A Colorado Kitchen Garden

potagertomatoThe American kitchen garden may have reached its zenith with the victory gardens of World War II, but it’s on the upswing again. This time taste and unique cultivars, rather than survival, rally the troops.

Gardeners around the world plant a kitchen garden reflecting their cultures—ginger and bok choy for the Chinese, radicchio and garlic for the Italians. Consider the French kitchen garden–the potager. Marigolds nestle alongside Marmande tomatoes and Genovese basil. Zinnias parade next to leeks and fennel. Thyme billows through the cracks of a brick walkway. The tendrils of green peas reach out to a border of nasturtiums. A fence offers the chance to espalier fruit trees and strawberry plants drape from terracotta pots on stone steps.

In a plot no bigger than a patio, there’s enough to feed a family of four and present fresh flowers for the table. So important is this backyard garden to French families that government officials estimate nearly 23 percent of French vegetables and fruits originate from the potager.

But besides providing basic foods, the potager is designed for companion planting. Marigolds, tomatoes and basil are long time associates. Marigolds are beneficial to tomatoes, organic gardeners say, because they attract destructive nematodes away from the tomato roots.

There’s anecdotal and some scientific evidence to give credence to these long held truths, even so, a potager is not a large farm where horticultural experimentation could produce evidence. It’s usually a small patch with a few well-chosen plants and flowers. Not everything French will grow well in Colorado, but we have vegetables and annual flowers of our own that deserve to be paired.

There are some restrictions. Vegetables and flowers must be chosen for the season—cool-loving vegetables with cool-loving flowers, for example. Companion plants must be amenable to the same soil, water and fertilizer conditions which allow each to thrive.

THE SPRING GARDEN

potagerlettuceSpinach is spring’s eager vegetable. Planted in the fall, you’ll have jade leaflets jutting through the snow. New spinach leaves are as crisp as taffeta and they’ll be up before any other vegetable. You can pair spinach with velvety pansies.

Nature’s most cheerful flower not only is perky in cold weather, but edible, too. Plant potted pansies in the fall with spinach and they’ll be companions when they mature in April until each bolts from hot weather.

You can plant them in the early spring, too. Pair them with larkspur and lettuce. Nearly every form of lettuce likes to be planted in the cool spring weather as soon as the soil can be worked. That’s true for larkspur, but all of the larkspur is poisonous, so it won’t serve as an edible. Lettuce and larkspur will grow at nearly the same rate, under the same conditions—cool weather, dampish soil with plenty of humus. Cloudy weather is perfect. Here’s a planting calendar and suggested companion plantings. All the flowers are annuals. You can till them in after the fall frost.

But not all the vegetables are annuals. Rhubarb, asparagus, garlic, leeks, strawberries and raspberries last for more than one season. If you want to plant flowers with long-lasting vegetables, choose perennials.

SPRING SEEDS AND ROOT STOCK TO PLANT AFTER MARCH 15

  • Vegetable seeds: spinach, turnips, radishes, peas, parsnips, lettuce, kohlrabi, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, chard and kale seeds.
  • Root stock (perennials):  onions sets, rhubarb, shallots, raspberries and strawberries.
  • Flower seeds: alyssum, larkspur, cleome, calendula and annual candytuft
  • Herb seeds: parsley (all kinds), chives

AFTER APRIL 15

  • Transplants rather than seeds: broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.
  • Root stock: Asparagus (perennial) and potato roots (annual).

AFTER MAY 1

  • Seeds: beans, corn

AFTER MAY 15

  • Seeds: melon family such as cucumber, pumpkins, squash

THE SUMMER GARDEN

It’s not until after the average frost date of May 15—or even May 30 to be cautious–that you’ll be able to set out tender transplants such as tomatoes, marigolds and basil. These time-honored companions have grown alongside for generations. Each is tender to cold, and adapts to the same amounts of fertilizer and water. Marigolds originate from South Africa, tomatoes from Peru and basil from the South Seas. Despite such geographical distances, they thrive under similar conditions and marigolds are beneficial for tomatoes.

But there are other winning combinations, too. Plant zinnias and cosmos with eggplant, peppers and beans. Both zinnias and cosmos germinate quickly and adapt to garden soil conditions. About the same height as eggplant and peppers, they’ll provide strips of bright color.

For plants that trail, like squash and cucumbers, consider nasturtiums. Chefs will tell you that these peppery flowers are the tastiest of all edible flowers. They, like the squash plants, are as fast growing as they are tender. Both must be planted after the last frost.

Nasturtiums are best planted as a border around the squash. Since squash will sprawl in all directions, nasturtiums, in a tidy row around the squash, won’t get in the way. Nasturtiums come in bright red, orange and yellow colors that complement the yellow squash blossoms. You can get them in pastels and also striped white with reds and orange in a cultivar called ‘Alaska.’

Native Americans planted corn, beans and squash together. Called the “sister” plants, the corn provided a stalk for the vines of beans. The sprawling squash shaded the roots of the beans and corn. But there’s another American stalwart flower that grows well with corn. The sunflower is as tall and majestic as corn. Planted together neither competes for the sun or soil. They’re perfect “sisters,” too.

Herbs that grow well in your potager are parsley, basil, dill and cilantro. These herbs will benefit from the soil amendments, water and fertilizer of the garden. Many other herbs will not. Thyme, mints and sage are perennials that deserve a garden of their own. They’re from the Mediterranean and like lean soil with less water.

SUMMER SEEDS AND TRANSPLANTS FOR AFTER MAY 15

  • Transplants: cucumbers, tomatoes, melons, squash, peppers, celery, eggplant, pumpkins, marigolds, basil, dill, cilantro
  • Seeds: nasturtiums, cosmos, sunflowers, morning glory, zinnia,