January in the Kitchen Garden

A new year means new crops! Okay that’s not really true but January does bring a few new things in the Tryon Palace Kitchen Garden. The Tryon Palace Gardens staff has just planted nine new apple and pear trees on our fences and walls to continue a new generation of espaliered plants. Our volunteer, Ed Gagnon, generously donated these trees that were purchased from a North Carolina heirloom grower, Century Farm Orchards, in Reidsville.

Gagnon is one of our resident volunteer arborists, mainly working with the espaliered fruit trees and trellised grape vines. Gagnon has also relabeled all of our existing fruit trees in the garden. We are looking forward to trying some “new” old varieties and enhancing our fruit crop in the coming years. Projects like this are an investment in our future here at Tryon Palace since these new fruit trees won’t start producing consistently for at least 4 years. 

On a note of future planning, January also brings with it seed catalogs and hard decisions of what to pick for the summer to come. This is one of my favorite times of the year and I get teased for spending hours at home poring over 5 or 6 different seed catalogs in place of watching television. As much as I love the hands-on feel of these magazines, the digital revolution means I can also easily look up pictures and reviews from around the country to pick the best varieties for our kitchen garden. While things like peppers, tomatoes and eggplant will not be planted in the garden until late April or early May, most of the seeds will be planted in the next few weeks. 

The not so fun part of January garden planning relates to the interesting tasks of crop rotation and companion planting. Crop rotation is a well-known agricultural practice of changing what you plant in each area every year. While many home gardeners don’t have the space to do this, you may notice farmers planting corn, soybeans, tobacco or cotton in different areas over several years. Our challenge in the kitchen garden is to avoid planting the same families in the same areas.

We touched on the size of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae) in our November blog, but the nightshade (Solanaceae) and the cucurbit (Cucurbitaceae) families are also fairly large. The nightshade family includes vegetables, such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants, as well as tobacco and petunias. The cucurbit family includes squash, cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupes, pumpkins, gourds and luffas. Due to these numbers of related plants, making the planting maps for summer can be a tedious process. 
Luckily for us, companion planting comes to save the day. Companion planting is an old technique where multiple species are planted together to repel insects, enhance pollination, improve flavor, and provide a better habitat, to list a few benefits. In our preschool tours, we refer to this as plants having best friends who make them happy. Some of these combinations are well known like “the three sisters”, a Native American combination of corn, beans and squash. Others, such as borage and tomatoes, are not as well-known but utilize the same principles. Many herbs, such as basil, borage and thyme, are great companions for all plants in the garden while fennel is a garden outcast, negatively affecting production and flavor of almost all plants. These companions can be planted together to avoid taking up more garden space for individual groupings.

Despite the amount of work that goes into planning the summer garden, it does seem to make the chilly winter days pass quicker toward the warmth of spring. Plus, who doesn’t love opening a box of new vividly-colored seed packets!
Happy gardening!
Hadley Cheris,