The RHS Kitchen Garden
What a great sign that the flagship garden at RHS Hampton Court this year is a kitchen garden. I’m excited by edible gardens of all shapes and sizes and like nothing better than to spend an afternoon pottering round an extensive walled kitchen garden in the sunshine, reading the labels and dreaming about having my own walled garden and team of gardeners to maintain it. However I, like most people, have a much more modest garden which also has to accommodate a shed, bins, BBQ, children’s toys and a washing line. And what if your garden is a small patio or even just a windowsill? What if you have no area upon which the sun smiles for six hours of the day? Will kitchen gardening remain a beautiful dream?
In the RHS Kitchen Garden, Juliet Sargeant explores different ways to grow fresh food in small spaces and in cost-efficient ways. This is a garden bursting with ideas, designed to inspire with simple labels throughout explaining the thinking behind the planting. Whether it’s reusing an old fish tank, building a simple compost bin or munching on your shrubs, there are ideas here for everyone to take home…
1. Plant a Living Wall
This is the edible cooking bench which is the setting of The Hairy Bikers’ Kitchen Garden Live on BBC1 each morning this week
Vertical space is used in different ways in the garden. I loved this edible bench with its mix of viola, sage, curry plant, parsley and oregano. In reality, few of us are likely to have an entire outside bench covered in edibles. More achievable are the inexpensive hanging pockets which can be attached to the wall and filled with edible plants. I liked the way a variety of greens are used here with the silvery curry plant (Helicrysum italicum), dark sage and bright green parsley. The white and blue violas add a sprinkle of colour and their petals can also be used in ice cubes, on salads or crystallised in cakes.
A simple wall storage unit filled with strawberry pots
This storage unit looks great and something similar (possibly smaller) should be fairly easy to buy or construct and then treat with weatherproof paint, although a piece constructed specifically for outdoor use would no doubt have a longer life. In fact, I’m tempted to throw the children’s toys out of our similar unit and relocate it on the patio as a way of gaining more planting space in the garden!
This runner bean wall is another way to capitalise on the vertical space against a sunny wall. With wires between the top and bottom frames, the beans can very quickly cover the wall and could be planted in pots or the ground. A simple cane structure could also be used, although this metal frame would be strong and durable, and could be removed in the winter months. For added variety, the beans could be interspersed with morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea), black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata) or sweet peas to add (non-edible) annual colour to the display. This method of growing could also be used with peas or even courgettes, cucumbers and squashes, which love to climb and welcome the extra sunshine accessible in an elevated position. In this way, crops can be grown which otherwise might struggle for space in a small garden.
2. Grow Meals in Pots
Container edibles are so accessible for small gardens and community spaces, with the only drawback that they require more watering than crops in the ground. I love growing herbs for teas – lemon verbena, a range of mint, lemon/lime balm (which can cope with some shade), scented-leaved pelargoniums and bergamot. These meal pots are fun for children to grow and provide a delicious small space solution to growing edibles. It could be taken even further with a small tray of pots growing chillies, lemon grass, mint, chives, salad leaves or basil, for simple summer meals and hot drinks or iced infusions.
3. Make a Simple Brick Compost Bin
This compost bin is stylish and easy – designed to grow over time
If there’s no room for a traditional compost bin or the idea of a plastic bin is unpalatable, Juliet offers an alternative in this brick circular compost bin. If you have spare bricks lying around or can get some through a recycling site like Freecycle, this could be a cost effective way to start composting. Best of all, its temporary nature means it can be relocated easily once the compost is ready to use.
4. Colour Your Veggies
I’ve always been fascinated by colour in edible planting. This kitchen garden uses both colourful vegetables like the blue cabbages, chocolate millet, rainbow chard, purple kale, kohl rabi and pak choi interplanted with vibrant flowers – edible calendula flowers and dahlias (whose roots are the edible part – although not all varieties are said to taste good). In particular I loved the combination of dark Redbor kale with Dahlia ‘Bishop of Leicester’ with its deep purple foliage and soft pink blooms – no flowerbed could be more beautiful to my eyes.
5. Use Aquaponics
The aquaponics crops looked delicious
I knew very little about aquaponics, so it was interesting to talk to Emerald from Aquaponic Life, a Community Interest Nonprofit Company, who had set up this section of the garden. She told me that aquaponics are a viable option for small gardens or even indoor fishtanks. The closed-loop system involves using the nitrogenous waste excreted by the fish to provide nutrients for the plants which are grown hydroponically (in water without using soil). The plants, in turn, filter the water, which is returned clean for the fish. This continuous cycle uses 90-98% less water than conventional methods. Aquaponic Life run courses in their home town of Brighton to train people about how these systems can be used in homes and gardens. The company is currently crowdfunding to develop their home aquaponics system so that more people can use this sustainable method of food production. They also hope to develop their work in school and universities, and create an urban farm in or near the centre of Brighton as a teaching resource to help put food security back into the hands of families and communities. I will be watching and supporting their progress with interest and if we acquiesce on the pet front with the children next year, maybe Tilapia will be our pet of choice.
