Updated: Feb 2, 2021
Slow-roasted and oven-dried tomatoes, mixed herb and garlic scape pappardelle, thyme-roasted beets, caraway cucumber salad, and half-sweet alpine strawberry jam, warm arugula salad with root vegetable fishcakes, Tuscan bean soup, lemon verbena and lavender ice tea; these are just a few of the items on my family's Garden to Table menu of favourite foods, and they all started life in our garden.
The good news? You can grow tomatoes, mixed herbs, garlic, beets, cucumbers, strawberries, dwarf fruit trees and berry bushes, and so much more in a small patch of sun, in the smallest of spaces, and you can get started now.
Growing what you eat is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your family, for your community, and for the planet. And it's easy, really easy to get started and to be successful. Growing food is something EVERYONE can do to a greater or lesser degree, regardless of age, income or geography.
December and January are menu planning months for me. This is a time to reflect on the foods my family loves, the foods I love to cook and/or preserve, and the foods that I can grow successfully in containers and in my garden. This is a time to shop for seeds online or in person, and create a simple planting calendar -- time for Garden to Table menu planning.
If you, or you and your family would like to start growing your own food, and learn how to cook and/or preserve that food, I would love to help. Over the course of the season, I will share what works for me, which I hope will work for you.
I am not a master gardener or indeed a farmer. I am a certified permaculture designer, gardener, chef, writer, and culinary anthropology enthusiast with a passion for urban permaculture. What that means in essence is that, by interpreting nature's logic and respecting traditional permaculture principles and ethos, I bend basic principles and concepts to accommodate urban constraints and landscapes, and enrich contemporary lifestyles. Further, whenever possible, I support the efforts of organic small-hold and research-based seed saving farms and organizations that grow, save and sell heritage and specialty seeds for home, market farm, and culinary use.
Second only to environmental and economic considerations, my guideposts are aesthetic. In truth, beautiful gardens, especially front yard gardens and other gardens on view, make good neighbours. Beautiful, charming, inventive and ingenious gardens inspire friends, community leaders and educators to jump in with both feet and great enthusiasm, and get growing sustainably, productively, and righteously.
There are many excellent online sources of foundational gardening information, compiled by professional horticulturalists, market gardeners and growers that are far more knowledgeable and precise than I. I refer to those pages very often myself, and I encourage you to do the same. Having said that, produce gardening at home is really very simple. If I can do it, so can you.
The first thing to know for sure is that the rules are only guidelines meant to help. I promise you that if you follow the guidelines more than you don't, and if your intentions are authentic, you will succeed far more than you fail. The second thing to know is that growing food will change your life -- for the better.
When I started growing my own food in small ways, many years ago, I was interested in quick results in small, contained spaces. My children were small and I was limited to a smallish patio space right outside the kitchen door. I moved on from there gradually, adding patience and experience to my skill set, which over time yielded variety, abundance for sharing, and an extended growing season.
Today, growing and preparing food for my family and friends is fundamental to who I am as a person, mother, wife, daughter, friend, and student of nature. Most of our favourite foods start life in our expanded garden, and our pantry is full of staples that I use in preparing meals everyday. Yes, it takes some work, but not as much as you might think. Start small, allow yourself just a few minutes each day for maintenance (excluding planting and harvest times), and you will be surprised how much food you can grow. I tell people that, in less time than it takes to enjoy a calming cup of tea or coffee, they can undertake and complete their daily garden duty. Fewer trips to the grocery store, less wasted time, more time well-spent.
My seed list and garden plan are bigger than most, but not that big (300 sq ft of raised beds plus several large planters), and I still harvest plenty enough to preserve and to share. If I had a smaller space and less time, I would create a smaller menu as I am doing together with our youngest daughter who lives in an apartment with a small rooftop deck. She loves to cook and is mad about organic produce and herbs, but as a working student, would rather not spend her hard-earned dollars at the specialty market. One way she could save even more money is to buy seeds and soil/compost in friend groups, and share the cost.
Her south-facing deck contains some older but adequate planter boxes and some funky found planter pots, but the site is quite windy. We will keep that in mind while we design her plan according to available time and budget.
