Delicious, Nutritious Kitchen Gardens are a Growing Trend

Flavors and aromas from fresh herbs and veggies make meals treasured experiences that inspire the senses. The good news is that everyone can enjoy this simple, restorative pleasure by setting up a kitchen/small container garden that takes little space, but significantly enhances the quality of life. “People know more than they think about growing food – instincts kick in very quickly,” said Laura Meisler, St. Joe’s Farm Education Coordinator and a lifelong gardener. “In gardening there are no failures, only experiments that teach lessons. Plus you may discover a new favorite flavor.”

While many people avoid gardening after accidently killing a few innocent house plants, it’s important to remember that herbs and veggies are often more hardy and forgiving than ferns. Also they’re far more tasty. But first things first…

The set up

If your space is limited, smaller decorative containers can be used as indoor herb gardens providing classic, but diverse cooking herbs such as Basil (Genovese is popular); Oregano; Rosemary, Thyme and Cilantro. When harvesting indoor or outdoor herbs, clip from the side and your plants will keep producing. If you love Oregano and brussels sprouts, try this easy, yet delicious recipe below.

If you have a deck or porch, larger containers such as 3-5 gallon planters can be used to grow some veggies. Or if you’re frugal, make friends with your local restaurant owner and grab five-gallon pickle buckets for free. These large buckets are perfect for a range of plants.

Once you have the containers, drill about 10 3/8″ holes in the bottom of each, then deposit some gravel.  Now comes the dirt.  For a few, larger outdoor containers, you’ll want to get three or four 40lb bags of organic potting soil and one bag of peat.  (The peat will help the soil retain moisture, in case you want to go away for the weekend or you just forget to water the plants.) Mix about three-parts potting soil to one-part peat. 

Now you’re ready, what should you plant?

Fortunately, there’s a lot of options for container gardens that produce plenty of wonderful food throughout the season. Here’s a few recommendations:

  • Greens – Lettuces aren’t just ice-berg any more. Plus the names are way more cool. Today’s greens provide a range of nutritious, incredible flavors that if you selectively harvest (like your herbs) will provide meals through the season. Laura recommends heirloom greens – grow varieties not found in stores: Flashy troutback lettuce is a beautiful red and green variety and seeds are easily found.  Mizuna is fantastic green that you can also boil/blanch like spinach.  Speaking of spinach, there’s nothing better either in a salad, or tossed into a pasta dish. Purple kale is another tried and true green along with Swiss chard, that produces stalks that can be eaten like celery.  Plus kale and chard can be used for delicious juices with apples and fresh ginger root. Lastly, butter-crunch-bib lettuce is container friendly and has a very mild, sweet flavor.  Sun Needs – many greens do better in indirect sunlight, so if you have a shady part of the deck, that’s perfect for your greens.  
  • Herbs, again – In addition to the classics we already covered, Sage and Rosemary can be grown outdoors and then brought in for the winter. In addition to gracing your home with an incredible aroma, these woody herbs are essential for a wide range of recipes. Sun Needs – Most herbs, like greens do better with indirect sun.
  • Tomatoes – Of course we couldn’t do a container gardening story without talking about tomatoes. You’ll want a larger container (Those five-gallon pickle buckets are perfect) and consider cherry tomatoes. These do great in containers and many of the newer “monster” cherry tomatoes are very flavorful. Sun gold cherry tomatoes are one variety that produces a beautiful orange veggie that will add a splash of summer color to your patio or deck. Tomatoes’ root systems are dense and aggressive, so stick to one plant per bucket.  Invest in round, metal trellises that will let the plants climb and stay healthy, plus the trellises can be reused for the next growing season. Other larger tomato varieties such as Beefsteak, Best Boy or Goliath (as the name implies, they’re massive) are best left free range – they will quickly become root-bound in containers and not produce. Sun Needs – Tomatoes love full sun.
  • Veggies – Green or yellow garden beans can be grown in containers, but the trick is to not over plant.  Three, maybe four plants per five-gallon bucket should do it. Put in a few stakes to let beans grow up strong toward the sun.  Bell peppers (green, gold or red) are not only delicious, but the plants are pretty. Two plants per bucket is the maximum.   Sun Needs – Full sun

Watering and fertilizer – less is much more

The most common mistake new and experienced gardeners make is over watering. Check with your finger-tip, about ½ inch into the soil…if it’s still damp, don’t water yet.  If it’s going to rain, hold off because that fresh water will invigorate your plants. While there are a lot of products on the market to improve yield, rather than using chemical fertilizer, it’s better to go organic using a good compost and natural fertilizer such as fish emulsion but, most importantly, find joy on the growing journey.

“Gardening is not a chore or a task to get done. It’s a way to put down the phone and unplug, slow down and reconnect with life… even it’s just taking a few minutes to check the plants,” said Laura. “Caring for something that also provides us with wonderful food recharges people and restores balance.”  

Not ready to start your own garden?  No problem. The Farm at St. Joe’s, our hospital-based farm located on the St. Joe’s Ann Arbor – and now St. Joe’s Oakland campus – has an option where people can enjoy the freshest produce through the St. Joe’s Farm Share in Oakland and Ann Arbor. Think of it as an affordable subscription for seasonal produce that also supports sustainable, local growers. As part of our commitment to fighting food insecurity, The Farm in Ann Arbor offers Farm Share assistance  and The Farm in Oakland also provides help for vulnerable community members to obtain fresh produce.  

If you are interested in donating or volunteering at The Farm, please see these opportunities: The Farm at St. Joe’s Ann Arbor and The Farm at St. Joe’s Oakland.

Browned Brussels Sprouts with Oregano Dressing 

Serves 4 as a side dish 

Prep time: 10 minutes Cook time: 8 minutes 

Many of us are familiar with oregano as an ingredient in Italian and Mexican cuisine; this simple recipe brings oregano’s warm, aromatic flavor to protein-rich Brussels Sprouts. The Oregano Dressing also goes well with grilled vegetables and cold pasta dishes. 

Ingredients: 

1 ½ -2 pounds fresh Brussels sprouts 

2 Tablespoons olive oil 

Salt 

For the dressing: 

¾ cup olive oil 

¼ cup fresh oregano, leaves removed from stems 

¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped 

1 large or 2 small cloves garlic 

¼ cup salt 

¼ cup sliced almonds, toasted   

Directions: 

Place olive oil, oregano, parsley, garlic and salt in a food processor or blender; pulse until herbs are finely chopped. Add more salt to taste as desired. 

Wash Brussels sprouts, trim stem ends, and cut in half lengthwise. Toss in a bowl with 1 Tablespoon olive oil to coat. 

Heat an additional Tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Place sprouts in the skillet cut side down, sprinkle with a couple of pinches of salt, cover and cook until sprouts begin to brown (about five minutes). Test sprouts for tenderness; keep covered and cook until desired tenderness is reached. Turn up heat and cook uncovered until sprouts are brown and caramelized; toss a couple of times with a spatula to cook round sides. 

Remove from heat and toss with Oregano Dressing to taste; add nuts and serve immediately. 

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