THE ALLURE of raising your own produce is enough to spark a primal thrill in even the greyest-thumbed cooks—and many more of us have been succumbing to it in recent seasons. According to a survey from the National Gardening Association, upward of 18 million novice gardeners have picked up a shovel since 2020.
Research shows that in times of stress, exposure to plants yields benefits for both mental and physical health. Still if your experience is limited and your yard is more alleyway than Eden, the barriers to entry can seem daunting. The solution, according to the experts I polled? Broaden your concept of what a kitchen garden can be.
“You don’t need to plant a farm,” said Timothy Hammond, a Houston-based urban gardener and educator who shares tips under the Instagram handle @bigcitygardener. “The key is to take a realistic look at your situation—how much space you have, what growing zone it’s in, how much sunlight it gets—and set yourself up for little wins.” If you’re resourceful, he added, you can make a container garden out of almost anything, from burlap bags to buckets—even an old dresser. (Pull out a drawer, drill holes in the bottom, et voilà: a raised bed.)
You might start with a salad garden made up mostly of herbs, lettuces and greens—many of which take well to container growing and can survive in spots with cooler temperatures or just 6 hours of sunlight—rather than pouring your resources into prima donnas like heirloom tomatoes, eggplants and melons that need long hours of direct sun to thrive and come with a steep learning curve.
“Everyone wants to jump right to tomatoes,” Mr. Hammond said. “But even under the best circumstances, you can only grow tomatoes for about 45 days a year. Herbs, on the other hand, can be harvested practically year round.” Much of the world, he added, cooks with herbs everyday.
Food stylist, recipe developer and cookbook author Jess Damuck once worked as
“salad chef.” Ms. Damuck says that in her Los Angeles backyard garden, she devotes prime real estate to lettuces, from bitter chicories to speckled bibb. For especially tender herbs, like dill and parsley, that can get scorched in the harsh sun, she relies on the Lettuce Grow Farmstand, a modular hydroponic tower that she calls “magical” and can be used to garden both indoors and out.
Ms. Damuck has collected her favorite harvest-based recipes in her new cookbook, “Salad Freak” (Harry N. Abrams). “A good salad can be an amazing palette for creativity,” she said. “One of my favorite things is to combine ingredients mono-chromatically—like purple snow peas with daikon and pea blossoms—so you taste with your eyes as well as your mouth.”
That said, kitchen gardeners needn’t aim for a yard full of exotics either. “Right now I’m in love with celery,” Ms. Damuck said. “It’s surprisingly easy to grow, this perfect crunchy vegetable with leaves that are like an herb built right in.” Her current favorite: an “insanely beautiful” Chinese pink variety.
Browsing seed catalogs can be a great way to get an idea of the wide array of varieties available. If you’re committed to using only open-pollinated and heirloom seeds, check out the Oregon-based company Siskiyou Seeds or New York’s Hudson Valley Seed Co. Prefer a flavor-first approach? Row 7 Seeds, whose founders include chef Dan Barber, develops new varieties of veggies and grains with an eye to both taste and sustainability.
Just don’t expect instant gratification. Many seeds need 6-8 weeks of tending from germination until they’re sturdy enough for the ground. If you’re going to start seeds in June, research what will do best in your region as a mid-summer or early fall planting. Want a head start? Skip seeds altogether and head to a local nursery to purchase seedlings, primed and ready to go.
“In my garden, I tend to focus on things I either eat all the time or are tricky to find,” said Julia Sherman, the California-based artist and writer behind the cookbooks “Salad For President” and “Arty Parties.” This spring, that included lemon verbena and holy basil for tea, fava beans, mizunas and purple mustards, arugula, calendula, cannabis (the leaves are delicious in salads) and borage, a Mediterranean herb with brilliant blue edible flowers and tender, cucumber-flavored foliage. “I’m also obsessed with iceberg,” she said. “It takes longer to grow than some other lettuces, but it’s worth it because it’s so hard to get organic.”
For Phoebe Tran, edible garden manager at Brooklyn Grange and chef/founder of the Vietnamese pop up Bé Bếp, gardening is a way to preserve connections to her heritage and community. “As a Vietnamese cook in New York, you’re incredibly limited by the ingredients you can find,” she said. “So part of my motivation is to track down traditional herbs and vegetables—like malabar spinach and rice paddy herb—and bring them back.” This season, she’s adding mini white eggplants and fish mint to the mix.
Ziza, a Los Angeles-based restorative urban farming initiative run by Nina Anakar and Nina Weithorn, combines a sprawling garden (Ziza Urban Farm) with a Moroccan comfort food pop-up and catering business (Ziza Foods). “Because we want to be an example of a creative alternative to industrial agriculture, we’re constantly experimenting,” said Ms. Anakar, whose Moroccan heritage and roots in California serve as inspiration for her weekly menus. “Right now on the farm we have over 25 fruit trees and tropical and native plants, edible annuals and perennials, and dozens of culinary and medicinal herbs.”
In her rented front-yard plot, she takes a more personal, small-scale approach heavy on container plants and staples fundamental to her cooking, like coriander, chives, dill, cilantro, fennel fronds, bay leaves, Moroccan mint and zaatar. “As a chef, herbs are one of the most important things I grow, because they’re so much better fresh than anything you can buy,” she said. Incorporated into simple recipes like the pungent Moroccan sauce chermoula, which Ms. Anakar uses in a spicy carrot salad or as a topping for grilled veggies and fish, herbs are also a garden gift that keeps giving. “Tomatoes and squash are lovely but fleeting,” she said. “But I’m still cooking with the peppers and herbs I dried last summer.”
