Fresh organic produce available 24-7 right at your door? Even Amazon can’t do that.

By Grace Haynes
February 23, 2020
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Nicole Burke has a cause. She's championing the revival of kitchen gardening: raised beds for growing vegetables, fruits, and herbs at home year-round. For Burke, it all began with zippy chives. She became a self-taught gardener in her backyard, where through trial and error, she learned how to cultivate fresh organic produce to feed her family—starting with things like herbs and lettuces, and then working her way to vegetables and fruits.

Burke capitalized on all her hard-earned planting wisdom and built a business: Rooted Garden, which designs, installs, and maintains kitchen plots in the Houston area. She has taken out the guesswork, turning an intimidating task into an accessible hobby anyone can master. And the idea has taken off—she has designed more than 100 residential gardens and counting.

“The kitchen garden is a unique place because it touches on health and wellness, mindfulness, exercise and fitness, design and beauty, creativity and art—plus community and environmental care,” Burke says. “It’s a lifestyle.” She is also spreading her mission beyond Texas with Gardenary, an online community for inspiring gardeners of all levels. Here, Burke shares her easy-to-follow advice for bringing fresh produce to your backyard.

1.Pick the Right Spot

Location is key for successful kitchen gardens. Consider three important factors before installation.

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Sunlight:

“The first and most important thing is sun. You want to maximize the amount of light your plants get,” says Burke. “Use the compass on your smartphone to find the southern side of the tallest structure in your yard, and place the garden there. That’s likely to be the sunniest spot.”

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Traffic Patterns:

Here, Burke built two rectangular raised beds right outside the back door. “Your garden should be close to your home so you can pop out to grab some basil or chives and go right back to the kitchen,” she says. Plus, these border gardens keep the main landscape of the backyard intact.

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Aesthetic:

A kitchen garden should blend in with the existing architecture. “It should feel like a natural extension of your home,” says Burke. Here, tall geometric steel trellises complement the modern house.

2. Make Your Selections

“You can grow a lot of a few things or a little of a lot of things,” says Burke. Prioritize what you want to bring into the kitchen. She breaks down types of plants by experience level: leafy veggies and herbs (beginner), root crops (intermediate), and fruiting plants (advanced). She encourages first-timers to start with leaves—herbs, lettuces, and greens. “They’re the easiest and most prolific to grow. You’ll feel more successful because you’ll get to harvest almost immediately,” says Burke. Add in intermediate-level roots: carrots, radishes, beets, and potatoes. Then move up to fruiting plants like cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and other climbers.

Left: Beginner | Credit: Robbie Caponetto
Center: Intermediate | Credit: Robbie Caponetto
Right: Advanced | Credit: Robbie Caponetto

3. Plant Strategically

Burke says she plants beds symmetrically, confusing pests by spreading out multiples of the same plant instead of grouping them, “so bugs don’t have one big buffet.” Another trick is intensive planting, a method she describes as “packing in as many seeds as you can.” Though they’re planted close together (around 18 inches apart instead of 3 feet), their roots still have room to grow down because the beds are deep.

Credit: Robbie Caponetto
  1. Low-lying plants along the border Line leafy greens, flowers, and herbs around the front and sides of the bed for maximum light. Otherwise, they’ll be shaded by the taller plantings.
  2. Medium-size crops in the middle Fill the center of the bed with moderate growers like root crops. Burke staggers the seeds instead of making tidy rows to pack more plants into the small space.
  3. Big and tall growers in the back She works her way from front to back when planting. Let larger climbers such as tomatoes and cucumbers grow vertically up trellises to save room inside the bed.
Left: Credit: Robbie Caponetto
Right: Credit: Robbie Caponetto

4. Invite Some Insects

In urban environments, very few things naturally welcome pollinators (especially if you spray for mosquitoes). To attract beneficial insects, plant flowers like ‘African Blue’ basil, salvias, and marigolds. By midseason, bees, butterflies, and lizards will appear.

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

5. Provide Proper Nutrients

Soil:

Burke recommends sandy loam soil. “Most vegetables like moist—but not wet—feet. Sandy loam soil drains quickly but also nourishes the plants and keeps them moist,” she says.

Compost:

“It’s the secret. Compost helps re-create a rich environment for plants to come up every season. That’s how they’ve grown naturally for thousands of years,” says Burke. Keep the beds healthy by adding 2 to 3 inches of organic compost to the top of the soil every few months.

Water:

“The general rule is about 1 inch of water per week, but that depends on the evaporation rate, which changes all the time,” says Burke. Water more during hot months and less during cold ones.

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

Want More Planting Advice?

Connect with a local, Burke-approved growing coach through Gardenary, or pick up a copy of her new book Kitchen Garden Revival (available on April 14).

Build Your Own Raised Bed

Four steps for building a simple rectangular raised bed

Credit: Robbie Caponetto

What You’ll Need

  • 4 (2-inch by 6-inch by 8-foot) cedar boards
  • 4 (2- by 8-inch) galvanized metal or stainless steel framing angles (find them in the decking section of home-improvement stores)
  • 32 (2 1/2-inch-long) galvanized metal hex lag bolts with matching nuts and washers (width of bolts can vary based on size of holes in framing angles)
Credit: Robbie Caponetto

How to Build Your Bed

  1. Cut boards so you have 4 (6-foot) pieces and 4 (2-foot) pieces.
  2. Form boards into a rectangle, stacking 2 pieces to form each side so bed is 12 inches tall. Put a framing angle at each inside corner. Mark the holes in each framing angle with a pencil.
  3. Drill holes in the marked circles.
  4. Assemble the bed and the framing angles. Push bolts through the holes from the outside. Secure on inside with washers and nuts. Tighten bolts with a ratchet.