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How Does Your Garden Grow?

by Kathryn Boughton

It has been a cool, slow spring to date, but things promise to heat up for gardeners in June when Ellen Ecker Ogden, author of The Complete Kitchen Garden, comes to town to kick off the Cornwall Library’s Books and Blooms celebration.

The event starts Friday evening, June 9, at 6PM at the library with a talk, Kitchen Garden Design: The Art of Growing Food, by Ogden, with a cocktail reception following. A silent auction, with an hour-long garden consultation with Ogden as the prize, is underway and the winner will be announced June 9. The high bidder need not be present to win. Call the Library at 860-672-6872 to place a bid.

Ogden, a food and garden writer and lecturer on farm-to-table cooking, emphasizes the beauty of the kitchen garden as much as its utilitarian benefits. “I love a beautifully designed garden,” she said. “It creates a deeper connection. I don’t talk about how-to techniques—they are very individual and can take a lifetime to learn. My talk is about what elements you need for a beautiful garden.”

One element you do not need is a lot of space, she insists. “You start small,” she said. “You can always expand. When you put in a large garden, it’s weedy fast. That’s not much fun.

“A kitchen garden is not for growing all the food you want to eat,” she continued. “We have wonderful farmers’ markets where we can buy vegetables. A kitchen garden is for growing the kinds of things you can’t buy—like some tiny, little exotic cucumber, for instance.”

She said her own kitchen garden consists of 40-foot-square plots. “That 40-feet includes not only the vegetables, but a bench, an ornamental tree and a row of peonies for ornamentation. If you can only do one thing, put in a bench—I use mine all the time.”

To effectively use a small space and still create beauty, a plan is essential, she said. “You need to sit down and draw a plan. A 25-square-foot garden can grow an enormous amount of salad greens and herbs, but it takes time to visualize. A kitchen garden is like a blank garden every year; you can always change it to accommodate the season and your mood.

“Everything I learned about gardening, can be traced from my art school education,” she said. “Keep a sketchbook for ideas, take chances with color, be patient and observe, make changes when necessary.”

During her talk she will explore different ways to structure paths and bed. “First-time gardeners often put in raised beds and that locks you into a space and a shape. If you go with more traditional flat beds, you can change so much more easily. You want to create entrances and exits that are enclosures that encapsulate the space so it doesn’t look wild. You have to consider how to simplify, to put everything in one place so you are not a slave to the garden.”

She said many raised-bed advocates buy bagged soil because they believe it is better than the soil their property provides naturally. “My soil wasn’t good either, now it is very rich,” she said. “Soil is the one thing people don’t spend enough times learning about. Soil is an art and a science.”

In considering where to place the garden, Ogden advises keeping it as close to the house as possible.

Some of her advice is unorthodox. In New York and Connecticut, deer scavenge gardens. How to control them is the most frequently asked question she receives. “So often I see people put a fence up before they even know if they have a problem. I always say, ‘Get a dog,’” she quipped. “There are so many interesting sprays people use, but deer and rabbits don’t like human scent, so you can just get your teenage son to go out and pee around the garden.”

She admits to “pushing the season,” wanting to get her plants in early every year. But old wives’ tales have their place even in modern agriculture. “If there is a full moon within six days of Memorial Day, you will have a frost,” she said. “I’m always trying to beat the calendar, but you can always throw a sheet or light weight fabric over your plants if it gets cold. It’s hard to wait in the spring.”

Ogden and her family established a seed catalog in the 1980s. “I had started a design business and planted a garden at our Vermont home. To say it was successful would be an overstatement, but inspiration came from classic European-style kitchen gardens where I also discovered hard-to-find heirloom seed varieties that were far more interesting than traditional varieties. In 1984, I co-founded The Cook’s Garden seed catalog, introducing gardeners to the best-tasting European and American heirloom varieties.”

Her kitchen gardens have been featured in the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, the Boston Globe, and Horticulture Magazine among others.

On the second day of Books and Blooms, June 10th, between 10 AM and 4 PM, garden enthusiasts can tour five local gardens: Mary Ellen & Andrea Geisser’s woodland raised-beds garden; Laurie and David Hodgsons’ diverse outdoor living area; Ridgway Farm, the first certified organic farm in Connecticut; Betty Spence’s raised-bed vegetable garden; and Joanne Wojtusiak’s below-road-grade forest-like niche.

During the event the library will sell new and out-of-print gardening books.

Contact the library for tickets, which are priced at $30 per person, or $50 per person for both Friday and Saturday events at 860-672-6874 or click the link below.