KITCHEN GARDENS are a timely topic to explore as we move toward Easter Sunday and traditional Good Friday plowing and planting. In 1870s, Colonial Cullman, Alabama, the “kuchengartens” of the German American settlers were often shaped like a cross. This four-square design originated from the garden courtyards of German monasteries.
Frau Ruehl, the fictional heroine of the folktale “WUNDERGARTEN,” had four equal-sized raised beds separated by narrow pathways in her “kuchengarten.” The arrangement allowed her to plant, weed and work to her left and right without rising as she knelt on a hand-braided kneeler.
Her raised garden beds allowed for drainage and accelerated warming of the soil to produce earlier harvests. Frau Ruehl’s kuchengarten was surrounded by woodland forest and it was protected by a picket or slat fence that would allow for a free flow of air but keep out munching deer, rabbits and other north Alabama wildlife. Imagine the German version of Beatrix Potter’s rascally Peter Rabbit—Peter Kaninchen.
KITCHEN GARDENS are the heart of a garden, just as a kitchen is the heart of the house. Frau Ruehl’s kuchengarten was the dearest of her planted plots; secondary to that were the German strawberries she grew to sell commercially, and the grains she and her farm boy, Fritz, cultivated to feed the livestock.
KITCHEN GARDEN crops (peas, onions, lettuces, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, radishes) were separate from Frau Ruehl’s field vegetables (cabbages, potatoes and turnips) and would be harvested at least twice a year.
“WUNDERGARTEN,” describes Frau Ruehl as a devoted mother, desperate to heal her depressed, listless daughter, ZeeBeth. The worried mom grew medicinal herbs in her KITCHEN GARDEN as well as culinary seasonings like dill, parsley and sage.
KITCHEN GARDENS in 1870s Colonial Cullman, occasionally had space for edible flowers such as nasturtiums, which would have been pickled. Though she was a practical and frugal homesteader, Frau Ruehl was a woman who appreciated the soul-lifting beauty of ornamental flowers. She had climbing roses on the arbor gate of the garden, and a small mound of Edelweiss that she had transplanted from her family garden in Germany.
Here are some tips my fellow Master Gardeners shared when I told them I was writing about KITCHEN GARDENS:
- DON’T OVERLY FRET THE FIRST YEAR—Gardens are about change and yours will as you learn what thrives and doesn’t in your soil and climate.
- DIVIDE AND CONQUER—Whether your design is four-square like traditional German vegetable gardens or fan-shaped like my own hard-gardening mom, your task will be more manageable if you’re not back-stepping into the muskmelons.
- DO FENCE IT IN—Deer are beautiful to watch and venison is delicious to devour but you don’t want deer in your vegetable patch. This can be as simple as re-purposed wooden pallets or even a demarcating hedge.
- GROW A FEW, SHO-NUFF WINNERS—Even my “brown thumbs” can grow a tasty basket of tomatoes. Basil and most herbs aren’t too challenging for rookies.
- EVERY HOMEOWNER IN ALABAMA NEEDS A FIG TREE—Just do it.
- SAVE VALUABLE GARDEN SPACE—You can plant squash directly atop your compost heap and be the envy of your neighbors by training fruit trees to grow on espalier supports.
- WATER LIKE YOU OUGHTER—Frau Ruehl’s kuchengarten had a well with a wooden bucket nearby. You could consider a water collection source like a rain barrel and water tools like sprinklers and soaker hoses.
CELEBRATING IN THE WUNDERGARTEN -This storytelling culinary series imagines tasty, traditional foods from the recipe box Frau Ruehl brought with her from Germany when she relocated to Colonial Cullman in the 1870s.
This easy bake casserole, or German “kasserole,” would have been prepared directly from KITCHEN GARDEN to dinner table and has the added pleasure of crunch with crushed breadcrumbs like those strewn by Hansel and Gretel in the Brothers Grimm folktale.
KUCHENGARTEN BROCCOLI CAULIFLOWER KASSEROLE
- 2 cups broccoli
- 2 cups cauliflower
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese, divided
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 1/2 cup butter, melted
- 1 (15 oz.) package seasoned croutons, crushed
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- Place broccoli and cauliflower in separate saucepans, cover with water and bring to a boil; cook until tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and arrange in an 11 x 7-inch baking dish.
- Beat eggs in a bowl until creamy; stir in 1/2 cup cheddar cheese, mayonnaise and onion and pour over vegetables. Pour melted butter on top and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheddar cheese. Scatter crushed croutons evenly on top.
- Bake in the preheated oven until browned and bubbling, about 40 minutes.
HAPPY SPRINGTIME IN YOUR KUCHENGARTEN and AUF WEIDERSEHEN Y’ALL!
Find all columns in this series at www.cullmantribune.com/tag/celebrating-in-the-wundergarten.