Gardening for Taste

From the fruit and vegetable garden to your kitchen table, it’s all about soul-stirring flavor.

To garden without taste in mind is like dieting with no regard for calories: What’s the point? Sure, there are intangible benefits to gardening for gardening’s sake. It’s relaxing to hark back to our agricultural roots—to get some dirt under our fingernails and commune with Mother Earth. But ultimately, raising your own produce is all about the endgame: Pick or pull it, take it to the kitchen and savor the flavor.

Nowadays, this lusty appetite for vegetable gardening and great taste is writ large almost everywhere we look. For a multitude of reasons—including financial belt-tightening, increased eco-consciousness, a yearning for simpler and healthier lifestyles, and concerns about the safety of the food supply—more and more families are going locavore and raising tasty specialty fruits and vegetables in their own little corners of the world. Organic foods, heirloom seeds and community-based agriculture are all the rage. And food and gardening television shows have never been more popular.

But underlying it all, taste still matters. Even scientists are confirming what our grandmothers already knew: Food we grow ourselves and take time to prepare simply tastes better. And if better taste, economics, the environment and channeling your favorite food celebrity aren’t enough to send you scurrying in search of a seed catalog, then consider that growing your own food is good for your heart. Yes, working in a garden can actually lower your blood pressure and reduce stress. In other words, your garden is like a personal trainer and health spa all rolled into one (minus the painful ab crunches).

Go Potager? Oui!

The model for my own tasting garden is the jardin potager, or French kitchen garden, which literally means “a garden for the soup pot.” The potager offers a seasonal garden of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers that dictates what’s served at the table. The soup of the day changes throughout the spring, summer, fall and winter.

This gardening philosophy ensures you’ll enjoy veggies at their peak of flavor, because they’re homegrown and picked young. Flavor is fleeting, so timing the harvest is critical. After all, you can’t get sweet succulent strawberries in September or sweet corn in April!

For the best of spring, set aside a permanent place in your garden for perennials such as rhubarb and asparagus. Plant these with your perennial shrubs and flowers, but keep in mind they’ll stay happy in that spot for the next 25 years.

Other highlights of the cool spring garden are baby lettuces and greens. There are so many varieties of Asian greens from which to choose, from sharp-tasting mustards and frilly kales to lemony sorrels and wild arugulas. Colors range from red to speckled to bright chartreuse. Greens look stunning in the garden even if you never eat them, and with such variety there’s never an excuse for a boring salad. Some herbs—such as mint, tarragon, borage flowers and chives—also reach peak flavor in the spring.

One of my favorite spring delicacies is green garlic. In my garden, garlic bulbs I plant in fall are fully ripe and ready for harvest in early July. In spring, when the bulbs are immature, dig up a few and use them like green onions. The delicate garlicky flavor is a rare spring joy you won’t find in any grocery store.

Delicious Days of Summer

This summer, plant what you love to eat. The quintessential soup of summer is gazpacho— a refreshing cold tomato soup with bits of cucumber, zucchini, hot pepper and sweet corn, laced with basil, dill and Italian parsley for flavor. These edibles thrive during long, hot days and are best ripened on the vine, harvested and eaten immediately.

Plant many varieties of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and summer squash for all the ways you love to cook. Choose dense paste tomatoes such as Amish Paste for bright-red marinara sauce, colorful cherry or pear tomatoes like Black Cherry for roasting and drying and favorites like Brandywine, Black Krim or Orange Banana for great-tasting fresh.

Oodles of pepper varieties vary in shape, size, heat and flavor. They don’t have to be green and they don’t have to be mild—unless that’s how you like them. In that case, try the huge Ozark Giant. For bold, smoky flavor, give Holy Mole a go; it’s perfect for ­traditional Mexican sauces. Surprise your friends and children with colorful varieties such as Chocolate Beauty, a sweet pepper that ripens to a chocolate brown, or Purple Jalapeno.

Eat Green for Earth Month

Planting your own veggies can help you stay green, too. Our friends at the Nature Conservancy are offering these five tips for eating green.

  • Eat Smart. Know your food–what’s in it, where it came from and who it impacts.
  • Eat Local. Support local farmers and ranchers.
  • Eat Sustainable. Learn more about sustainable food and how to cook it.
  • Eat Green. Incorporate more vegetables and fruits into your diet.
  • Eat Out. Picnic for the planet. Join thousands of people around the world and have a picnic on Earth Day.