6. Munch on Petals
If you’re going to interplant flowers and vegetables/fruit in a kitchen garden bed, why not use edible flowers to extend the range of crops? Alternatively, your existing garden flowers can provide decorations and salad ingredients throughout the year. In the RHS Kitchen Garden, Juliet has included a colourful flowerbed to attractive pollinators, with the added advantage of using edible flowers. Dianthus, agastache, lavender, calendula, hollyhocks, and campanula are amongst the edible flowers in the garden. We also grow borage and nasturtiums in the vegetable beds to bring in the insects and provide edible flowers for the kitchen.
7. Use Straw Bales
This is an idea I’d like to try out on my allotment next year
This is a new one on me, although I have heard of straw bales being used at the allotment to create hotbeds. Juliet has planted strawberries and melons in compost within the straw bales. I particularly liked the melon ‘Ogen’ which is grafted onto courgette root stock so that it can tolerate the UK climate better. Seeds can even be sown onto bales if a 5cm layer of compost is added first and with the extra heat created, crops like melons are more likely to be successful on straw than in the ground. The only concern I’d have about using straw bales is the possibility of herbicides or in the straw. One solution would be to use organic straw or to investigate the provenance of your material before you use it.
8. Eat your trees and shrubs
With well over 2,500 edible plants across the world, the UK relies on perhaps twenty main crops, ignoring thousands of others which would grow in our climate. Trees and shrubs are a good example, with many common indigenous and non-native species offering food which we choose not to use. Elderflowers and berries, young lime (Tillia cordata), silver birch (Betula pendula) and beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves, mahonia berries, fuchsia berries and rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) berries (cooked in jams) are all examples used in the garden, although if you have found a fuchsia berry which tastes delicious on cereals without the astringent aftertaste which I so dislike, please do let me know.
9. Try more unusual plants
Daylilies create drama in the garden and provide food
I love trying out new edibles – both to see how they grow and to experiment in the kitchen. Some of my new acquisitions this year include hardy ginger (Zingiber mioga with edible young shoots and flowerbuds) and Caucasian spinach (Hablizia tamnoides with spinach-like leaves). Juliet has included bamboo, hostas, daylilies and ferns in her garden with useful tips on growing and cooking with them on the labels.
If you already have bamboo in the garden, this snack should be easy to come by
10. Use herbs as ground cover
Make thyme for herbs
Herbs have so many different uses in the garden – I use them as hedges, in my green roof and for scented ground cover. In this garden both thyme and rosemary are used to cover the ground beneath the trees. As well as looking good, they bring in pollinating insects and provide leaves for stews, soups and marinades. My favourite ground cover herbs are the woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) and chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) in my gravel path, as they seem pretty indestructible, drought tolerant (once the chamomile is established) and soften the hard edges of the stepping stones with their delicate leaves.
11. Grow dwarf fruit varieties
If it’s too big don’t despair – just choose a dwarf variety
Kitchen gardens have been using dwarf varieties for centuries, but their are still new crops being developed to increase the range of plants available to the small scale gardener. Mulberry Charlotte Russe is the latest example, offering a dwarf shrub (growing to about 1.5m) where other Mulberries would be well beyond the scope of most small gardens. It won the 2017 RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year award and is capable of fruiting in its first year. I have heard reports that the fruit taste is disappointing, but can’t comment as mine was devoured by the slugs in its first few weeks. It is now recovering in the greenhouse, but I’ll need to wait until next year to join the taste testing.
12. Celebrate the shade
Most traditional vegetable benefit from at least six hours of sunshine during the growing season. However, there are exceptions and some more unusual crops which will cope with shady areas. Hostas and ferns are good examples, alongside the more conventional salad greens, Swiss chard, beetroot, kale and pak choi. If the shady area is under an established tree, try creating a raised bed to give added soil depth or planting in seasonal containers.
Do you have any other top tips for creating a practical, modern kitchen garden? Have you found any of these ideas successful? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment and happy edible gardening.
If you’d like to read more about edible and sustainable planting at Hampton Court, check out my post on London Glades: Forest Garden Solutions For Urban Spaces at RHS Hampton Court Flower Show and follow my blog as I experiment with all manner of fruit, vegetables and herbs…
Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Not everyone reacts positively to all edible plants or other plant uses. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.