My initial suggestions for her Garden to Table 'Mediterranean Menu' Plan include a small dedicated herb garden (either one large planter, or several smaller planters or pots that can be moved with her when she changes addresses) of primarily perennial herbs, which will remain productive for years and won't need to be replanted each spring (Basil is an exception, Rosemary too if overly exposed). **Note that the specific seed varieties listed are 'suggestions only' - very often seed packets just read 'bush beans', 'basil' or 'carrots', which is totally fine too. Just getting started is the important thing.
Cucumber - a compact variety like Patio Snacker that doesn't take over the beds or require trellising that may fall over in the wind.
Tomatoes - two varieties. A smaller bush-type like yellow Pear Drop, and the juicy red Tumbler which we can grow in recycled hanging baskets or spill over planter edges.
Beets - one or two varieties. Chioggia (also known as Candy Cane) and/or Golden look beautiful together. Beet greens are delicious.
Radishes - French Breakfast and Watermelon would be my choices. They grow super fast and their greens are lovely to eat as well, when youngish and tender.
Beans - Sturdy bush beans like Carson (yellow), Maxibel Filet (green) and Purple Queen (purple) are absolutely prolific and don't require trellising.
Garlic - a hardneck variety like Italian or Music. Hardneck garlic produces 'scapes' in the spring, which are a food group unto themselves almost.
Strawberries - any hardy variety marked 'ever-bearing' will do. Slow to start, but perennial, which is a bonus.
Spinach - a somewhat hardy variety like Olympia.
Lettuce - Buttercrunch and Romaine are favourites and can be harvested a few leaves at a time over a relatively long duration in the spring and early fall. Arugula could substitute nicely, but is somewhat bitter.
Shallots - a sweeter, smaller alternative to onions.
Potatoes - seed nugget potatoes to grow in fabric or recycled plastic growbags.
Carrots - a slow-growing but fun vegetable to interplant between other produce. Like beets, carrots can be left in the soil well past summer. Choose a smallish variety to grow in shallow containers.
Optional and space permitting - a potted dwarf apple, pear or crabapple tree; perhaps a dwarf blueberry or red currant even.
And for the herb garden:
Basil - one green variety like Genovese or Sweet, plus one purple variety like Rosie or Purple Ruffles.
Thyme - common English thyme is very hardy and delicious. Most important - the woody stems make it easy to pick off the savoury leaves for cooking.
Rosemary - to grow in a sheltered spot away from the wind.
Lemon Balm - super easy to grow tender herb, doubles as a salad green.
Sage - any number of varieties would suit.
Chives - two varieties, regular Common chives and the pungent flat-leaf Garlic variety.
Oregano - a sturdy variety like Greek would suit.
I recommend too that everyone install at least one small in-bed (or in-pot) worm compost. There is no better fertilizer than worm poop, and there no better way to compost green kitchen waste than as worm food. to learn more about my in-bed 'in situ' worm composting, watch the Urban Permaculture video series segment produced by Modern Farmer magazine.
If I had to choose just a handful of the seed suggestions noted above, I would opt for the perennial herbs 100% of the time. Herbs make meals magical, provide huge culinary and medicinal return on investment, and create critical habitat for bees and other pollinators. Small established herbs in 4" pots can be purchased for a reasonable price from garden centres, and sometimes in grocery stores. If instant gratification is on your menu, you might consider that option.
The starting of seeds and preparation of containers and beds is simple, but indeed another topic for another post. If you plan to give it all a go as my daughter does, my advice is to visit popular seed company websites now, in particular those that sell seeds suited to your area, and read individual seed pages to learn when and where to plant, sun and soil preferences, and days to harvest. A visit to your local hardware store, garden centre, or farmers' market to buy seeds should be your next step. Soil and amendments are easier to find year-round, but seed selection dwindles as the season draws near.
Visit my food page for recipe inspiration, or run a Google search using terms like 'recipes using tomato, beans and herbs' or any other combination of available ingredients.
I hope you are inspired to try your hand at growing your own food and designing your own menus. If you are short on time, maybe start slow - with an indoor, windowsill herb garden. Herbs are super flavourful, and a little goes a long way. Whatever you do, have fun and don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.
To learn about my urban permaculture garden and how to incorporate time, money and environment saving principles into your garden, no matter how small, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics.
Happy menu planning!