How to Upgrade Your Home Garden, According to a Culinary Gardener
Whether you have outdoor space or just a window, this Sonoma master gardener has tips for growing herbs and produce.
This year marks my third of living in my Brooklyn apartment, which is somewhat of a novelty here, given that many New York City residents bounce from one apartment to the next every year or so, always looking for bigger, cheaper, quieter, or laundry in the building. For me, the goal has always been to live somewhere with outdoor space. In my dreams, that small spot of green then becomes my city oasis—somewhere lush and peaceful, with an elaborate garden where I can gather fresh rosemary for cocktails and lettuce for dinner. The worst part of this fantasy is the embarrassing reality that I do actually have outdoor space, and I’ve never used it to its full potential.
While I’d like to blame my lack of gardening these past two summers on growing a human and then having to take care of that tiny human, the truth is that I’ve never taken the time to figure out my space and what I can grow, which as it turns out, is a lot more than a couple pots of parsley and basil.
This year is different; spring in the time of quarantine means I’m practically always at home, and all that extra time looking outside motivated me to kick my inner gardener into gear. Luckily this is also the year I met Tucker Taylor, a master culinary gardener, who has designed some of the most iconic gardens in wine country, from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry to Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens, where he’s also currently spearheading a new truffle program. Taylor, who regularly supplies specialty produce to San Francisco’s Michelin-starred restaurants, told me exactly how to upgrade a culinary garden, no matter how bleak your situation may seem.
Think bigger than basil
Basil’s great and all, but consider what you like to eat; chances are, you can easily grow it. If you’re a beginner like me, your best bets are probably leafy crops like lettuces, spinach, kale, and chard, and root crops like carrots, radishes, beets and turnips, none of which are too complicated. Running out of windowsill real estate inside re-growing all those scallions? Surprise, they’re pretty easy to grow outside in the ground, too. Once you’ve mastered the basics, maybe take it a step further with some of the more unique crops Taylor grows out in Sonoma, like oyster leaf—a funky blue-gray leaf that tastes alarmingly similar to briny oysters.
Or take it a step further and add some ice lettuce to your garden. This relatively rare crop is a bit of a show-off; the “lettuce” is actually a succulent with a nice crunch and a salty, lemony flavor, and the tiny bubbles all over the leaf’s surface look like hundreds of glimmering diamonds. I was able to try both plants when I visited the gardens back in February, and beyond the excitement of trying a cool new food, Taylor assured me that I could actually grow these beauties at home in Brooklyn. It was enough to make me seek out the seeds, stat.
No outdoor space? Consider window boxes
If you live in a city or area without a dedicated outdoor space, by all means take full advantage of window boxes. Taylor advises maximizing your real estate by growing herbs—not only will you use them in cooking year-round, but they’ll also respond well to frequent harvesting. You can also expand beyond herbs, too.
“If you have your mind set on produce, I would suggest crops like radishes and turnips,” says Taylor. “They don’t require much space (or volume of soil) and have a relatively quick turnaround.”
Got outdoor space? Install raised beds
This summer I finally built and installed the raised bed kit I ordered online at least a year ago, which not only looks a little nicer than a few pots strewn about haphazardly, but also provides some much-needed organization to my grow operation. If you’re thinking of doing the same, plan to group plants together based on their sunlight and watering needs—summer squash, cucumbers, and melons need frequent watering, while tomatoes can tolerate a little less. While my gravel-strewn backyard can feel a little desolate during the colder months, the trees are filling out now, and I’ve been able to plot out different areas for growing based on the sun and shade patterns I was otherwise ignoring.
So far this season I’ve planted plenty of herbs, flowers, tomatoes and strawberries—all of which are blooming or sprouting fruit in their new home—and they’ll soon be joined by the group of edible flowers (bachelor buttons, calendulas, and nasturtiums) that Taylor suggested I add, which will trail over the edges of the bed, taking up less room overall, and attracting pollinators, helping everything in the bed.
I’m well on my way to the garden oasis of my dreams, but I’m not quite there yet. While I’m waiting on Mother Nature to catch up to my ambitious plans, Taylor’s garden is still producing plenty of beautiful organic produce, which is now being sold locally in Kendall-Jackson Wine Country Farm Boxes, launching to the community on Thursday, May 21 (National Chardonnay Day). I’m encouraging all of my Sonoma County friends to subscribe, so I can live vicariously through them until my oyster leaf seeds arrive.