come alive? Check out this blog post to get an intro into how to rewild your property.
5. Sometimes Slowing Down is Actually Faster
For weeks I was struggling with an area of persistent grass around my new kitchen garden. The whole area where I built the garden used to be a lawn, so really, a couple patches of grass is not bad.
But I wanted to remove all the grass. So each day, I kept pulling the grass hoping that it would give up. All this daily struggle, and the grass never stopped coming up.
So eventually I took a different tact and let the grass grow. Now there is a sparse but established grass patch in one area around my garden. So why did I let it grow?
Well, I had placed burlap bags down over all the grass and mulched it with woodchips, which, for the most part, eliminated the grass. This technique is called sheet-mulching. But for whatever reason, the grass came up through the burlap and the woodchips in a couple areas.
But by letting it grow I now know where all the grass is. In the next day or so I’m going to pull the mulch back and pull up the burlap bags. Then I’m going to add cardboard over the grass and then add the burlap bags back on top and then cover it all with woodchips.
By taking a break and letting the grass go, I was able to slow down, see where the trouble really is, and make a plan to take care of it once and for all in a single day.
I could have kept fighting the grass, but I probably would have been at it every day, all summer long and even into the fall.
Sometimes it’s best to slow down, observe, and plan instead of rushing in and taking action.
Next Steps for the New Kitchen Garden
A garden that is in tune with nature will take time to reach its full potential. I have learned that my soils need to be improved. I could buy fertilizer, but that would not be working with nature.
Instead, sometime in November I’ll be putting on leaf mold made out of fall leaves that I collected last fall and have been storing ever since. On top of the leaf mold, I will be chop-and-dropping all of the dead plant matter from this year’s bounty.
Combined with the woodchips I already have on my garden beds and all of the plant roots from this year’s garden that will break down underground, this will start a process that will build rich soil over time.
I will also continue to save seeds from the plants that do the best in my garden, which should result in improved harvests each year.
This fall and next spring, I’ll be adding more perennial vegetables and wild native vegetables, which will increase the productivity of my garden while reducing the amount of work I need to do moving forward.
And I will make sure to get my seeds planted a bit earlier next year!
Creating a new kitchen garden—or any garden—is always a journey. And when you work with nature, you can only go so fast.
I hope these lessons from my new kitchen garden have helped you. What lessons has your garden taught you? Please leave a comment before you go, sharing what you have learned by observing your garden.
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