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by Ellen Ecker Ogden

Whether it is a pot of basil on the windowsill, edible landscaping instead of a lawn or a fancy kitchen garden in the back yard, home gardeners are following a tradition as old as civilization itself. Ellen Ecker Ogden, author of THE COMPLETE KITCHEN GARDEN, shares her take on how to elevate an ordinary garden to extraordinary.

A kitchen garden may be just a fancy name for a vegetable garden located near a kitchen door and filled with tender greens, aromatic herbs and select fruit that are picked daily. Yet it can also be a way of life. A successful kitchen garden engages all the senses through a rich tapestry of colors, fragrances and, ultimately, flavors. When you cultivate a kitchen garden, you actively engage with your source of food and integrate with your natural surroundings in a way that far surpasses the experience of buying food at the market.

Humans have sown seeds and watched food grow since the first hunter-gatherers walked the earth. But the earliest documented instances of orderly kitchen gardens date back to around 1500 BCE, when people in ancient Persia planted what came to be called “paradise gardens.” Located within a walled enclosure at the center of a home, it formed an outdoor room for sharing ideas, poetry or music.

During the medieval era and the fall of the Roman Empire, many things that were considered sensual and pleasurable—including beautiful gardens—were banned. Kitchen gardens became largely the domain of monks and nuns, grown behind high walls and colonnades of tall trees.


Having a kitchen garden may seem like more work at first, but if you start with a good plan on paper and create a design that matches your yard, you’ll find that your garden will turn work into play. Start by establishing ample paths, raised beds that blend with the landscape and a bench to sit and enjoy. Sometimes it’s the small things that make the diff erence about how you feel about your garden. Knowing your own style will determine if your garden is neat and tidy or wild and overflowing. Keep in mind that it is best to start small and then expand, so perhaps strategizing with a five-year plan will help reach your goals. When space is a factor, consider a patio garden with containers overflowing with aromatic herbs, colorful edible flowers and magnificent fronds of kale.


As any good cook will tell you, the key to success is following a recipe exactly before letting your imagination go wild. For gardeners, this means starting with a plan on paper before cracking open the seed catalogs. With a piece of graph paper and a pencil, draw a bird’s-eye view of your imagined garden, designing the paths and the beds to look like a paisley fabric or floral wallpaper rather than a ridge of corduroy. Add elements such as a bench and an arbor that will encourage lingering. Make sensible choices about plant materials that match the size of your garden.


Knowing your own style will determine
if your garden is neat and tidy or wild
and overflowing.


What we choose to grow and how we play with the design elements can make the difference between an ordinary garden and one that is extraordinary. To help you start the new garden season with a fresh vision, here are my six steps to elevate your kitchen garden from ordinary to extraordinary:


While garden design may look great on paper, very few of us have a perfectly flat, full-sun, well-drained yard. Use stakes and a ball of twine to set up your imaginary garden on its actual future site, then walk through the space to picture how all the elements work together. If your land slopes, consider a retaining wall and backfill to create level ground and prevent water and soil runoff.


There are two main choices for building garden beds: raised beds or ground-level beds. What you should choose largely depends on your soil and the landscape. Garden beds should be no wider than four feet, or the distance you can reach across with your arm. If you create wider beds, provide stepping-stones or boards to allow safe foot traffic and avoid soil compaction.


Paths are the bones of the garden; they hold its design together and establish its character. It is important to set up the paths between the beds in a practical pattern that allows easy movement for the gardener and provides enough room to turn a wheelbarrow. Plan paths with easy access to the compost pile and toolshed; these will be essential to your daily routine.


A garden wall around the perimeter of the kitchen garden that includes an ornamental gate or arbor entrance creates a transition between the garden and the lawn. It also frames the garden like a beautiful painting. Consider a low stonewall, a boxwood hedge or a rustic split-rail fence. Think about what kind of fence serves as a barrier to rabbits and other small animals, while also fitting your garden’s style.


When selecting seeds to grow, consider my 80/20 rule: 80% of what you grow includes your familiar favorites that may include beans, peas, and lettuce. Then find 20% new and different, from varieties that you can’t find anywhere else but your own garden.


Establish areas for relaxing under a shade tree or enjoying a meal outdoors. Include benches, ornamental trees and objects d’art that reflect your personal style and make you smile. Build a trellis, and plant trees around the perimeter of the garden to create boundaries to give you privacy, and to create your own Paradise Garden.

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Edible Dallas & Fort Worth is a quarterly local foods magazine that promotes the abundance of local foods in Dallas, Fort Worth and 34 North Texas counties. We celebrate the family farmers, wine makers, food artisans, chefs and other food-related businesses for their dedication to using the highest quality, fresh, seasonal foods and ingredients.

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