The first things visitors notice in the kitchen garden at the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens & School of Horticulture in Niagara Falls, Ont., are the lush colors and wonderful assortments of plants. The fact that almost everything in the beds is edible adds a delicious dimension to this garden where vegetables, herbs and edible flowers are grown together with no distinction between what's useful and what's beautiful. Every year, the garden -- a large plot made up of four rectangular beds, each seven by 15 metres, intersected by generous pathways -- is designed and planted by a student as part of his or her practical experience. And through the growing season, flavourful produce from the garden enhances the meals of students living in residence.
When student Maxine Crawford of Simpson, Sask., planted the garden one spring, her goal was to make it visually appealing as well as productive and in this, says her faculty instructor Liz Klose, she succeeded admirably. Crawford points out that you don't have to sacrifice flowers to grow vegetables. "Annuals such as nasturtiums, marigolds and nicotianas serve as repellents or attractants to keep bugs away from vegetables," she says, "and look beautiful, giving that cottage-garden feeling of controlled chaos -- plants almost on top of each other but growing together quite compatibly." As well, nasturtiums and many types of marigolds are edible.
Klose and Crawford share tips from growing their gardening experiences to show you how to produce a vegetable bed that yields a harvest rich in garden-fresh produce and beauty.
Start with raised beds
• Beds raised at least 15 cm higher than paths are easier to plant, weed, irrigate and harvest.
• Soil in raised beds dries and warms up faster in the spring, so you can get plants off to an earlier start.
• The soil doesn't get compacted.
• Raised beds are great for small gardens since they're planted intensively in blocks, thereby eliminating wasted space between rows.
• Intensive planting means there's less opportunity for weeds to get a foothold.
• Raised beds have improved drainage, an important consideration in a poorly drained yard.
• A raised bed can be any length, but the width should be about 2 m for easy access from both sides.
• Construct the beds in a sunny part of the garden; mark dimensions with stakes and twine. Frame the beds with wood (cedar is the most durable) or use one of the new raised-bed kits made of recycled plastic. (Framed beds are more space-efficient thanmounded beds in which soil tapers gradually.)
• Use a digging fork or spade to turn over and break up soil within the frame; remove topsoil from the paths and use it to raise the bed. If beds are very large, get additional soil from a garden centre or landscape supplier; to increase soil fertility, add compost or well-rotted manure. Make sure everything is well mixed.
• Make paths 60 cm wide if you'll be using a wheelbarrow; for a traditional look, pave them with old bricks or concrete pavers, or cover with an 8 to 10 cm layer of gravel, straw or wood chips to keep shoes from getting muddy on wet days.
• Raised beds dry out quickly. Check often during dry spells; water if necessary.
• Cultivate beds yearly, adding more humus (compost or manure) to replenish nutrients and help retain moisture, but keep paths permanently uncultivated.
Page 1 of 3 -- For more tips on preparing for planting, see page 2
Plan the planting
In addition to fertile raised beds, an attractive and productive kitchen garden depends on three other key ingredients: block planting, succession planting and crop rotation.
Block planting: To plant seed in blocks, follow package directions with regard to spacing between individual plants, not rows. For example, plant bush bean seeds 5 cm apart in a 60 by 60 cm block. For smaller seeds, such as carrots, scatter into a similarly sized block and, after germination, thin out selectively, giving each plant about 2.5 cm of space all around for root development, says Crawford, "When the plants get going, the look is more pleasing and productivity higher."
Plant tall crops, such as corn, where they won't shade short plants, such as beets. Use shady spots for crops such as lettuce that prefer cooler conditions.
Block planting decreases, but does not eliminate, weeds. Crawford's advice is to pull weeds by hand (when they're young, before they've gone to seed) rather than hoe, which can disperse seeds or leave the root systems intact to regrow. "Hand-pulling saves a lot of energy in the end," she says.
Succession planting: Try to stagger plantings of the same vegetable about a week apart to space the harvest out. "This is most effective," says Klose, "with plants grown from seeds that are quick to reach maturity; for instance, crops such as beans, beets, radishes, salad greens or spinach. Succession planting can also fill gaps created after cool season crops such as spinach, radishes or peas are harvested.
Crop rotation: When Crawford planned the kitchen garden, she began by studying layouts from previous years to ensure proper rotation of crops. "Crop rotation helps prevent depletion of soil nutrients and minimizes disease and insect problems, which can build up if the same plants grow in the same space year after year," explains her instructor. "One way of doing this is to group crops by plant family. Plants in the same family tend to use up similar nutrients and are vulnerable to the same pests and insects."
For example, follow peppers, tomatoes or potatoes -- all members of the nightshade family -- with a crop from the legume family, any type of pea or bean.
Page 2 of 3 -- Learn how to design your garden on page 3
Design for eye appeal
Add an esthetic touch by combining fruits and vegetables with edible herbs and flowers. Consider the following tips from Klose and Crawford.
• Take advantage of colour: team plants with contrasting colours, such as purple ruffled basil and bright gold marigolds or yellow pot marigold (calendula); or combine two plants of the same colour, such as onions with purple foliage and climbing hyacinth beans, with their purple flowers and pods. Place carrots, with their finely textured leaves, near a bold blue-green leafed cabbage.
• Use curly parsley or spicy globe basil for an attractive low border "hedge" around your bed.
• To keep roving plants such as squash or cucumbers in line, grow them on bamboo or twig trellises.
• Place straw mulch under heat-loving crops such as melons and tomatoes; this holds in warmth, smothers weeds and keeps dropped fruit clean; to keep cantaloupes and similar fruits off the ground, set them on top of overturned medium-size transplanter pots.
For fresh salads bursting with flavour, try mesclun, a gourmet salad mix that includes greens such as chicory, cress and chervil and several varieties of colourful lettuce. "Mesclun mixes are expensive in the grocery store but very easy to grow and they give salads a wonderful taste and texture," says Klose.
Plant mesclun in 60 cm square blocks or even in containers. Harvest the greens when they're young (simply snip off what you need for the day's salad) and they'll regrow at least until the weather gets hot. Plant a second crop in late summer for fall salads.
Page 3 of 3