Our kitchen garden

Tips and plant varieties from Sunset's kitchen garden
Jim McCausland

Sunset's test garden is designed around a zigzag split-rail fence that runs east to west. Tall plants like corn and sunflowers grow on the north side of the fence so they won't shade shorter plants, while tomatoes grow against the fence for support. On the south side of the fence, triangular-shaped planting beds hold low-growing crops, such as melons, peppers, and squash; herbs; and flowers, such as bee balm and scabiosa, that attract beneficial insects. On the opposite side of the pathway, zinnias and shorter varieties of sunflowers ― great for cutting ― grow in an informal row. Pole beans climb a trellis at the west end of the row.

Stuckey started with seeds of easy plants like corn, and set out seedlings of annual vegetables, flowers, and perennial herbs. He spaced plants close together to minimize weeds and planted vegetables and flowers together to keep pollinators circulating.

Plant collection

Sunflowers ('Florenza', 'Goldburst', 'Jade', 'Moonbright', 'Moulin Rouge', 'Ring of Fire', 'Taiyo')

Squash ('Condor' bush zucchini, crookneck, 'Sunburst')

Lettuce ('Ruby')

Mixed herbs (chamomile, Greek oregano)

Monarda ('Blue Stocking', 'Gardenview Scarlet')

Tomatillos

Dianthus 'Amazon Rose Magic'

Scabiosa atropurpurea 'Florist's Blue'

Parsley (Italian and triple curled)

Peppers (golden bell, green bell, purple bell, red bell, 'Tabasco' hot pepper)

Watermelons

Tomatoes ('Early Girl', 'Sungold')

Kabocha squash ('Orange Sunshine')

Pole beans

Low-growing sunflowers and zinnias

Corn ('Zuccherino')

To keep plants healthy...

Attract beneficials. If you encourage them, birds and beneficial insects will devour many insect pests. Make sure they have a recirculating fountain or other source of water and an assortment of flowers for food and cover. We used insectary plants, including herbs like chamomile, fennel, and oregano; and flowers such as bee balm (Monarda), scabiosa, sunflower, and zinnia.

Encourage pollinators. When squash and melons bloom, pinch off leaves covering the blossoms in order to give pollinators a clear path to the flowers.

Mulch, always. To help deter weeds and conserve moisture, apply a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost around seedlings.

Irrigate early. Water in the morning; rising daytime temperatures will dry everything above the surface and help keep disease from taking hold.

Use soaker hoses or drip irrigation. Because they water plants at soil level, they keep leaves dry.

Use insecticidal soap. In order to knock down infestations of insect pests such as aphids and whiteflies before their populations boom, apply insecticidal soap. It's sold at nurseries or by mail from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply (888/784-1722). Or apply a gentle insecticide you make yourself. To a 1-quart pump-action spray bottle, add 1 teaspoon each mild dishwashing liquid and cooking oil, then enough water to make 1 quart; shake to mix. Spray affected plants, covering tops and undersides of the leaves. On corn, pour the mixture down into the husks where insects hide. (To help prevent leaf burn, spray in early morning, before temperatures rise, or evening.)