I never wanted this blog to only be about my kitchen garden so, from time to time, you’ll see guest posts from gardeners I’ve been fortunate enough to meet during my time in this world. This first post is written by a friend of mine who gardens in about a zone 8 where the hot, humid summers have everyone seeking air conditioned space and the best growing season is from fall to spring with a couple-of-days break for winter in between. Lisa and I met in a book group and I always looked forward to when it was her turn to host since she made the best food (and served the best cocktails). This was a few years before she started writing her lisa is cooking blog, a popular read on her attempts to actually use her vast collection of cookbooks. I didn’t think she’d mind expanding on her subject and asked her if she would describe the delicious connection between her kitchen and her garden. Enjoy!
I thought I knew gardening from watching my parents and grandparents grow vegetables in Illinois. It looked easy enough. When the weather finally warmed up, tomato plants, potatoes, and lettuce, radish, green bean, cabbage, zucchini, and carrot seeds went into the ground. It rained occasionally, things grew, we ate those things, everyone had too much zucchini, and that was vegetable gardening. After planting tomatoes for the first time in Austin, Texas, I realized that gardening in central Texas is not gardening in central Illinois, and maybe I don’t really know edible gardening as well as I thought. What I do know is that buying herbs at the grocery store is expensive. You end up with too much or not enough, and it’s much simpler to walk outside and snip exactly what you need. So, after accepting the space limitations of the area of my edible garden and really considering how much time I could devote to watering and maintenance, I realized that what would make me very happy in the way of gardening was to have as many herbs as possible with a few edible flowers.
Kirsten created a garden plan and planting guide for me, and I’m still trying to do the plan justice. In the winter, my garden gets more direct sun because nearby trees have lost their leaves. In the summer, a little shade isn’t a bad thing when the sun is at its most punishing, and one side of the garden is shaded more than the other. That means I have to plant things strategically. I have oregano on the sunny side, and that’s one thing that always does well. It survives a freeze, lives through the whole winter, keeps going strong in the heat of the summer, and adds great flavor to pizza sauces and Greek salads. I also make sure that sage gets plenty of sun, and my luck with sage is so-so. It will do well for about a year, but I’ve never had sage survive longer than that. I now know to only expect cilantro and parsley to live from fall to spring. Although, I once planted parsley on the shadier side of the garden, and it lived through the summer. Cilantro, however, is chopped and made into pesto when it gets tall and starts flowering. Pizza with cilantro pesto and sliced chicken sausage is a celebration of the end of cilantro season. Now, mint is another matter. I know how easy mint is supposed to be to grow. I’ve even read about how one should plant mint in a container in the ground so as to prevent the roots from spreading. Mint will take over your garden, I hear. It doesn’t take over mine since it never lives for long. I have no idea why I can’t grow mint, but I keep trying.
One of my favorite plants is my lemongrass which I love to use in Thai dishes and chicken soups, and I keep meaning to steep some in apple cider but haven’t tried that yet. It dies back in the winter, but it seems to get a little bigger each summer when it’s happiest. I now have four Chinese chive plants which provide visual structure in the garden and herby garlickyness in spicy chicken in lettuce cups. Kirsten gave me two plants, and I successfully divided them which is why I now have four. They don’t die back during the winter, so they’re always there bringing order to the rest of the chaos. I also have a bay laurel tree which was a gift from a neighbor years ago, and it’s so convenient to be able to grab fresh bay leaves for soups and stocks. The tree is in a large container in the middle of the garden, and it’s evergreen as well. From fall to spring, I like to have arugula and lettuces growing, but I was late in getting the seeds planted this year. I’m hoping I’ll be able to have a salad or two before the hot weather arrives and the plants wither. I completely missed the time frame for growing nasturtiums this year, but last year I had great luck with them and used the leaves in a peppery aioli. I’ve also enjoyed having violas in the past which can be candied and used for decorating cakes, and the petals of calendula flowers, which also grow best from fall to spring here, add nice color to salads and rice dishes.
Beyond my little garden’s borders, I have herbs like rosemary, Mexican mint marigold, and Mexican oregano growing as ornamentals in my front yard. Since those three grow well, it’s easy enough to snip what I need and still have plenty of plant remaining for visual appeal. Another ornamental that has culinary uses is the banana plant. Here in Austin, our winters aren’t warm enough to easily grow banana fruit, but the leaves are good for wrapping tamales or enclosing fish to be grilled. Other herbs like lavender and basil are planted in containers that sit on my porch. I keep basil in pots so I can move them to get enough sun but not too much during the extreme heat. I’m so used to having at least a couple of varieties of basil growing from about April through at least early December that I never buy basil at the grocery store. I go without for the few months that it doesn’t grow well outside and then enjoy it even more when I have it. I’ve learned a lot about what grows well in my garden and what doesn’t, and I’m always amazed at what other people are able to grow in their gardens. Figuring out what works, what you use, and what’s delicious might be the key to being a good gardener. Now, if I could just figure out how to properly grow mint.
Mexican Mint Marigold: