To achieve a successful kitchen garden, there is something much more important than plant selection: location. A kitchen garden must be close enough to run out and pick something in your slippers, in the rain, in the middle of cooking while your dinner is bubbling away on the stovetop. Your mini-harvests will be put to so much more use if they are easily at hand. You can plant your garden in a small patch of earth near the back steps, in a window box, in big containers on the porch or tuck edible plants among your perennial garden along a nearby walkway.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s move on to what to plant and what will succeed well in our Virginia gardens:
Oregano: A sun-loving perennial (it will come back each year) that also doubles as a sweet groundcover. It is great for marinara sauces and fish oreganata, or throw it in with quartered tomatoes to slow roast in the oven at the end of the season, then freeze the resulting sauce for future use in the winter months.
Berries: Black raspberries are a native plant to Virginia and grow easily. Our kids go crazy for these and eat them right off of the canes. They are good for you and make incredible preserves. Also, try blueberries; a variety such as “Sunshine Blue Dwarf” can be grown in a big barrel planter.
Lemon Balm: Steep lemon balm, also known as Sweet Melissa, for lovely teas that calm the mind or an upset stomach. You can also make herbal honey with it. Children love the flavor of this herb.
Rhubarb: This will come back year after year, and needs a bit of room to grow. Our 7a zone garden included the “Victoria” variety for years. Pair it with spring strawberries in a crumble or make rhubarb syrup for cocktails. (I like mine mixed with St-Germain elderflower liqueur.)
Basil: This is an annual that also needs full sun. I recommend “Genovese” to withstand our humid summers. Use it in the beloved, ever-popular Caprese salad, in bruschetta over toasted semolina bread with melted mozzarella, or in a basil-lime spritzer.
Cherry tomatoes: These are generous thrivers, and if you stake them correctly, they can produce through early autumn. I plant “Sungold” every year and it has never failed us. Other fun varieties include “Amy’s Sugar Gem” and “Yellow Pear” — both are available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.
Thyme: This is a tender perennial that does well at the garden’s edge. Thyme also would grow well in a nice container in a sunny spot. For a savory roasted chicken, tuck it in with a lemon. Or sauté local shiitake mushrooms with butter and oregano, toss this fragrant mixture with pasta and sprinkle with a good Pecorino Romano.
Greens: A patch of greens can be grown in a large window box or in a small raised bed. Start with arugula and lettuces such as “Black-Seeded Simpson” and “Red Saladbowl.” The younger leaves of greens tend to be a little sweeter, so you don’t need these to grow large. Just snip and eat. Try the arugula on top of pizza.