Our first-year kitchen garden

Credit: Carol Pope

We brought in the big guns for one afternoon to tier the very rocky slope by the main entrance to our house.

With the rough landscape here, the garden will be a project lasting many years, perhaps seeing me into my grave, so we had to put a finger on a starting place. We all agreed: our first priority was a vegetable patch, as it’s always been our custom to have some edibles within easy reach of the kitchen. Our chosen spot was smack on top of a small mountain of rock with random pockets of soil, so necessity dictated we build raised beds. As we were aiming for a year-round harvest, they would also have the advantage of warming earlier in the springtime than an in-ground plot. Anxious to get things moving, we brought in the big guns for one afternoon, with John, our local excavator, doing an expert job of working around the rock and terracing the slope.

Now it’s time to start building the raised beds! Now it’s time to start building the raised beds!”

By the end of one (long) day, my husband, Cliff, and son, Chris, had framed 14 beds with cedar. (All the wood used was untreated—this is absolutely vital for any gardens where edibles are grown, as toxins from treated wood leach into the soil and can poison food crops. Personally, I avoid treated wood wherever possible, considering it dangerous for kids, pets, our environment and anyone who touches it.) To add character to the beds, plus use up some of the endless chunks of rock that we can’t help but unearth every time we sink a spade into the ground, we also used boulders to border the beds. In some gardens, this might not be a good idea, as the pockets between the stones provide ideal retreats for slugs and other garden invaders. In our garden, however, the stone walls house lizards and snakes, slug-devouring allies that I am keen to welcome!

Stones and untreated cedar boards are used to create raised beds.Stones and untreated cedar boards are used to create raised beds.

Once the beds were solidly in place, we arranged for delivery of soil, choosing a plain-Jane variety without amendments, as it was the closest available and we wanted to minimize the environmental implications of trucking it in. We will build up this soil over time, adding in compost, leaves and other natural soil builders. Despite a late start in getting this garden going—not being able to plant until mid-June— we enjoyed an instant abundance thanks to choosing some fast-growing starts. We are lucky to have a greenhouse where we had planted seeds in April and May, so once we had loaded the soil into the beds, we popped in kale, lettuce, Swiss chard, cilantro, beets, beans, zucchini, spinach, parsley and Oriental greens. Edible nasturtiums were planted where they would spill over the sides onto pathways, and sage, rosemary and other herbs were interspersed for their insect-repelling properties and to add interest, particularly when the beds were between plantings. Within days we were adding leaves to our dinner.

Greenhouse-grown seedlings are planted into the beds.Greenhouse-grown seedlings are planted into the beds.

A couple weeks later, we were tossing up big salads. It’s only since growing our own edible greens that I’ve come to realize how aromatic a salad can be. Throw cilantro, parsley, arugula, mustard greens, basil and freshly snipped onion into a bowl and the air will fill with a bouquet of delicious fragrances. Supermarket salad will never seem like real salad again. Things got even better in July through September, with fresh tomatoes, more basil, peppers and cucumber filling our greenhouse. Actually, I overdid that, creating such a jungle that I couldn’t walk through it without my sandals squishing green tomatoes on heavily fruited vines, forced to sprawl across the cement floor, knocking over plants as I manoeuvred through trailers tacked and tied up to the greenhouse shelving and ceiling, and twisted my way through pepper plants and cucumber vines. Note to self: next summer, grow less in the greenhouse!

Herbs for tea are planted in the rockery.Herbs for tea are planted in the rockery.

Adding it up over dinner one night, we calculated that even with a late start and soil that needs building, we have plucked at least $1,200 worth of food so far from this first-year effort, covering the cost of the soil and lumber. And we are still eating from our garden: the beets, carrots, Swiss chard, kale, onions, parsley, lettuce, leeks, cilantro and herbs keep on coming. Through the fall, each time we’ve pulled a lettuce, we planted another, while Swiss chard, herbs and kale are simply snipped a little and left to carry on. And while they aren’t harvestable yet, we have the promise of purple sprouting broccoli, garlic, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, strawberries, blueberries—all ready to burst forth with food this coming year.

Quick-growing ‘Red Russian’ kale and ‘Fordhook Giant’ Swiss chard.Quick-growing ‘Red Russian’ kale and ‘Fordhook Giant’ Swiss chard fill up the beds in a hurry, providing edible greens from spring through winter. Next year, I will plant the more ornamental but equally edible ‘Bright Lights’ or ‘Canary Yellow’ Swiss chard, and ‘Black Tuscan’ kale.

This next growing season will see us starting earlier, and once the plants are in, I’ll put my mind to weeding the pathways, raking and pulling out rocks to smooth them before spreading a layer of rock dust or maybe the sawdust that we’ve been saving in the workshop.

Kale helps to shade lettuce Kale helps to shade lettuce from the sun and keep it from bolting. Clumps of chives and green onions, leeks and garlic planted throughout the garden help to discourage pests. When the lettuce is pulled, it is replaced by another seedling. Kale and Swiss chard are cut-and-come-again vegetables. Kale stems are tough and not that palatable, but we don’t waste them: they are saved for the soup pot.

Still, my priority will be to be keep picking and planting, urging on a steady stream of green from garden to kitchen.

Next year’s project Next year’s project will be to smooth out all the access paths between the raised beds and cover them with rock dust or sawdust. Potted edible flowers will provide extra eye appeal, and more container gardens will fill the courtyard area below.
Greens and flowers A variety of lettuces and edible flowers are beautiful in the garden and on the table.