4 Questions to Ask When Planning Your Kitchen Garden

Shopping for seeds in January is a lot like stopping into the grocery store when you've skipped lunch. You end up with a lot of shit.

I've never made a formal plan for my vegetable garden. And, in my sun-starved state, I wind up ordering a kind of insane number of various seeds. And it doesn't stop there. At the garden center, I get kind of an "Oooh, sparkles!" thing and The result has been vegetable beds with one or two of lots of different things, yielding enough for a few salads, but not much beyond that. 

I also find that I tend to garden aspirationally. That is, I plant thing that I never cook with, in hopes that I will be "forced" into using it in the kitchen. (This never works...I'm looking at you daikon.)

So, in the spirit of wasting less and feeling more self-sufficient, I'm taking time to set out a real plan for my vegetable beds this year. I'm looking carefully at what I'll be planting, using these questions to help keep the list tidy and practical:

What produce do I buy most often?

I kind of surprised myself with this answer. My knee-jerk reaction was tomatoes, but actually I don't buy fresh tomatoes that often, probably because most of the year they're just not that good). What I do use in everything I cook is onions and garlic. I'd use shallots more regularly too, if they weren't so expensive. 

The other vegetable I probably buy the most of is carrots, for using in snacking and cooking. I've never successfully grown carrots before, so I'm excited to try this again. Broccoli comes in third, and it's a fun one to grow so I'm adding it to the mix.

What do I often waste?

When I think about the produce that goes bad in my fridge, it's generally green. Baby lettuces, which seem to start getting slimy the second they walk in the door, and herbs. I rarely use the full containers in preparing whatever I'm making, and despite my best intentions, the few handfuls of leftover arugula die a slow death in the vegetable crisper. 

Herbs often meet the same fate. Those little blister packs of herbs are so badly proportioned! When in your life have you needed the same amount of thyme as parsley? NEVER. And they're so expensive at the grocery store that, if I could grow nothing else, I think herbs would make the most sense. You can plant a wide variety in a small space, and it's very easy to preserve the excess at the end of the season.

So growing baby lettuces and herbs is also great if, like me, you tend to use a small amount at a time. You can cut what you need, and leave the rest to continue growing.

Both items are also wastefully packaged, so growing both of these makes sense from that standpoint, too. 

What will keep me harvesting all season?

On the mountain the growing season is fairly short and cool. For longevity into the colder months, I'll plant lacinato kale, also known as Tuscan kale or dinosaur kale. I prefer the taste and texture to the curly stuff, and it can be hard to find and pricey in the store.

Another long-lasting vegetable is winter squash, like butternut or acorn. I've heard gardeners that have kept a butternut squash for up to a year in the right pantry conditions. (Kind of weird, but let's go with it!) The squash tend to arrive at the same time as soup weather, so that's a really good thing.

What's too good not to grow?

This one was the easiest for me -- hands down, it's strawberries and snap peas. The strawberries you grow at home will always be exactly six million times better than those available commercially. That's because of the degree of toughness that's required of strawberries trucked all over the place. Home garden varieties are more delicate, but have better flavor. 

And sugar snap peas are one of my favorite things to eat in spring and early summer. And it's not just the pods and peas that are edible. Pea shoots are delicious in a stir fry, and pea tendrils can be used to subtly flavor dishes like risotto.

And tomatoes, because they're good, they like the heat, and it feels completely wrong not to grow them. And chili peppers for Matt.

I have six raised beds, so I'll be dividing these 12 plants between the beds, keeping in my mind that not all vegetables like to be neighbors.

Here's what I'm thinking for my layout, based on plants that help enhance each other while growing:

Bed 1: Tomatoes/Peppers

Bed 2: Peas/Carrots

Bed 3: Garlic/Kale

Bed 4: Squash/Broccoli

Bed 5: Strawberries/Salad greens

Bed 6: Onion/Herbs

Now it's time to order! We'll see if some randos don't sneak into my shopping cart...