Art Institute - Grow Your Own Vegetables

More lovers of local food are tending the most basic supply chain for their produce: garden to kitchen to table.

“As a chef and as a food lover, having access to food that is that local and fresh is an unsurpassed thing,” said Renée Loux, green expert and organic chef.

Any food begins to slowly leech its flavor and its nutrients once it’s harvested, Loux says. So, to simply walk outside to a garden or a pot and grab a tomato or basil often ensures the best possible flavor.

Steve Venne, Chef Director for the International Culinary School at the Art Institutes International — Kansas City, seconds the point by saying: “Even fresh vegetables from high-end markets are not as fresh as home grown.”

The ultra-local food movement is finding converts among the ranks of restaurant owners, too. Thomas Keller’s French Laundry famously boasts a three acre garden across the street in Yountville, Calif. In Rockland, Maine, Melissa Kelly and Price Kushner have turned the grounds of their Primo restaurant into extensive garden spaces and greenhouses.  
At The Art Institutes International — Kansas City, a garden should supply the culinary school with fresh herbs all summer, Venne says. Culinary programs at other schools in The Art Institutes system also draw on their own garden produce, says Joseph Bonaparte, the Director of Curriculum and Quality Assurance at the International Culinary Schools.

The system’s school in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, has a “beautiful garden the size of a volleyball court,” Bonaparte says. In an Ai InSite article last year, Bonaparte explained how he created a garden while working as an instructor at The Art Institute of Houston as a way to introduce fresher ingredients into school kitchens.

Growing your own vegetables isn’t just tasty, it also can be good for the environment and cost effective.

“First and foremost, it’s as local as it gets,” says Loux, who is the author of several books and cookbooks including The Balanced Plate and The Whole Green Catalog.

Gardening for the kitchen eliminates the need to drive to the farmers’ market. Plus, the practice can reduce your carbon footprint, providing the planet with more plants that promote oxygen and pull carbon dioxide from the air.

“It’s a way to offset the impact of living,” Loux says.

Actually keeping a garden “green” means avoiding chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Even if vegetables are rinsed, any kind of chemical can invade the plant, Loux says.

She recommends companion planting — mixing in plants that naturally repel pests. For example, marigolds are a natural insect repellant (and they are edible). And anything in the allium family (green onions, chives) are naturally pest resistant and offer a quick harvest.

The harvest also can save cash. According to Better Homes and Gardens, a $2 tomato plant can easily provide 10 pounds of fruit over the course of a season.

For the average non-gardening household, getting started on growing your own vegetables may seem daunting. But creating a garden is not as difficult as you might think — even for those who lack green thumbs.

One of the easiest ways to start is with fresh herbs. Basil, thyme, rosemary, mint, cilantro and dill are all easy to grow and fairly hardy. They offer quick rewards because they can be harvested soon after they are planted. And it’s a great way to procure hard-to-find and expensive varietals, such as basil varieties (lemon basil, purple basil, thai basil).

Herbs also lend themselves well to pots, which are a convenient way to start gardening, Loux says. Pots work well in any small space and can be rotated with the sun. And they eliminate the need for soil prep, as you can just add your own high quality potting soil without concern for the soil conditions in your area.

Loux recommends beginner gardeners skip the seeds and go with starts (young plants), which are readily available at home and garden centers.

Other items for your first garden plot or container: tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, peppers, snap peas, green onions, summer squash, and green beans. Also good are salad mixes, including mesclun mixes, which are easy to start from seed, says Loux. She also recommends arugula, which is not very susceptible to pests.

Finally, gardeners should learn what grows naturally and easily in their region. Pros at the nearby farmers market, hardware store, or gardening center can provide tips.

As Loux points out: “My sheer will alone cannot make things grow!”

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