Lessons from a Family Kitchen Garden

Barbara Faurot
Posted 6/27/20

What is a kitchen garden? From ancient traditions in Egypt, Babylon, and Mesopotamia to medieval monasteries and “keyhole” gardens of Africa, kitchen gardens have served both the culinary …

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Lessons from a Family Kitchen Garden

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What is a kitchen garden? From ancient traditions in Egypt, Babylon, and Mesopotamia to medieval monasteries and “keyhole” gardens of Africa, kitchen gardens have served both the culinary and aesthetic needs of their communities. Today, family kitchen gardens are popping up in backyards, as they carry on the tradition of growing food for your table in a sustainable manner while adding visual appeal to the landscape. 

Instead of straight rows of crops, plantings in a kitchen garden are designed to take advantage of different micro-climates and natural features to grow vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers as part of a beautiful landscape. 

Mary Hunt and Mike Farrell have created a wonderful example of a kitchen garden in Port Townsend. 

The first thing I noticed when visiting their garden was the spectacular color and diversity — clusters of flowers, native shrubs, ferns, vegetables, fruit trees, herbs, and more. Underlying it all is a spirit of constant experimentation. As Mary says, “We try things, and keep trying things, until something loves the place.” 

A pole barn-sized fenced garden is set into the slope of the backyard. Here are individual raised beds and planting areas with herbs, vegetables, berries, grapes, columnar apples, and edible flowers. Pathways between the beds are easy to access and covered with straw for weed suppression. Next door, there’s a greenhouse that looks pretty normal from the outside. But inside, there’s a fish tank, vegetables growing from a bed of gravel, and a pleasant bubbling sound. 

Mary explains that, in her “obsession” with growing organic food in limited space, she learned about aquaponics systems where fish and plants co-mingle their needs. Mary and Mike put together a system that provides food year-round, even during the limited light of a Pacific Northwest winter.

Inside the greenhouse, their pet fish (tilapia and goldfish) provide fertilizer for the plants, and the plants provide oxygen for the fish. Three times a day, water is filtered through the gravel and returned to the 300-gallon fish tank, recycling 95 percent of the water.

Their aquaponics experiment is in its third year, producing tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, chard, and green bush beans inside a 5-by-20-foot growing space. 

In the summer, additional pots in the greenhouse produce peppers, squash, and eggplant. In winter, the aquaponics system continues to produce a variety of leafy greens. (More information on aquaponics can be found at the USDA’s National Agricultural Library 

Uphill from the greenhouse — all created since last summer — are cherry, peach, and pear trees, berries, more herbs, and flowers. Next to the backyard forest is a simple yet beautiful espalier to grow Fiji, Honeycrisp, and Gala apples. 

The big lesson learned is that you can do a lot in a small space without pesticides or waste. The principles of the traditional “keyhole” garden still apply today: 

Experimentation: Keep trying new things, using seeds and plants from a variety of local sources. The WSU Master Gardener Seed Library is a good resource to learn about seed saving and seed sharing.

Sustainability: Improve soil tilth, water usage, and drainage with raised beds and home composting (a central composting basket is found in traditional African kitchen gardens). Create outer walls or fences from local or recycled materials.

Connection: Get inspired by learning from and sharing with neighbors. Mary learns from fellow volunteers with the Quimper Community Harvest gleaners and the Raincoast Farms Food Bank that was added to the county’s food bank network in March. To help people bring fresh food from a food bank or farmers market to their kitchens, she has created a series of “Snapped Up” recipes, focused on local whole plant foods 

Mary and Mike’s garden is scheduled to be on the 2021 Jefferson County Master Gardener Foundation’s Secret Garden Tour. Mark your calendars for June 19, 2021. 

Barbara Faurot is a Jefferson County Master Gardener and Master Pruner, working with other volunteers who serve as community educators in gardening and environmental stewardship. 

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