My Mother's Kitchen Garden Grows Up

My Mother's Kitchen Garden Grows Up

I am lucky, living in Southern California, with a perfect climate that enables both winter and summer kitchen gardening. However, I came from Northern Wisconsin (on the cusp of hardiness zones 3 and 4) and have a full understanding of the difficulties in maintaining kitchen herbs for use all year round. I have fond memories of this time and feel blessed, having experienced my mother's kitchen gardening.

My family had a large vegetable truck farm, but my mother always had a little kitchen garden close to the house where she could easily clip and snip. Northern Wisconsin in those days wasn't the place where people understood herbs or used many. She used to grow parsley, chives, horseradish, dill, green onions, radishes, carrots, beets and asparagus all interspersed with her flower, cutting garden. She even experimented with peanuts one year. Ugh! They were bitter right from the ground. I used to love rambling through this little garden picking aphids off peonies and roses, looking for frogs or snatching bits of parsley or chive to chew on. One of the nice features of Mom's little kitchen garden was a 6'x4' hot bed with chicken wire and plastic coated cover that enabled her to have early salad greens and a good way to give plants a head start in the spring.

In the late spring my father would thin the rows and rows of beets and bring my mother a bushel of baby beets and beet greens. That was just enough, as there were nine children. We always anticipated our dinner that night; of tender beet greens with ham, onions and a few potatoes all cooked in the same pot and served with vinegar. Unfortunately, I cannot carry on that tradition, as my dear husband refuses to eat beets. He says they "taste like dirt".

A favorite before dinner errand of mine was gathering the tender dandelion leaves from where they grew wild in the uncultivated part of the yard. Of course, we didn't know the great digestive and other benefits that dandelion greens have. We just loved dandelion greens prepared with fresh green onions from the garden, vinegar, oil, salt and lots of pepper.

Long after the frost had set we used to dig up the horseradish roots from the kitchen garden. The roots once harvested, last a long time and we had fresh horseradish that would 'knock your socks off' all winter long. My Dad always said our family had 'cast iron stomachs'. My parents sure would have enjoyed the exotic and rare peppers that are available to us now. I grow them all: habenaro, Serrano, Anaheim chili, Tabasco, jalapeno, and many oriental varieties in my California kitchen garden. I can't grow that awesome horseradish though; horseradish needs heavy frost to give it heat.

My mother always had a couple of pots of parsley and chives growing on the kitchen windowsill. It wasn't much but it added good flavor to many dishes she prepared all winter long. I have fond memories of making cottage cheese and snipping fresh chives in preparation; how tasty the cottage cheese was with that little addition. Mom always had an aloe vera plant on the kitchen windowsill, just in case someone burned a finger. I remember being sent to the cellar bowels to pull carrots, parsnips and beets from the sand filled tubs where they grew in the dark all winter long. What a treat when my mother prepared these fresh vegetables in the winter.

My mother lived with me in California for a lengthily time before she passed on. She loved my herb gardens and cooking with herbs. She used to tell me how nice it would have been to know about these herbs all those years back. We prepared meals together and just like old times, I watched her snipping and clipping and chopping. Everything she did was so precise, even the chopping of parsley or garlic, almost like a celebration.

What do I grow in my California kitchen herb garden? Although I have hundreds of herbs in my garden some of my favorite kitchen garden herbs are chives, oregano, sage, parsley, rosemary, thyme, dill, coriander (AKA cilantro), French sorrel, salad burnet, lovage, basil, both summer and winter savory, calendulas, tarragon, marjoram and my favorite mints, chocolate and orange. The feverfew and lemon balm have to be beaten back every once in awhile. I let chamomile, borage and comfrey grow among the vegetables or wherever they don't get in the way. They need just a little too much room for a small garden, but are friendly herbs that get along with almost all the others. The joke was on me when I ordered this exotic seed called purslane (portulaca) from a seed catalog. After lovingly tending and nurturing it, I discovered that purslane is a weed thriving in my garden already. So, I just let the wild variety grow (it looked healthier) and weed it out if it gets too rambunctious. Purslane makes great salad. Dip it in boiling water and immediately into ice water. Serve with a vinaigrette dressing. Yum!

Since vegetables are so easy to gather at the local farmer's market all year round, I only grow a few; such as tomatoes, exotic hot peppers, chard, and white scalloped summer squash (my favorite summer squash). I have a pot on the patio that I call my 'breakfast' bush, as the southern blueberries it produces are just enough for a handful and of course I pick a handful every morning. Some of my unruly herbs are banished to the uncultivated side yard. These are horehound, fennel, epazote, cardoon and I've even noticed mint taking off on a merry run out there. My mother's kitchen garden has grown up.

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