Welcome to Kitchen Garden School at Cornell Farm. Whether you are a first time kitchen gardener, have years of experience under your belt, or fall somewhere in between, you are welcome to join us and share in this year’s learning adventure. We all start somewhere, and we all have something to learn. Even if you think you have a brown thumb, we promise that with a little determination, anyone can learn to grow a successful kitchen garden.
Our lead kitchen gardener, Cynthia DuVal, will be guiding us through this month's video lesson and demonstration, as well as providing a list of activities and learning resources. We recommend purchasing the two reference books we will be using throughout the gardening season: The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide from Tilth Alliance and Plant, Grow, Harvest, Repeat by Meg McAndrews Cowden. Let's get started!
Kitchen Gardening Basics
January is the perfect time of year to plan for the kitchen garden of your dreams. No matter if you have access to a balcony where you can place a few pots, a small backyard plot with a couple of raised beds, or an entire acre of land, the basics of growing food for your table are the same. Cynthia's seven building blocks essential to being a successful kitchen gardener are:
- The will to succeed
- Time invested in planning
- Sufficient sunlight for the plants you want to grow
- Healthy, well-draining soil
- Proper watering
- Knowing which way the wind blows
- Awareness of upcoming weather conditions
These are all factors that will guide you on your kitchen gardening journey, but keep in mind that no one is gardening under the "ideal conditions" — and certainly not for every plant at once. That's why the first and most important building block is the will to succeed.
Knowing your site will help you make decisions about what to do to adapt to the "less than perfect." Soil can be amended, raised beds can be built, and unpredictable weather can be recovered from. Gardening is a learning journey filled with trial-and-error, and a bit of creativity, resourcefulness, and determination will go a long way.
Planning Your Kitchen Garden
For this lesson, we invite you to download our Kitchen Garden Planning Worksheet to help you as you take inventory of your garden areas, make to-do lists, and set goals for the year. Alternately, this would be a great time to start a garden journal if you don't already have one. It's nice to have a single place to write your thoughts and observations, record sowing dates and plant variety names, and generally keep a record of your kitchen garden from year-to-year.
In the video below, Cynthia walks us through her thought process as she approaches planning and goal setting in the Kitchen Garden display beds here at the Farm, which will be similar to your planning process.
When planning your Kitchen Garden, Cynthia recommends starting by asking yourself a few simple questions:
- Do you have any goals for growing a kitchen garden this year? If so, what are they? (For instance, you might be interested in seed saving, exploring organic practices, or growing a more diverse garden. If you don’t have any now, it’s totally fine to come back to this question later!)
- What kind of produce do you and your family enjoy eating?
- Is there a particular dish you serve — perhaps for the holidays — that you would like to grow veggies, fruits or herbs for? (This can be a fun way to set a goal and celebrate your garden successes.)
- What fruits and vegetables have you grown in the past that you would like to try growing again? Are there any you would like to grow for the first time?
- How much time do you have to spend in your garden?
- What is your budget?
Your answers to these questions, along with knowledge of your gardening space, will help to determine how big of a kitchen garden you should plan. Be realistic! There is nothing wrong with starting on a more modest scale. If you are looking to keep costs low, consider starting seeds rather than planting starts. Or keep it simple and start with a few containers.
From here, it's a good idea to do some research on a few of the fruits, veggies, and herbs you identified that you would like to grow in the year ahead. Try grouping these plants into “cool season” and “warm season” crops, as well as rough categories like “more sun” and “less sun." (Most kitchen garden plants prefer full sun, but there are a few options for gardeners with a bit more shade.) To find this information, you might start by looking through any seed packets you might already have, or flipping through the Maritime Pacific Northwest Gardening Guide. This will help you begin to plan out which plants will need to go where, and when.
If you have a garden or garden plot, go for a walk around in it, and pay attention to the building blocks of a kitchen garden: Soil, Sun, Water, and Wind. Based on your research, think about which plants might do best in which areas of your garden. Consider making a drawing of your kitchen garden with existing plants and structures, like raised beds or trellises, as well as anything you might like to add.
As you walk around your garden, make note of any tasks you might need to undertake in the year ahead, jot down any reflections on what worked well and didn’t work well in the previous year, and identify projects you could undertake to address any issues with Soil, Sun, Water, or Wind. Don't forget to think outside the box! For instance, if your family loves apples, even if you might not have room for a full-sized apple tree, you might be able to fit in an espaliered fruit tree or a columnar variety this year.
Armed with these notes, you have the beginnings of a plan for the kitchen garden of your dreams. From here, you can continue to refine your goals, research the plants you want to grow, and identify any areas for improvement in your garden.
Other Activities & Resources
Check out a few of the tasks you can undertake in the kitchen karden this year, along with "recommended reading" to help you plan for the year ahead, including a few sources from us and others that have been vetted by our kitchen garden team.
- Flip through the first few pages of The Maritime Pacific Northwest Gardening Guide from Tilth Alliance. (The section for January begins on page 14 in the second edition.)
- Check out our in-depth blog post on starting seeds to make sure you have all the supplies before February rolls around. (And don't forget to shop for seeds!)
- Read our full blog post on tending to your fruit trees in winter for advice on winter pruning and pest prevention.
- See tips on creating a garden journal from Gardening Know How.
- Get a head start on planting with Cornell University's guide to growing potatoes.
- We encourage you to do more of your own research, as well, but be sure to exercise caution. Reputable, region-appropriate resources may not always be among the first search engine results. A good place to start is with our local OSU Extension Service.
- Amend your garden beds with organic compost. Additionally, heavy feeders such as tomatoes can benefit from granular gypsum by E.B. Stone to ensure calcium-rich soil.
- If you need something else to do, it's always a good idea to clean your tools!
If you're itching to get your hands dirty, here's a short list of plants that can go into the ground right now.
- Potatoes can be sown as early as January.
- Grape vines can be planted in the winter.
- Berries, such as blueberries, raspberries, thornless blackberries, jostaberries, and currants can also be put in the ground this time of year.
- Fruit trees like apples can be planted most any time of year in our corner of the Pacific Northwest.
Connect With Us
If you have questions about edible gardening or would like help selecting plants, our knowledgeable team is always happy to assist you in the Kitchen Garden Greenhouse. Cynthia often gives informal tours of our display beds, so feel free to stop by for a quick walk-around! For help from afar, you can reach out to Cynthia and our Kitchen Garden team directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are also excited to share that, for those wanting more individualized assistance with their kitchen gardens, Cynthia is also available for personalized 90-minute Garden Coaching Sessions held in your very own garden.