The Kitchen Garden

In my current work in progress, I have placed a large, modern, garden just outside the kitchen door of the ranch house. In the days before refrigerators and all-night grocery stores, nearly every settler planted a kitchen garden once the house was finished, be it soddy, cabin or a mansion. But what exactly is a kitchen garden?

It’s just what the name implies: a garden planted near the kitchen in which you grow all the vegetables needed for every-day cooking, as well as a variety of herbs to add sensational flavor to every recipe.

“The bulk of homesteaders’ diets were harvested from their claim or gathered from the wilderness that surrounded them. “Store-bought” items consisted of those few items which could not be grown, shot, picked, or made on the farm… the homesteaders…often lived a prohibitive distance from the nearest store, and “trips to town” were few and far between.

“…Many families planted two gardens a year: one in the spring, which would supply greens, peas, and radishes, and one in the summer, which would provide heartier vegetables such as pumpkins, beans, potatoes, and squash. Settlers brought seeds with them to their new homes, bought them once they arrived on the frontier, or wrote to relatives “back East” asking for a hasty shipment. Creating bountiful gardens required constant vigilance against gophers, deer, bears, crows, and a host of other “invaders.” A successful garden was critical to homesteaders’ ability to feed themselves and their families; a single heavy storm or an unexpected frost could, in fact, destroy half a year’s supplies.
[Christopher W. Czajka, PBS Frontier House Essays, ]

Here’s an example of the plantings in a recreated 1800s kitchen garden at the NEW HAMPSHIRE FARM MUSEUM:

“…Peas, snap and shell/ Onions, sweet, yellow storage, red, and red storage/ Leeks, early and late types/ Scallions, purple and white/ Cauliflower (some spring, mostly fall)/ Celeriac/ Lettuce/ Mesclun mix (mixed lettuces and other greens)/ Spinach/ Herbs: Basil, Dill, Parsley, Cilantro, (Cumin?)/ Bok Choy/ Cabbage/ Broccoli/ Fava Beans (trial size planting)/ Swiss Chard/ Kale, green curly (Winterbor), red curly (Redbor), Red Russian, Lacinato/ Collards/ Beets/ Carrots/ Hakurei (Salad) Turnips/ Radishes/ Beans, green and dry types/ ParsnipsTomatoes, red types, cherries, heirlooms/ Husk Cherries (Ground Cherries)/ Peppers, sweet and hot types / Eggplants/ Cucumbers, pickling and slicing types/ Summer Squash, yellow, Pattypans, Zucchinis/ Potatoes, early, mid, late types, (fingerlings, reds, whites, blues, golds….)/ Corn, sweet, ornamental, popcorn Brussels Sprouts (fall only)/ Muskmelons/ Watermelons/ Winter Squashes/ Pumpkins, Jack-o-lantern, pie, mini types, and gourds/ Fall Turnips/ Rutabagas (for storage).“

The lady of the house might also plant herbs and flowers in her garden, for cooking and for medicinal use. And just because they looked pretty on the table. I remember my grandmother, who grew up on a North Dakota homestead, telling me which plants in her extensive kitchen garden were to eat and which were there to ward off pests, both insects and deer.

When I was growing up, we had a garden, though it was planted more with an eye toward supplying our favorite fruits and vegetables rather than a balanced diet: strawberries, melons, sweet corn, green beans, tomatoes… Mostly I remember it was hard, hot work.

Do any of you have a “kitchen garden?” Did you grow up with one? What was it like?

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22 thoughts on “The Kitchen Garden”

  1. Hi Tracy, love the post. We have a teensie herb garden in a window box, and tomato and basil plants in pots, that’ about it. Years ago, the kids and I planted a little garden and absolutely rejoiced when the lettuce came in. Overnight snails razed it to the ground. I still remember all of us crying. Fun times LOL.

  2. Hi Tracy,

    Thank you for this post. It’s great for research. My grandmother always had a large garden. It was amazing how much time I spent helping with the garden, after I explained I didn’t do gardening. :o)

  3. Great topic Tracy
    I don’t, but my landlady grows tomatoes, has a plum tree, which of course turns into jams and perseves and she grows lots of herbs. I love just going out the back and getting fresh basil, tyme, parsley, and many other herbs.

  4. Good morning! Tanya, I feel your pain. I remember watching the rows of strawberries ripen, and when they were perfect, going out early to pick them–and all the red ones were gone. It was a great mystery until my mother spotted our two collies, who always went out first, nipping the ripe berries off the plants and skipping the green ones. We still laugh about that.

  5. Kirsten, I’m not much of a gardener–too hot! But we always had strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, green beans, cantelope and watermelon. I didn’t like the work, but loved the results.

  6. Thanks, Kathleen! I’ve had an herb garden for many of the years we’ve been married, mostly rosemary, basil, parsley–the ones I cook with a lot. Unfortunately, they don’t do as well in pots as in the ground, so my gardening has really tapered off now that we don’t have a yard.

  7. I used to have a small garden box in the backyard, but it has deteriorated and I didn’t plant anything this year. I am really missing fresh green beans! My mother has two large whiskey barrels off the back of her kitchen and is able to step out and snip the herb or herbs she wants for cooking. Her dill grows everywhere, so she’s able to have fresh dill whether she steps out front or out back. 🙂 Thanks for the post today, Tracy.

