This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
Quick rewards are rare in the garden. Flowering perennials usually creep for several seasons before filling out, while small trees and shrubs can take up to 10 years to reach full size. But edibles? Now, that’s a group that delivers instant gratification. Sow a packet of lettuce seeds tomorrow, and you’ll have a nice little side salad within just weeks.
Having homegrown food steps from your back door is also convenient, which is why Helen Norman broke ground on her own kitchen garden seven years ago. The irony is that she lives on a farm—130 rolling acres in White Hall, Maryland—planted with field after field of certified organic vegetables. All that bounty, however, grows on land that Helen and her husband, Mark Elmore, lease to a professional farmer (her brother).
It has taken nearly 27 years for the couple to shape their 1850s stone farmhouse and its ramble of outbuildings and overgrown grounds into the postcard-perfect setting they call Star Bright Farm. Not surprisingly, growing their own food got nudged off the priority list in the early years, as the couple balanced work schedules, house renovations, and the raising of two sons. “We had this big farm, but I never knew where my brother planted anything,” Helen says. “I’d have to call him to ask, and then send the kids out in our go-kart to fetch a tomato or squash.”
How to Build a Kitchen Garden
Eventually, though, craving her own personal stash of fresh-picked produce, Helen began drafting plans for a kitchen garden. As a professional lifestyle photographer, she had shot enough publication-worthy homes and gardens to know what she likes. The resulting garden—with its symmetrical beds, pops of red, and eye-level trellis plantings—clearly has the stamp of someone with an eye for design. And it was productive, too. As Helen recalls, “We got so many vegetables that first year, I could just grab a basket and go pick dinner.”
That early success—and the years that followed—has yielded lessons any homeowner can learn from.
Design it right
From the outset, Helen was after more than just a good harvest from her kitchen garden; she wanted it to enhance her property, too. Her 50-by-50-foot layout of symmetrical beds—in an enclosed garden room surrounded by fencing, with arbors over the entry gates—lends what she describes as “coziness” to the sprawling landscape.
Taking cues from the English countryside’s many free-blooming borders, tidy clipped hedges, and formal kitchen gardens, which famously mix edibles with flowers, Helen laid out her own geometric design, framed by flower beds and pickets. Siting it in an open area just beyond a back door offers easy access, as well as the requisite 6 to 8 hours a day of full sun that vegetables generally require.
Proper sizing of the planting beds and walkways ensures the garden functions with farm-level efficiency. Each leg of the L-shaped beds is 8 feet long and 4 feet wide, the maximum width for keeping the center of beds within arm’s reach for easy hand-weeding and planting. Most paths span 3 feet, to allow for a mower or wheelbarrow to pass through, except for two paths beside the center bed, which measure 8 feet across. “We wanted a space for entertaining,” says Helen, who on special occasions hauls in tables with seating for 8 to 10 guests. The 8-by-8-foot center bed has stone slabs to hold potted plants, a decorative boxwood planting, plus pockets for herbs. And an 8-foot-wide gate even allows access for tractor loads of compost.
From encouraging good drainage to dissuading nibbling rabbits, raised planting beds offer myriad benefits. Helen’s beds are relatively shallow, at just 8 inches deep, framed by 8-by-11-by-4-inch granite blocks planted on end several inches below grade—a handsome, durable material that will stand up to decades of contact with damp soil. The beds also incorporate a clever “mow path”—a flush-to-the-ground border of flat paving stones along the perimeter that keeps weeds from growing where a mower’s blades can’t reach.
After sketching her design, Helen hired a landscaper for the installation. Using a laser level, he measured out the bed layout, following Helen’s plans, and set up a mason line, using corner stakes and string to mark the desired edging height. Then he got to work digging a trench and placing the stones, adding and removing soil to level each block. In colder climates, where frost heaves are a concern, TOH landscape contractor Jenn Nawada suggests digging down 6 inches and laying a 2- to 3-inch base of ¾-inch crushed stone before placing the blocks.
Build up the soil
As an alternative to breaking ground with a rototiller or shovel and double-digging to work in amendments, Helen used an easy no-till technique to cultivate her new beds. In a much simplified version of a popular layering technique (see “A Quick Guide to Lasagna Gardening,”), Helen laid tape-free cardboard over the entire area of exposed soil to smother weeds, watered the cardboard thoroughly, and then topped it with 8 inches of well-blended topsoil and finished compost until the soil level was just below the stone border’s top edge. That thick layer of nutrient-rich, fluffy soil primed the beds for planting.
But first, Helen hooked up an irrigation system to make sure her edibles would get the water they needed. She ran drip lines down each bed, spacing them roughly 16 inches apart to give each row of plants a designated water source. Though Helen doesn’t fuss about hiding the tubing, Jenn says it’s easy to do: Simply dig the tubes in just below the soil’s surface, and secure them with irrigation staples. To save time buying parts, you can pick up a kit (such as those sold by DripWorks), and automate waterings with a timer.
