The Kitchen Garden: 5 Most Important Factors

May 30, 2023

I have started many new kitchen gardens over the years – both for myself and for my clients. And a common thing I hear from most folks is that it feels overwhelming to start from scratch! Where is the best place to put the kitchen garden? Should I use a raised bed or plant in the ground? How do I know what the plants need? 

All of these questions are really important questions to ask when starting a new garden. And I can promise you – more questions will come up throughout your lifetime of gardening. However, to start, there are five main things that will determine the success in the kitchen garden. Let’s review them together:

1. Sun

This may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many people want to put the kitchen garden in a shady spot in their yard. As a general rule, kitchen gardens need about 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. However, this isn’t as straight forward as it may sound.

Sun The Kitchen Garden

The first thing I recommend folks do is to watch and take note of the way the sun moves throughout the day. You may notice that even if you have a south-facing yard, there may be certain times of the day when the sun is blocked by other elements, such as a tree or a neighboring house. Take note of how long this shadow lasts so you can subtract that time from the overall sun exposure.

Also, it is best to consider the season you are in as you are noting your observations. For example, in the winter, the days are much shorter than at the height of summer. What may be 3 hours of sunlight in December could be 7 in June! Additionally, sun exposure may be most direct in the south side of your yard in spring. However, as we get closer to summer solstice, the sun will shift north, providing even more direct sunlight to previously dark parts of your yard.

If you can observe how the sun moves throughout your space for an entire year – you should have enough information to determine where the best spot for the kitchen garden may be. However, an entire year of observation is not mandatory! There is a great online tool called SunCalc that will allow you to map the movement of the sun and calculate the exposure for your specific address. You can try it out here.

2. Garden Bed

Choosing a garden bed can be a very personal thing! We all have our own style and we want to see that reflected in the kitchen garden. The first decision you will need to make is whether you want to use a raised garden bed, or to plant directly in the ground.

Personally, I have both in my garden. But I have a strong preference for raised garden beds for a couple of reasons. First reason being – the soil quality. If you live in a developed area, the soil in your yard is likely lacking in quality. Often when major construction takes place to build a house, the top soil is removed and remaining subsoil is compacted down. What is left behind is low quality soil with little organic matter and difficulties draining.

I have spent years amending my in-ground garden bed with compost and cover crops to help improve soil health – and it is working! But in comparison, my raised garden beds were filled with quality soil from the get go, making starting the garden so much easier.

Second reason I prefer raised garden beds is because it is easier to manage pests. From slugs, to bunnies to raccoons to dogs – I have many creatures that would love to get access to my garden to various reasons! And while I do have a two foot fence around my in-ground garden bed, they still manage to slip through from time to time. I have had no problem with keeping creatures out of my raised garden beds, which gives me significant ease of mind.

Best Raised Garden Bed

If you decide you want a raised garden bed, the next decision will be what kind! As I mentioned before, this can be a very personal choice – and it should reflect what you love, since you will hopefully be spending a lot of time in the kitchen garden! Check out my blog post to help you figure out what is the right raised garden bed for you.

3. Soil

Which brings us to one of the most important main ingredients – soil! You know gardens need it. And you likely know that soil quality is important. But do you actually know what soil is comprised of? Soil is a mixture of minerals (such a weather rock fragments), organic matter (either live or decomposing), water and air. Healthy soil is home to a significant amount of microorganisms and insects of all kinds – and will be home to your thriving plants.

As mentioned above, we are often starting from square one if we are working with the in-ground soil around our homes. Soil texture, structure and compaction would all need to be assessed to determine what would need to be done in order to get the soil ready for the kitchen garden. A soil test would be the first step to make that determination.

spring garden prep

With a raised garden bed, you have the advantage of purchasing soil that already fits the ideal profile for soil texture and structure. A good healthy garden soil will be about 70% quality top soil with 30% rich organic compost mixed in. If your beds are large enough, you can look for a bulk supplier to see if they will deliver soil directly to you. Make sure to check their soil composition before deciding which one you want to use in the kitchen garden beds.

4. Water

The success of any garden is dependent on its water supply. Droughts have decimated crops for centuries. Make sure you don’t unintentionally doom your garden for a drought by placing it far from your water source.

When choosing a location for the kitchen garden, I always make sure that watering is as easy as possible. If I have to haul a 100 foot hose through my house to reach a garden bed (I’ve actually done this), then it is very likely that I will miss a crucial watering or two. The harder we make it to do something, the less likely we are to do it.

In addition to proximity, there are different irrigation options available to make watering a more easy and more manageable task. Automatic irrigation systems such as soaker hoses or drip irrigation with automatic timers can make watering a breeze. These can be costly, but can also significantly reduce the amount of water you use over time.

There are other irrigation strategies that have stood the test of time, such as ollas, which are unglazed clay vessels that are buried deep in the kitchen garden bed with the neck sticking out above the soil line. These vessels are filled with water, and as the surrounding soil dries up, it pulls out just the right amount of water it needs.

Make sure to consider your irrigation options when designing the kitchen garden space. There is nothing wrong with watering by hand until you figure out what works best for you. The only way you will go wrong, is if you don’t water at all!

5. Plants

Last, but certainly not least – we need to fill the kitchen garden bed with plants! Which plants you choose will largely depend on the season you are in and space available. But most importantly – what do you like? Whatever your reason is for starting your own kitchen garden – whether it is to grow you own food, to have access to fresh herbs, or to cut fresh bouquets of flowers – make sure you plant it!

The Kitchen Garden Seedlings

You may see tons of folks starting their own plants indoors from seeds with fancy set ups. And if that excites you, I encourage you to follow that excitement! But if it feels overwhelming, then fill those garden beds with seedling starts from your local nursery or plant sale.

Seedling starts are often a good 4-6 weeks ahead in growth, which gives you a higher chance of success in the kitchen garden. However, if there is one seed I would encourage you to try – it would be radishes! Radish seeds germinate within a week and are ready to harvest within a month! They are so incredibly easy and satisfying to watch grow, to harvest and to eat!

Success (and Failure) in the Kitchen Garden

Like anything in life, there will be successes and there will be failures. I have made so many mistakes in the kitchen garden over the years. And while those mistakes can feel devastating in the moment, I learn incredibly valuable lessons that lead to my inevitable success.

I have found these five factors to be the most important when starting new kitchen gardens – or any garden for that matter. Plants want to live just as much as we want them to live! So don’t be afraid to try. Mistakes will happen, but those mistakes will make you a true gardener with wisdom to share with others as they begin their journey!

Happy gardening, dear friend,

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