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Kitchen gardens enjoy renaissance, from White House on down



This year is the year.

No more paying $3 for a small packet of "fresh" herbs at the grocery store. Instead, invest that same amount of money into a few rosemary plants, stick them in the ground, and you'll be snipping fresh sprigs of the fragrant herb all summer long. Not a gardener? No problem. Anybody can grow things.


It seems so simple " a few easy-to-grow varieties of vegetables that will go from the yard to the table in a matter of seconds. In fact, a yard is not really a requirement, just sun. Basil in one pot, a tomato plant and salad greens in another. The yield will be enough to enjoy with some consistency throughout the summer.

The French have grown potagers " or kitchen gardens " since medieval times. Same goes for the Italians. Slices of beefsteak tomatoes layered with basil and buffalo mozzarella, the classic Italian insalata caprese. Is there anything better?

During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson's wife planted vegetables on the White House lawn, inspiring the Liberty Garden campaign that later became the Victory Gardens of World War II. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt famously grew a Victory Garden, and now, first lady Michelle Obama has tilled the White House earth to plant fruits and vegetables for her family, visitors and staff to enjoy.

Steve Hill, a lifelong gardener and owner of Steve Hill Landscape Design in Norman, makes his living designing ornamental landscapes for other people. In his own lush back yard near the campus of the University of Oklahoma are a number of square, raised garden beds with a variety of vegetables and generous pathways in between.

"It used to be that people would till a large piece of ground and measure off long, even rows for planting," he said. "What you see here is square-foot gardening, which I have been practicing for about 20 years. It is more about planting in small spaces with pathways between so you can reach things easily to water, weed and harvest. Then, you vary the heights of your plants, from small in the front to tall in the back."

To get started on a small kitchen garden, Hill recommends having the soil tested to see what is in it and plant accordingly. Then, make sure the choice garden spot sits in a place with good sun and that it will drain well.

The easiest plants to start with are lettuce, along with spinach, tomatoes, zucchini, okra and peppers. If you don't have a lot of open space in which to plant, Hill said planting edibles in a regular garden is a great option.

"I planted watermelons out in my front last summer and it certainly got a lot of attention," he said. "Pepper plants look really pretty in a regular garden bed, and okra is a beautiful plant as well. You can grow vegetables anywhere."

When it comes to herbs, basil is the way to go. It loves hot weather and does not need much water. Rosemary and thyme are good options as well, along with cilantro and Greek oregano. Mint is also easy, but needs to be contained or it will run wild.

At Lloyd Blackmon's house, the carillon from the nearby Oklahoma Memorial Union plays in the background as he stands in his small backyard garden. "Being out here is a kind of therapy for me," he said. "I like being outside, growing food, flowers and herbs. Everybody should grow food."

He's been gardening for 30 years and certainly knows his way around the dirt. Blackmon keeps his garden as organic as possible, including producing his own compost pile.

A small muscadine grape arbor provides much needed shade in the summer. Herbs are on one side, vegetables on the other. Potatoes, onions, tomatoes, peppers, leeks and lettuce are well on their way. Blackmon has grown just about everything imaginable but says now he sticks with what he and his wife will eat.  

For the uninitiated, Blackmon suggests consulting the time honored "Farmer's Almanac," which he uses as well.

"Having a garden is not hard," he said. "You have to want to do it, but start small with some tomatoes, lettuce, things you like to eat."

Seems like good advice.

As does one last recommendation by Hill: a visit to the county extension service. This is where new and experienced gardeners will find county-specific growing information and a master gardening program. In Norman, a demonstration garden is open during the Saturday Farmers' Market at the county fairgrounds. The best part is that most of the information is free.

Here's to the year of the kitchen garden. "Susan Grossman

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