Kitchen Garden Spot Home-grown delight: Vegetables and herbs, paired with fetching blossoms, don't get much fresher, healthful or more attractive than this.

April 10, 1996|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

It's only mid-April, and Susie Russell's spring and summer dinners are still asleep.

Here and there you can see traces: cut-back stems of annual herbs, neatly raked beds where lettuce seeds have been sown, tiny green sprouts where other early lettuce has been planted.

But the asparagus hasn't begun to poke out its green shoots, and the tepees for the snow peas aren't in place. Everything is resting in its bed of soil.

Never mind. When Mrs. Russell looks at her kitchen garden, she sees gazpacho and mesclun salads.

"When I'm cooking, I just go out and pick herbs," she said, "tarragon, garlic, shallots, rosemary -- I put them on a roast, or whatever I'm doing."

She's not alone. Whatever the underlying issues -- health concerns, environmental concerns, quality of life -- more people these days are eating from the garden, growing their own vegetables and herbs, even their own fruits, and combining them with flowers that can beautify the table.

Growing your own food can guarantee no pesticides will be used, and it can be a good way to get your family to eat those five to 11 servings per day of fruits and vegetables recommended in the nutrition guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Besides that, gardening is rewarding.

"I love seeing what a tiny little seed can grow into," Mrs. Russell said.

Mrs. Russell calls her kitchen garden -- and it is only one of many gardens she tends on her rolling land in northern Baltimore County -- "a Susie garden." It is eclectic, mixing the many varieties of California, French, English and heirloom herb and vegetable varieties with unusual annuals and some perennials, such as standard (tree-like) hydrangeas and wisteria.

It is also organic; she uses no chemicals and tries to avoid plants that need chemical intervention to survive.

Mrs. Russell's personalized garden is a variation of a type that can be traced back to medieval times, when parts of a garden were devoted to vegetables, medicinal herbs, fruit and flowers. Later, more formal garden styles strictly separated utilitarian and ornamental plants, according to Louisa Jones in "The Art of French Vegetable Gardening" (Artisan, 1995, $35).

The medieval style is coming back into favor, Ms. Jones said. "It's gardening that is both beautiful and useful."

To some extent, she said, the style never died out in France, where the "potager," or kitchen garden, was a staple of chateau or village life.

It doesn't have to be complicated: It can be as simple as planting marigolds around the base of a container in which cherry tomatoes are growing on a stake, or planting sage in a pot with daisies. Or it might mean edging a bed with nasturtiums and planting zucchini around a central cage on which scarlet runner beans are growing.

In France, potagers are created by people of "all social backgrounds," Ms. Jones said. "You don't have to own a chateau to have a French vegetable garden."

You do, however, have to have a plan. Traditionally, kitchen gardens are planted in smaller beds separated by paths. The beds can be simple squares in a grid pattern, or may be more complex, but they're easy to tend and easy to harvest.

It's a good idea to avoid having a lot of perennials, writes Anna Pavord in her book, "The New Kitchen Garden" (Dorling Kindersley, $29.95), because they will "cut down on your options for change."

Her book offers a number of plans for kitchen gardens, from a vegetable patchwork to a California courtyard. "Interplant vegetables with annual flowers, such as cornflowers or California poppies," she advises, "and try edging the beds with violas instead of boxwood." The simpler the plan, the easier it will be to keep up, she notes. Mrs. Russell's 50-by-50-foot northwest-facing garden, enclosed by a simple wire mesh fence, has 13 raised beds in a geometric pattern she adapted from a book. The standard cut-leaf lilac that adorns the center bed, she said, came in a cardboard box. "It looked like an umbrella. It was a stick." Now it's about 7 feet tall.

When her four children were growing up, Mrs. Russell said, the kitchen garden was all vegetables. Now, she said, "it's probably 50 percent food, 15 percent herbs and the rest annuals."

Local garden suppliers have spotted the trend toward more eclectic gardening styles.

"Lots of plants, like eggplant and cucumber, have real pretty flowers," said Carrie Engel, greenhouse manager at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville. "People are realizing that and bringing them more to the front of the garden. And some flowers are edible."

Valley View customers are asking for varieties that are decorative and for things that can go in smaller spaces. They have an eggplant called Bambino, which produces "hors d'oeuvre-size" purple fruit, and one called Ghostbuster, which produces white fruit about the size of an egg.

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