Imagine going into your backyard at lunchtime and plucking fat lettuce leaves, a juicy tomato, and some fragrant basil for a fresh salad. Throughout history, people have grown their own food in gardens and on farms. While modern industrial farming has provided access to greater amounts of food, it has also severed the connection that humans have with the food we put in our bodies.
Fortunately, there is a restored interest in growing your own food and a renewed effort among people, communities, and institutions to utilize private and public spaces for edible gardens.
Gardens (from urban warehouses to public spaces) are bringing that connection back and with it, the enormous benefits of edible gardens. Having a relationship with our own food supply nurtures our health, spirit, community, and environment in ways that are not easily replicated by industrial production.
The traditional “kitchen garden” or “potager” descended from the Gardens of the French Renaissance and the Baroque Garden à la française eras. Structured garden spaces grown in repetitive geometric patterns, potagers were meant to provide both food and flowers for the household.
In the United States, the first White House kitchen garden was maintained by John and Abigail Adams who used it to feed their family. Various administrations following Adams have cultivated gardens on the grounds. In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama planted an 1,100 square foot vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House, the first since Eleanor Roosevelt's, and the largest to date.
Edible gardens provide many advantages, but you don’t need White House gardeners to reap the benefits of your own kitchen garden. Depending on the space you have, you might plant directly in the soil, in raised beds, or in containers. In smaller areas, grow plants vertically with the use of space-saving structures like trellises. Choose a spot that gets plenty of sun throughout the day, has rich soil, and is close to a water supply. If you don’t have any space at all, consider joining (or starting) a garden in your community.
During World War I and World War II, citizens in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Germany were encouraged to plant victory gardens in private and public spaces to stopgap a diminished food supply. During WWII, a full one third of vegetables in the US were harvested from victory gardens. Victory gardens empowered civilians in the war effort and successfully became a part of daily life during that time.
Even in times of prosperity, communities benefit from the proximity of fresh produce available in edible gardens. Besides health benefits, gardening provides a connection with nature and fun for the community. Even if your garden is in your backyard, you can share the fruits of your labor with friends and neighbors. Grow veggies like corn and zucchini and host a summertime grill, cultivate a cocktail garden full of herbs and citrus for parties, or a container of tomatoes, basil, and peppers for pizza nights. Share your bounty and create connections in your community that will benefit both you and your neighbors.
An edible garden will not only feed you physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. The effects of nature of human health and wellness are well documented; being surrounded by nature reduces stress, speeds healing, and promotes overall well-being.
Edible gardens have become so popular that some people are moving them from their backyards into full view in their front yards. This maneuver takes a little more planning, but can be a beautiful exhibition of your edible endeavor. Planting flowers, perennials, and evergreens will help fill in the gaps during harvest time. A variety of heights and materials creates a sturdy foundation for your functional space and structures like tomato cages keep things looking tidy. Erecting strong metal trellises will reveal an art installation rather than a pruned and empty eyesore in winter, so go ahead and put your garden on display.
Unsurprisingly, access to fresh fruits and vegetables increases consumption, leading to health benefits like a lower body mass index. One study showed that children in households participating in a community garden and nutrition workshop consumed an average of 2 additional servings per week of fruits and 4.9 additional servings per week of vegetables. Being part of an edible garden also provides participants with fresh air, exercise, and a safe food supply.
Have you ever savored a tomato right off the vine or berries plucked straight from the plant? The taste of fresh vegetables is a delicious side effect of the nutritional benefits of fresh produce. Ripe organic produce provides the maximum amount of nutrients and superior taste over fruits and vegetables that have traveled halfway around the world to get to you. Local produce can reduce the carbon footprint associated with year round commercial agriculture — and what’s more local than your own yard?
During WWI and WWII, victory gardens were used to reduce pressure on the public food supply. Today, managing your own edible garden gives you control over concerns like water and energy use, food waste, and pesticides. Gardeners can recycle household grey water into their gardens, compost food waste into fertilizer, and reduce trips to the store for perishables. Organic gardening actually improves the topsoil and though you don’t want ruinous pests to undo your hard work, a pesticide-free garden can be a sanctuary for beneficial insects like bees, butterflies, and ladybugs.
Nature’s connection to your spirit will have priceless and lasting effects on your well-being—and you will likely be healthier as a result. More tangibly, an edible garden will save you money on fresh produce and trips to the store (consider growing fruits and vegetables that are expensive to buy organic). The bounty of your garden can be canned to provide nutrients and savings throughout the winter months, shared with your community, or even sold. To get the most bang for your buck, consult the USDA Hardiness Zone Finder and view the planting calendar for your area and then use this online kitchen garden planner. Starting from seed is cheaper than buying plants and can offer you a greater diversity of varieties and nutrients.
Kitchen gardens are not a new concept, but modern advances like sturdy trellises, online garden planners, and self watering containers can make growing your own food easier. Go outside, find a space, and start reaping the benefits of your own edible garden today!