Our Test Kitchens' Garden
Out Our Back Door
A few years ago, we installed a culinary garden behind our building to grow fresh herbs for the Southern Living Test Kitchen. The kitchen tries out thousands of recipes each year, and the staff can walk out back and grab a fistful of tasty foliage or pick a basket load of sun-ripened veggies. Using fresh produce is the key to preparing flavorful recipes. When you grow herbs and vegetables just steps away from the back door, they’re as fresh as they can get.
Our garden has six raised beds. The walls are 30 inches tall and filled with a mix of 2 parts topsoil, 1 part peat moss, and 1 part composted cow manure. We’ve also amended the ground surrounding the beds. We try to position taller plants on the ground and shorter ones in the elevated beds to avoid bending over. A few compost bins around the garden allow us to make our own compost to continually replenish the soil for free. Besides needing six to eight hours of sunlight, most herbs and veggies require well-drained soil. Fertile soil will produce healthier, more flavorful plants.
From the Garden to the Kitchen
According to Test Kitchen Professional Pam Lolley, the garden helps the staff save money. She says that a small bunch of herbs from the grocery store costs several dollars, and it’s never fresh, so you end up having to throw half away. Pam also thinks the garden is a great place to take a break after hustling around the kitchen. The most popular herbs in our Test Kitchen are basil, chives, rosemary, thyme, oregano, tarragon, and parsley.
One of the keys to clipping herbs is choosing the right tools. Garden scissors can be used to snip thin-stemmed herbs such as thyme or chives, but sharp clippers are needed to cut through the thick stems of basil and rosemary. Never tear or break off the stems, and always make cuts at leaf junctions to ensure bushy plants.
Eat Your Veggies
Besides herbs, we grow several kinds of vegetables. Summer in the South wouldn’t be complete without fresh tomatoes, which can be used in so many different ways. It’s always a treat picking and eating the melt-in-your-mouth cherry types right off the vine. Every year we grow different selections, but ‘Sweet Million’ and ‘Park’s Whopper’ are two of our favorites.
We also set out a few different types of peppers. When the summer heat kicks in, we can enjoy mild, sweet-tasting banana peppers or make some spicy salsa with scorching hot ‘Habanero’ peppers. There are so many types in various shapes, and they’re very ornamental. You can plant red, orange, yellow, green, or purple selections. Peppers are great for beginning gar¬deners because they’re easy to grow and prolific.
Eggplants are also heavy producers. Long, thin, purple ‘Ichiban’ and egg-shaped, porcelain-colored ‘Ghostbuster’ are beautiful and make excellent table fare. They are mild flavored and less bitter than some of the larger selections.
Climbing vegetables such as pole beans and cucumbers that will twine up trellises are popular too. Vegetables growing vertically take up less room and make harvesting a breeze. Planters are another way to maximize space. We tuck them around the garden, filling them with herbs and vegetables.
We’ve already planted blueberries, figs, and a couple of muscadine vines and plan to add more fruits over the next few years. As our garden grows, so do the many flavors. This year, try growing a few herbs or vegetables in your backyard. You’ll save money at the grocery store and enjoy the beauty they add to your garden. Plus, it’s rewarding to see tiny plants mature and yield fresh and tasty homegrown produce.
Each year we plant a couple of new selections or reliable heirlooms to see how they do. Here are a few that we really like.
- ‘Lemon’ cucumber
- ‘Purple Beauty’ bell pepper
- ‘Round of Hungary’ pepper
- ‘Ghostbuster’ eggplant
- ‘Tiny Tim’ tomato
- ‘Gold Rush’ zucchini