Seed to Salad
Nine tasty, out-of-the- ordinary varieties to try
Red Malabar Spinach
In regions where summer temps stay steadily above 75 and leafy greens tend to go to seed, this heat-tolerant variety is a great alternative. $3.50, RareSeeds.com
Microgreen Pea Shoots
These sweet, tiny greens require only a small tray, a sunny windowsill and an average of 3 weeks from sowing to harvest. $4.78, WestCoastSeeds.com
Also known as land seaweed, roscano, friar’s beard or Russian thistlewort, this green has succulent leaves that snap with a salty bite. $5.15, JohnnySeeds.com
This spiny, shrubby plant produces showy white flowers and fruit that looks like cherry tomatoes and tastes like a cross between the two (cherries and tomatoes, that is). $3.50, RareSeeds.com
Chinese Pink Celery
Chinese varieties tend to be slimmer, smaller and easier to raise than European celeries—great for beginning gardeners. This vivid, bubblegum-pink specimen is no ho-hum crudité-platter filler. $4, RareSeeds.com
These cheerful flowering plants, closely related to watercress, are a cinch to grow and as pretty as they are peppery and delicious. The Alaska variety is particularly eye-catching. $3.85, UprisingOrganics.com
Big Blue Tree Collards
Homegrown collard leaves are tender enough to shred and use in salads. Tree collards—the lazy gardener’s superfood—are a hardy, shrub-like perennial variety that can live for up to 15 years. $9, ProjectTreeCollard.com
Buena Mulata Peppers
This striking heirloom cayenne starts off a brilliant purple and turns orange and red. Use it fresh in stir fries or salsas, or dried as a pantry spice. $4, TrueLoveSeeds.com
Not to be confused with the seasoning blend of the same name, the herb zaatar is a tender perennial with a flavor somewhere between oregano and thyme. To preserve your harvest, bind bunches with string and hang to dry. $6.95, TerritorialSeed.com
- ⅓ cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
- ½ clove garlic, finely grated
- 1 scallion, ends trimmed, thinly sliced on the diagonal
- 6 kumquats, seeded and sliced into thin rounds, or zest of 1 lemon
- ½ cup minced celery
- ½ teaspoon flaky sea salt
- ⅛ teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 teaspoons brined capers, drained, dried and roughly chopped
- ⅛ teaspoon celery seed
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Zest and juice of ½ lemon
- 2 romaine hearts or heads of little gem lettuce
- 1¾ teaspoons grapeseed oil
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Finely grated Manchego cheese
- 2 soft-boiled eggs
- Edible blossoms, such as calendula, chive or nasturtium (optional)
For the salsa:
For the salad:
- Make the salsa: Combine all ingredients except lemon juice. Stir to combine.
- Set a grill pan over high heat or fire up the grill. Slice romaine hearts or little gem heads in half lengthwise and drizzle with grapeseed oil, rubbing gently until well coated but still intact. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- When pan or grill is hot, place 2 lettuce-head halves, cut-side down, and sear undisturbed until you have deep-brown grill marks and edges begin to crisp, 3-5 minutes. Flip and cook 1 minute more. Transfer to a serving platter. Repeat with remaining lettuce.
- To serve, stir lemon juice into salsa. Arrange lettuce on a platter and spoon salsa generously overtop. Garnish with a healthy amount of grated Manchego, sliced soft-boiled eggs and edible blossoms, if using.
- 6 stalks celery, plus leaves from the whole head
- 1 cup grapes, halved
- 4 ounces Manchego, Pecorino or Parmesan cheese
- 6 ounces smoked almonds
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Flaky salt
- Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
- Prepare an ice bath. Slice ends off celery on a diagonal, and discard. Thinly shave stalks crosswise on a mandoline, about the thickness of a coin. Transfer shavings to ice bath along with leaves. Let soak to crisp up, at least 10 minutes, then drain, dry and transfer to a large mixing bowl.
- Add grapes to bowl with celery. Shave cheese with a vegetable peeler or very thinly slice, and add to bowl. Chop almonds with a serrated knife and add to bowl. Dress with a glug of olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper flakes, if using. Transfer to a serving bowl, platter or individual plates.
- ½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems
- 1 large garlic clove, grated or minced
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon paprika
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ¼ teaspoon ground coriander
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Chile flakes (optional)
- 1½ pounds carrots, peeled and diced
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large garlic clove, grated or minced
- 1½ teaspoons sweet paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander
- ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
- 2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
- Kosher salt
- Chile flakes (optional)
- Fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped (optional)
For the chermoula:
For the carrots:
- Prepare the chermoula: In a medium bowl, mix cilantro, garlic, lemon juice and spices to form a paste. Top with extra virgin olive oil. Stir in salt and chile flakes to taste. Set aside.
- Blanch the carrots: Prepare an ice bath. Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add carrots and cook until fork tender but still firm, 2-3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer carrots to the ice bath, then drain and pat dry.
- Finish the carrots: Heat olive oil in a heavy skillet over low heat and add the garlic and spices. Simmer, stirring constantly to prevent sticking or burning, until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Add blanched carrots and stir until well coated, 1-2 minutes. Remove from heat and add lemon juice. Transfer to a bowl and cover. Marinate in refrigerator at least 20 minutes or up to 24 hours.
- Before serving, remove carrots from refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 10 minutes. Stir in half the chermoula sauce and season with salt to taste. Garnish with chile flakes and fresh cilantro, if desired. Serve at room temperature as an appetizer, salad or side. (Remaining chermoula can be stored in the refrigerator up to three days. Use it on eggs, beans, fish, grilled meat, or roasted vegetables.)
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