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3 Small-Effort, Big-Payoff Gardens for Cooks

Julia Bainbridge
Food Editor
March 18, 2014

Anne-Marie Gardner and her pups. Photo credit: David Harriman

Now is the time to start thinking about that garden you promised yourself you would plant this spring.

Like, right now.

We turned to Modern Farmer CEO and Editor-in-Chief Ann Marie Gardner, whose last name is quite appropriate, given that she lives in rural upstate New York and her enthusiasm for gardening is hard for her to contain. “I tend to over-plant, even when I think I’m NOT over-planting!” she confesses.

Below, three gardens she says require little effort but give you great results—if you just try a little tenderness.


Good for: Home cooks. “I love going out when I’m cooking and just chopping herbs straight out of the garden,” says Gardner.

Caveat: Start small. If you go with a manageable size (and thus, a manageable amount of time you must devote), your herb garden will yield great rewards.

Required: Healthy soil, plenty of (hopefully south-facing) sunlight, and water. For in-ground gardening, spread your plants about 1⁄2-1 foot apart. Note that mint and thyme crawl, so they need more space—or even their own spots in the garden. “Mint really does take over everything!” says Gardner. “If you have a container, say a clay pot that’s at least 12” across and 8” deep, you should be able to fit a few starters in there and that will produce delicious herbs.” Then, plan on watering your herbs every couple of days. In hotter months, water them each morning before the sun is shining in full force.

Try: Rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme, marjoram and lavender work well together, and you don’t need to water them constantly. Basil, cilantro, tarragon and parsley work well together because they like full sun, but they require more watering (in other words, more work). “It really just depends on what you cook, and of course where you live,” says Gardner. “Rosemary, in California grows like a shrub! And my sage plant (that I planted 5 or 6 years ago) is a giant bush on its way to becoming a tree!”

Next Level: “Germination can be a cost-effective way to start an herb garden,” says Gardner. Seedlings need a little love before they are ready for planting, so start this as a kitchen project. All you need is a sunny window and an egg carton.

Free-standing vertical chalkboard garden, Williams Sonoma


Good for: People with little access to land or soil (but plenty of wall space!).

Caveat: “This is maybe not for beginners,” says Gardner, “but they are very cool, and planters are becoming easier, prettier and more accessible every day.”

Required: Sunlight. Be sure to position the planter in a space that receives at least four hours of sunlight a day and that you’re using quality potting soil.

Try: Gardner likes the vertical planters at Williams Sonoma. We suggest starting with herbs, which can thrive without much space. The good thing? You might not have to water your plants every day; just feel under the soil to test whether or not the roots are dry and, thus, in need of a little quenching.

Next Level: So what if your access to soil is nil? Like, no soil at all? Two companies are making hydroponic vertical farms for home use: Windowfarms and Bright Agrotech.


Good for: Urbanites or other people short on space. “If I lived in the city,” says Gardner, “I would definitely have a kitchen garden out my window or on a terrace or fire escape.”

Caveat: “Stay away from plastic containers due to their toxic components,” says Gardner. You wouldn’t want those infecting your plants.

Required: Containers can dry out fast, so in warmer climates daily watering in the early morning or afternoon when the sun is not high might be necessary. Do not water mid-day when the sun is out, or at night, once it’s down (that’s like going to bed with wet hair, and plants don’t like that feeling either!). In cooler climates you might water every other day or third day depending on moisture levels of where you live. It depends on what you are planting, but don’t overcrowd or the plants will suffer and not grow to their potential.

Try: Almost anything with the right drainage, soil and water! Tomatoes, zucchini, squash, eggplant, beans, corn, carrots, radishes, and spinach all grow well. At your local hardware store you can find galvanized container with drainage, or put your own holes at the bottom.

Next Level: Try reusing old material from the home such as buckets, tubs, toilet, large bowls lined with rocks, anything really.

“Oh and don’t forget to talk to your plants,” says Gardner. “They really do respond to love and attention.” Don’t we all?