Kitchen Garden: Best Bang for Your Buck

America went through quite a xeriscaping phase about ten years ago. Xeriscaping makes a lot of sense. It is a landscaping/gardening method developed for arid and semi-arid climates that utilizes water-conserving techniques and plants. In an arid climate such as Billings, water-conserving plants and methods are a wonderful idea, until you start considering some of that available land with an eye toward providing a kitchen garden. While kitchen gardens (typically a combination of vegetables, herbs and flowers) do take more water than, say, a yucca plant… the impact to the environment for water usage is certainly less dramatic than those same vegetables, herbs and flowers being trucked or flown here from 1500 miles away. There are several ways to look at a carbon footprint!

A resurgence of the term “Victory Gardens” has taken place in America since 2009, when economic hardship caused many to seriously reconsider urban land utilization, including that of their own backyards. Once people gave it a try, they found out that it is rewarding physically, emotionally, financially, and health-wise. Not everyone has a half-acre like Grandma did to raise row upon row of corn and green beans, nor the time to spend caretaking such a beast. With smart planning and implementation though, most homeowners can install a modest garden (100 square feet) that will save money at the store and add nutrition and variety to our supper tables. And surprisingly enough, there are xeriscaping practices that will help with even a kitchen garden. We will continue this blog series with a “Kitchen Garden Primer” for your own Victory Garden!

Following are a few varieties to consider for your own backyard. They offer the biggest “bang for your buck” as far as time and initial investment, and compared to their bland counterparts in the store.

Asparagus: Imagine with me… it is early spring. Snow patches are still melting in sheltered areas. Trees are starting to really get going with new buds. Birds are going crazy. The air is cool and sharp and alive. And what’s that poking out of the ground in your perennial (grows back by itself every year) patch? Asparagus spears! Quick, before anyone sees you, snap one or two off at the base and have a garden snack! Very fresh asparagus is simply AMAZING. You can’t buy flavor like that!

Bell peppers: Some years bell peppers just don’t do that well in Montana. But for those warmer years that they do, they do quite well! Let them get red on your plant for extra sweet flavor. They are high on the EWG Dirty Dozen list, so a good one to buy organic or grow yourself.

Broccoli: Broccoli rocks. Broccoli is delicious, crazy good for you, and very easy to grow. It’s not terribly expensive at the store, but it’s cheaper in your back garden. Once you cut the central/biggest head, side shoots will continue to develop giving you nice sized florets all the way until hard frost. And with the heirloom varieties like Purple Sprouting, or the incredible Romanesco Italia (spiraling apple-green heads), how can you resist?

Cucumbers: Who in the universe can resist a fresh, crisp cucumber? They make a great addition to salads, you can ferment them to make old-style (incredibly healthy and delicious) pickles, and they are a crucial ingredient in cold Gazpacho soup. They’re also easy to grow if you give them something to climb, and mulch them well to protect their fairly shallow roots.

Garlic: Plant cloves in the fall to get a great harvest the next summer. They’re easy, nothing munches on them, they’re fairly attractive, and you can eat the scapes raw or make a pesto from them.

Lettuce: While Costco exists on this earth, their plastic tubletts of Mixed Spring Greens are absolutely a great deal, and I’m the first to admit it. However, maybe you don’t shop at Costco. Maybe you don’t like Radicchio in your spring mix. Maybe you would just prefer to grow your own. Lettuce grows very well here! They are also on the EWG Dirty Dozen list, recommended to buy organic or grow your own, organically. While you may want to steer clear of trying to grow the head lettuces (they take a lot longer to grow and are prone to bugs), the loose leaf lettuces and Bibbs are outstanding. You can plant, cut and come again for months. Fill a bowl with snipped baby greens/lettuces (do give it a good rinsing in a colander or salad spinner) and slice one of those heirloom tomatoes you just picked over the top of it. Oh my.

Swiss chard: With stems colored like a jewel-toned rainbow, chard is hardy, easy to grow, and delicious. No fuss with transplanting, you just pop the seeds in the soil and sit back and wait for the green leaves to start shooting up. Nutritionally outstanding, they are pretty enough to plant in the front yard.

Tomatoes: Not only are conventionally grown tomatoes tasteless and bland, they are also expensive. Try buying an organic heirloom tomato to get some actual tomato flavor, and you’re paying hand over fist. While the Billings area doesn’t have the longest growing season in the nation (ours is a solid four months minimum, usually), on a good year we can get in an awesome harvest of big, meaty beefsteak type tomatoes… Brandywine, anyone? But there are many other tomato types out there, ranging from super-productive Yellow Pear cherry tomatoes to Amish Paste for making sauces, salsas, or canning. Colors range from red to yellow to white to orange to purple! There is just so very little that compares to a warm tomato plucked off your very own vine.

So there, you have several vegetables to consider. Check out one of the great garden/nursery catalogues, like www.RareSeeds.com, www.TerritorialSeed.com, or www.ReneesGarden.com for more ideas! Stay tuned for more “how to garden” information!