Growing your own food is all the rage now, with gardens and farms popping up all over cities across America. A kitchen garden takes its name from the French tradition of the potager garden, where flowers are mixed together with herbs and fruit trees and vegetables in symmetrical, repeating patterned plots separated by stone or brick paths.
In San Francisco, finding appropriate space for a garden can be a challenge. To start, many urban dwellers live in apartments and need to get a thumbs up from fellow tenants, landlords, and sometimes even adjacent neighbors. Secondly, many San Franciscans do not have transportation large enough to haul valuable resources — namely mulch, plants, manure, and lots of cardboard (for sheet-mulching, but we’ll get to that later).
Urban dwellers who have dreams of exercising their green thumbs — and might be specifically interested in growing food — have had two options: co-opt a plot in a community garden or serve as a volunteer or an intern at a far-away rural farm, with support from a WWOOF host family or local producer.
The wait list for a community garden plot in San Francisco has an estimated 700 residents caught in a holding pattern; demand can not keep up with supply. And WWOOFing is a major commitment, one that requires dropping your current lifestyle to try out farming for a few weeks or a month or a year. We believe there should be other options.
A garden before (above) and after (below) the KGSF crew worked their magic. Photo credit: Kitchen Garden SF. Used with permission.
Kitchen Garden SF (KGSF) emerged from the Urban Permaculture Institute’s Design Course (PDC) in response to the growing need to share resources and knowledge, as well as divide the extensive installation effort, in order to grow food together. After working on almost a dozen gardens, we realize there are a couple of key ingredients needed to create a successful kitchen garden.
The best kitchen gardens are those built with community support and a broad range of ideas and strategies from which to choose. Neighbors or friends who garden together may share the work and may also share the harvest. Growing food can require a good chunk of time and energy investment; it's always more fun and inspiring to dig in and work toward a common vision together. With very little money, a few friends, shared resources, and a potluck lunch, a kitchen garden can be born.
A How To: Kitchen Gardens, Coming to a Backyard Near You
1. Vision: Discuss the goals of the main garden steward or family. What are their favorite vegetables? How much time do they spend outdoors? Do they enjoy cooking? Do they enhance their nutrition, form a reason to socialize, and meet new neighbors? Do they want to sell their produce to a local restaurant or CSA?
2. Site Assessment: Do they plan to share the maintenance and harvest work with others? Are the helping hands and supporters residents? What skills do the main and supporting gardeners have among their group?
3. Design: After a site visit and discussion with the main garden steward, Kitchen Garden SF initiates the design process of residential spaces into food-producing gardens and, simultaneously, organizes a garden workday to complete the installation.
4. Gather Resources: Tools, plants, buckets, wheelbarrows, manure, and cardboard can each play important roles in helping an installation day evolve smoothly. Local, organic material is necessary to create a kitchen garden that the average San Franciscan can afford. And, just as importantly, redirecting products from the waste stream such as cardboard, into shareable resources improves our environment as well as our community. We are lucky to have Bayview Greenwaste — local landscapers leave their clippings, leaves, and branches at their business on the edge of town, after which it is flipped and churned over several months into a rich, steamy mulch. They offer it to the gardening and non-profit community for free and will also deliver it for a reasonable fee.
Seeds and plants are also a major component of the new garden, and the SF Seed Library makes this task fun and free. They have a catalog of plants that thrive in our local climates and micro-climates, and you can “check out” the seeds, contribute to valuable research, and browse through dozens of amazing kales, beans, and beneficial and edible flowers such as yarrow (perennial native) and borage (great in salads, plus bees love it!).
Work gets underway at the Sunshine Castle garden. Photo credit: Kitchen Garden SF. Used with permission.
In one of our biggest projects, KGSF helped design and coordinate a garden workday at the Sunshine Castle, the headquarters for the Wigg Party, a group of local activists fighting for bicycle safety and advocating for local community resilience. Because 80 percent of the backyard was covered with concrete, we crafted a raised bed out of fresh urbanite — broken pieces of concrete — and soil from the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Center’s Recycling Center and Native Plant Nursery. The concrete came from squares of sidewalk that were removed by Friends of the Urban Forest to plant street trees in the Castro, a nearby neighborhood.
Strengthening community using a garden is a great way to share resources, such as compost, cuttings of perennial vegetables, and seeds. It also expands our knowledge when we offer experience on varieties that do best in the neighborhood and share the best ways to deal with common pests. But the lasting effects of building a community around a garden are often the immeasurable virtues of resilience and good health.
What you should know if you’re a first-time kitchen gardener:
Planning for the season is smart, but don’t forget to plan for succession! One is short-term, and the other is long-term, protracted planning to provide consideration for the plants that want to be rotated, that you want as shade, and that you love enough to keep around year after year.
What this means… some things you will want to plant every year (annuals) such as tomatoes and garlic. Other plants will thrive all year round, such as rosemary, and some of these perennials will only bloom and fruit once per year, such as artichokes. Think about the size of your plants and try to do your best not to shade out sunny spots
Corn, beans, and squash: aka The Three Sisters
Tomatoes and basil and lemon balm
Carrots, radishes, and lettuce
Strawberries, chard, and borage
Marigolds help build soil. These members of the asteracea family repel nasty nematodes, which can wreak havoc on your edibles.
Nitrogen fixers include pigeon pea, clover, and favas.
A cover crop such as buckwheat or clover, which has nitrogen-fixing properties, is a great thing to buy in bulk from local health food stores and sprinkle liberally all over your yard during the start of the rainy season and early winter.