  8. You’re welcome, Deb. My “garden” consisted of long plant boxes my husband built along our patio, and some plantings in the flower beds as filler, but I got a nice crop most years. Until I planted arugula and got a crop of cabbage butterflies instead. lol

  9. As a kid, my most dreaded punishment was pulling weeds in the garden, so I never became too enthusiastic over the pursuit. However, there have been many times that I wished I had those garden-fresh fruits and veggies growing right outside my door. Too bad you have to actually work for those lucious treats.

    My grandparents are in their 90s and still put in a garden every year. About a year ago, we took the kids back to see them in California, and my kids had the greatest time picking green beans off the vine. Not that any of them wanted to eat them – but the excitement of picking them became a memory they still talk about.

    Of course, I still remember my visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and going outside to “play” when all I really wanted to do was pluck all the strawberries off the plants and plop them straight into my mouth. Didn’t take the time to wash them or anything. 🙂

  10. Great blog, Tracy. My parents had a big lot and much of it was planted in garden. I still remember my mom’s raspberries and eating peas right out of the pods.
    My own efforts are pretty pathetic – I have three raised beds on the east side of my garage where I grow tomatoes, squash and some herbs that I forget to use. So easy to run to the store…

  11. “So easy to run to the store…”
    Elizabeth, this is so true! I tried tomato plants last year. Even “pollinated them” myself with a makeup brush–flower to flower to flower. Lots of work for a half dozen tomatoes the size of marbles. 🙁

  12. Tracy, what a lot of good information! We never had a garden when I was growing up because we lived in town. My first experience with one was with my aunt. She loved growing things. I remember picking peas, peppers, beans, and tomatoes and that it was a lot of hard work, especially the canning part. But I usually have a garden in all my stories. It gives my characters something to do and also makes the story more realistic. You’re definitely right about everyone in the West having one. They had to or starve.

  13. When my grandparents came to this county they rented land and farmed. Even in their later years they had a very large garden. My mom never had to grow her own lol. I have limited space so I grow things in containers – green onions, green beans, tomatoes and peppers. radishes never worked for me and I think I bought the wrong kind of lettuce and something ate my squash lol.

  14. Hi Tracy! I grew carrots when I was little. The best moment was when my dad found a stray carrot growing in the lawn. It was about a foot long when he pulled it out. Other than the carrots, I haven’t done much gardening. It’d be cool to grow tomatoes… they’re so much better off the vine than from the grocery store.

  15. My grandparents had a nice garden every year… it would vary, but they always asked us to help pick stuff… My parents through the years tried planting different things… mostly radishes, peppers & tomatoes…

  16. Vicki, I never tried carrots or potatoes, that I remember. I love growing tomatoes, but I’ve never had much luck.

    Colleen, it seems all our grandparents gardened. I’m not sure how I feel about being the generation the ended the tradition. Hmmm.

  17. Tracy,
    I tried to grow tomatoes one summer and let’s just say, it was not successful. LOL I have never had a “green thumb” and probably never will. My dad and both my sisters can grow anything and everything. When I was a kid, my grandparents had a huge garden. When it was time to harvest it all, all the aunts, uncles and cousins would come together there and pick, carry, wash and “put up” for Granny and Granddad. We lived about 100 miles away, so we would just take ours home with us and do it all over again the next day. OKRA was the worst–and it was always my job. Those little stickers hurt like heck! But how I loved to eat it, so that took some of the “sting” out of doing it. I remember those days well–shucking the corn was another “kid job”. And of course, this was all outside in the heat of the Oklahoma summer. My grandparents did own a swamp cooler fan that they’d turn on when company came (never used it otherwise) and never had air conditioning. The good ole days…I don’t miss them at all. LOL

  18. We never had much of a garden when I was growing up. My parents were too busy working to try to maintain one. My paternal grandmother and my aunt on my dad’s side always had one. I spent every summer at their homes weeding for them. They both canned and pickled. My grandmother was pretty self sufficient. We have always had a garden of some sort since we got married. Even in base housing if there was no place for a vegetable garden, I would plant things in my flower beds. When we could, we had a full garden. I learned to can, dry, and freeze. We have a good sized garden now, but it has been too hot to do much with it. I prefer to garden in the northern part of the country. The growing season is shorter, but the pests aren’t as bad and the produce have more flavor. We live in the South now and it is a very different gardening experience. There are more problems with bugs and mold. Plants grow almost too fast. They get a bit spindly and weak. I haven’t been able to spend the amount of time needed to take care of the garden. It has been too hot and the melons and peppers are actually getting sun burned. I have been too busy/lazy to do much canning the past few years.
    We are spoiled today with everything being so readily available. Those who don’t garden don’t know what they are missing. The work is well worth it. The asparagus in the spring is wonderful. We have fresh strawberries and raspberries. We savor the first green beans of the season and look forward to the tomatoes. We have tomatoes on toast for breakfast for weeks and BLTs. The vegetables fresh from a garden are so much better than what you get at the store.

    Thanks for an enjoyable post.

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