Easy Home Garden Ideas from a Fairfield University Campus Chef

Hope to start a home garden but don’t know where to begin? Check out these 10 easy gardening ideas, plus great recipes from Nick Pawlowski, Campus Executive Chef/Sodexo, at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where he helps with a 3,000 square foot garden that provides vegetables and herbs to campus dining halls and teaches students about sustainability.

  1. Tomatoes – Who doesn’t enjoy a fresh tomato right from your garden? Easy to grow and prolific varieties to consider: Brandywine and Early Girl, Super Sweet and Sungold Cherries, and Beef Steak. Tips: Plant them deep ~ Do not overcrowd seedlings ~ Make sure to stake them ~ Provide lots of sunlight and water them regularly.
  2. Basil – Basil does better when it is planted next to tomatoes. Good varieties to start with are Genovese and Lemon. Pinching/harvesting off the top sets of leaves when plants reach 6” makes them more prolific. If your basil sprouts flowers, you can eat those too.
  3. Strawberries – Don’t plant near tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, or eggplant. Everbearing strawberries will produce 2-3 crops throughout the year. Best to plant in the early spring or late fall. Plant in a sunny space where the soil drains well and keep the bed weeded.
  4. Chives – Chives are helpful with repelling deer from your yard. Start indoors 6 weeks prior to planting outside. They grow well near tomatoes, but not next to peas or beans. Plant in a sunny spot where the soil is rich and well drained. Be careful not to overwater (the soil should be fairly dry before the next watering.)
  5. Cucumbers – Best to plant cukes in the late spring after the last frost. They enjoy direct sunlight and should be spaced out when planting. They should be staked if you do not have a lot of horizontal space, and also, be careful not to over fertilize. Once your vines start bearing fruit, they will ripen fairly rapidly, requiring some monitoring for the best-harvested crop.
  6. Potatoes – ‘Seeds’ are cut sections of potatoes, which are available in early spring. Plant in cold soil with full sun to partial shade. Plants will be thirsty: water at least an inch per week. Will mature in 2-4 months depending on the variety you have selected. Once the plant starts flowering however, you can start harvesting your ‘new’ potatoes.
  7. Radishes – Radishes are best planted from seed in early spring or fall. They do not respond well in hot weather. Plant seed 8-10 days apart for a steady supply in fine soil, free of debris (twigs, rocks, etc.) If you plant them in full sun, they will be ready to harvest in a few weeks. Best time to harvest is when the leaves are about 4” long yielding tender & sweet radishes.
  8. Zucchini - Seeds, or transplants, should be planted in a “hill,” meaning in small mounds 15-18” wide with well tilled soil, 3-4’ apart, and 5-6 seeds per hill. Routine mulching will keep the ground temperature stable and help retain water as squash tend to be very thirsty, drinking at least 2” per week. The smaller squash are more tender and flavorful.
  9. Bush (Green) Beans – Start seeding after last frost as beans will rot in cold soil. Line your rows with black plastic to help warm the soil. Full sun will help deter disease/pests but need regular watering until they sprout. Bush beans generally come in at once, so successive plantings are needed for a continual harvest. However with other varieties, the more beans you pick, the more that will grow.
  10. Thyme – Plantings of thyme mature quickly but take a few months from seed. Thyme is an excellent choice for garden ground cover, and its’ flowers will attract bees, assisting with the pollination of the rest of your garden. Thyme also does well in dry, sunny conditions and does not need a lot of water to thrive.

Chef Nick’s Strawberry Poppy seed Dressing

Yields: 5 cups

1 garlic clove, peeled & chopped

½ cup honey

2 pints fresh strawberries, tops removed & lightly washed

¼ cup red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp kosher salt

1 Tbsp. garden chives, chopped

1 tsp fresh thyme, chopped

1/8 cup poppy seeds

4 cups extra virgin olive oil


  1. In a food processor, combine all the listed ingredients except the oil. Pulse blend until thoroughly combined.
  2. With the food processor running, pour the olive oil through the top in a slow, steady stream. You may have to add a little more/less oil depending on how emulsified you like your dressing to be. Reserve for service or refrigerate.

Chef’s Tips

Garden Basil Pesto

Yields: 1 cup

2 cups of fresh basil, stemmed & packed tight

2 -3 cloves garlic, chopped

1/8 cup pine nuts

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/8 cup good quality Parmesan/Romano cheese, grated

Kosher salt & black pepper, to taste


  1. In a food processor, chop basil, garlic, and pine nuts until a paste forms. Add in parmesan cheese and blend.
  2. While the processor is running, pour the olive oil through the top until the paste and oil are well combined. Transfer to small container and refrigerate.

Chef’s Tips

Multiply this recipe for larger batches, or to use up end of the season basil and freeze so you can have pesto throughout the year. I like to freeze mine in ice cube trays and then transfer to freezer bags for later use. This allows you to thaw and use only what you need.

Toast pine nuts in a 350 degree oven for 6-8 minutes for an earthier, smoky flavored pesto.

I like to spike mine with 1 Tbsp. fresh tarragon and the zest of one lemon. It’s great over grilled fish/chicken and even better drizzled over grilled pizza and flatbreads.

For more commentary on the day’s issues and advice lists on various topics, visit Fairfield University’s new blog, ‘ThinkSpace’

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on July 8, 2015

Vol. 47, No. 266

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