A quick guide to lasagna gardening
In “lasagna gardening,” or sheet mulching, layers of organic matter are spread on top of unimproved soil and allowed to compost in place—just add moisture. Start in spring to plant the following spring—or in fall, for the impatient.
Step 1: To prep the bed, remove turf and loosen the top inch of soil where it’s compacted. Adding a raised border will prevent runoff.
Step 2: To thwart weeds, cover the entire area with a single layer of brown cardboard, all tape removed, overlapping edges slightly. Water thoroughly.
Step 3: Spread a 6-inch layer of carbon-rich organic material (grass clippings, manure, vegetable scraps), followed by a 2- to 3-inch layer of nitrogen-rich organic matter (straw, wood chips, dried leaves).
Step 4: Repeat Step 3 until the pile is twice as high as the desired height of the bed; finish with carbon. The bed will settle over time.
Step 5: Water well to kick-start the composting process. Keeping beds moist (but not drenching wet) up till planting time will ensure all organic matter breaks down efficiently.
Step 6: Top with 4 inches of topsoil or finished compost. Then sit back, and let the soil’s network of organisms ready the beds for planting.
That first year, Helen didn’t do a soil test, but she did the second year. And she’s made a habit of taking soil tests and amending accordingly every couple of years. “I only add compost when my soil needs it,” she says, pointing out that too much compost, like anything else, can cause imbalances.
As for mulch, the flower beds along the fence get a fresh layer of shredded bark seasonally, but Helen skips mulch—and the chemicals that can accompany it—on her vegetable beds. To prevent weeds around the edibles, Helen plants densely—leaving little bare ground for weed seeds to sprout—and those that do pop up are never allowed to get big. “I just stay on top of it, a little each week,” says Helen, who swears by her trusty Hula Hoe. The long-handled stirrup-style tool cuts off weeds at the root; a built-in “wiggle” lets it work both backward and forward.
Add year-round structure
With its prominent location, on view from the road, this garden needed to look good through all four seasons. So Helen tucked in dozens of dwarf boxwoods, planting small to save pennies, and framed the garden’s edges with gated arbors and picket fencing made from wood salvaged during a barn remodel.
Red-painted obelisk trellises, in beds flanking the center, also add year-round color. Hers are often engulfed in blooms, starting with ‘Jackmanii’ clematis in spring and a grand finale of sweet autumn clematis into fall. The metal obelisks and lattice A-frames that punctuate the garden’s four corners add yet more vertical support—and eye-level beauty—sprawling with tomatoes, sweet peas, pole beans, and top-heavy dahlias.
Lure in pollinators
Flowers, growing among edibles, are more than eye candy. The marigolds that skirt Helen’s tomatoes are there to ward off insects, such as root-nibbling nematodes, while zonal geraniums—her go-to for covering bare spots—deter Japanese beetles. Plus, Helen adds, “the flowers attract pollinators,” which are essential players for producing big harvests.
With thoughtful planning, those harvests will keep coming. Helen likes interplanting cool-season lettuces and radishes, for instance, with Swiss chard, which is slower to “bolt”—or turn leggy and bitter in hot weather—for long-lasting leafy displays. Repeat sowings of quick-sprouting lettuces and radishes, spaced a week or two apart, provide a steady supply for spring-mix salads.
With summer’s heat waves come her family’s all-time favorite: peppers, from red-hot Cherry Bombs to the sweet Habanero look-alike, ‘Habanada.’ “We do everything with peppers, from pickling to freezing and making jam,” Helen says.
Potted-up herbs, such as frost-tender basil and unruly mints, are also a summertime mainstay. “You can pop containers in anywhere,” says Helen, who tucks them into beds and arranges ever-changing displays on the terrace above the garden.
Then, there are the root-cellar crops—cabbages, squash, garlic, carrots, potatoes. “If you store them properly, you can practically eat from your garden all winter.” And, of course, there are the flowers for cutting—seed-grown zinnias and cosmos, as well as roses and dahlias. Because when you’re out collecting kitchen ingredients in a garden, it’s nice to bring back a bouquet for the table.
A quick guide to crop rotation
Rotating crops isn’t just for farmers—it benefits home gardeners, too. Vegetables in the same plant family deplete soil nutrients similarly and attract the same pests and diseases; ideally, they shouldn’t be grown in the same plot for at least three years. Quadrant bed layouts, such as the one here, make this task relatively easy. Simply rotate crops in a clockwise direction through the four beds each season, and you’ll achieve the desired waiting period—no tracking spreadsheet required.
For an even more foolproof plan, consider grouping these compatible vegetable families together, and cycle them through your beds on a four-year schedule.
Nightshades + alliums: Interplant pest-prone tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant with pungent garlic and onions.
Legumes + carrot family: Plant peas and beans, which add nitrogen to the soil, with taproot vegetables and herbs—carrots, celery, and parsley—that rely on this nutrient.
Brassicas + brassicas: Plant these heavy feeders—cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, radishes, and arugula—on their own.
Asteraceae + gourds: Plant early-to-sprout lettuces with slow-growing cucumbers, melons, and squash, to crowd out weeds.