Thursday, May 21, 2009

Plant a Pizza & Pasta Garden!

Pizza gardens have become all the rage in public display gardens across the country. That is not surprising when the inspiration comes from the 23 pounds of pizza each American man, woman, and child eats annually. Pizza gardens are a colorful extension of this obsession, promising a bounty of fresh, delicious toppings to would-be Wolfgang Pucks – while inspiring and fascinating budding young gardeners.

Pizza gardens can be planted to simply provide the fresh herbs and vegetables to make your home-baked pizza a masterful culinary creation, or they can be designed to create a whimsical round garden bed resembling a large deep dish pizza.

Public and school gardens looking to engage the attention of children generally follow the whimsical path. By appealing to kids using the food they love best, these gardens introduce a gratifying and hands-on awareness of seeds and germination, plant growth, soil, and general horticulture. It’s pretty sneaky – and pretty effective.

To plan and lay out a typical pizza garden, begin by attaching a string to two garden stakes. The length of the string is the radius (half the width) of the pie-shaped garden you want to create. A four to five foot length is ideal for a terrific mix of “toppings,” while smaller spaces can follow the personal pan pizza route. Even a circular bed three feet across can provide tomatoes, peppers, onion, and a medley of herbs.

Begin by firmly inserting the stake in the center of the desired garden area, and use the second stake to scratch or otherwise outline the garden perimeter. Afterwards, you can define the outside of the bed with rocks, bricks, or wood mulch, depending on your taste in crust.

Most pizza gardeners prefer dividing the planting bed into equally-sized slices. The slices themselves can be defined with landscaping timbers or rocks, although a “softer” approach is to plant rows of parsley, basil, marjoram, garlic chives, spinach, scallions, oregano, bunching onions, arugala (for the truly daring), garlic, and even bright, edible flowers like nastursium.

The larger inner spaces or slices can be planted with eggplant, sweet bell peppers, spicy-hot chili peppers, zucchini, plum tomatoes, such as La Roma or Prince Borghese for sauce, and medium-large tomatoes such as pink-skinned Brandywine for slicing, or cherry varieties like Sungold or Yellow Pear for intense flavor when dried.

Admittedly, pepperoni shrubs are hard to locate at most nurseries, although mushroom lovers can grow their own portabella, crimini and white button toppings using mail-order mushroom kits.

With larger gardens, especially if children will be involved in maintenance and harvesting, it is often advisable to place stepping stones in each slice. Several local gardens feature round, reddish concrete pavers which represent pepperoni. Vegetarian pizza gardens can stick with round white pavers to represent mushrooms.

Another possibility would be to create a pizza garden with one slice already removed; the gap would allow access for weeding and garden care and provide the planting bed with a unique focal point.

Keep in mind that a pizza garden is often best started in the fall, when it is more appropriate to plant garlic – and no pizza garden could be complete without garlic. Laying out the site, working the soil, and covering it with a layer of organic mulch will ensure that the planting area will be ready and eager to grow the following year.

For pesto pizza fans, remember that even pine nuts can be grown in your garden using the traditional Italian stone pine tree, or even the piƱon pine grown in western states, although you will have to wait a considerable number of years before harvesting.

Naturally, not every one will want a pizza garden dotting their landscape. All of the plants mentioned above can still be planted in traditional garden beds, and each will still provide the fresh toppings and rewarding taste that only comes from produce you grow yourself.

Of course, if you are not one of the people helping to eat the 100 acres of pizza consumed in the U.S. daily, your pizza garden could alternately supply the requisite toppings for crostini or focaccia, or even for a host of pasta sauces and Mediterranean-inspired salads. Buon appetito!

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

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