Celebrity chef Marcela Valladolid has always cooked up fresh food in her kitchen, but she never guessed how big of an impact starting a home garden would have on her meals and her relationship with her family.

Valladolid, 36, and the host of the Food Network’s “The Kitchen,” was inspired to start a garden from her family’s gardening in their native Tijuana, Mexico.

“It was really normal for me to grow up in an environment where you would go out and grab some things then come back inside and cook,” she said.

A green thumb

When she moved into her new San Diego home about a year and a half ago, building a Mexican kitchen-inspired garden was a no-brainer. Today, the 1,400-square-foot space, complete with eight beds, boasts almost 140 different varieties of produce and herbs. Her spread includes cauliflower, potatoes, limes, lemons, broccoli, snap peas, green onions and lettuce, not to mention a host of herbs like rosemary, escarole and tarragon.

“As sad as it sounds, a lot of kids literally think food comes from a box. They don’t make the connection that a seed becomes a plant that becomes a vegetable that then becomes soup in an hour."

“I’m getting a lot of professional assistance, but I would say I’m learning a lot in the process,” Valladolid said. “One of the most important things I’ve learned is that plants are like babies in the sense that they really like to be on a schedule.”

She noted that investing in organic, nutrient-rich soil, as well as a strong irrigation system and a timer to help track when certain plants are scheduled for watering, are valuable tips for beginner gardeners.

“Start with stuff that your family is going to love and that you’ll end up using often,” she said. “Talk to the farmers at your farmers’ market. Ask what they suggest planting and how do they work with their soil. Farming is the one profession where there aren’t any secrets.”

Quality time

Valladolid pointed out that gardening might also offer families an opportunity to bond—at least in her case this has been true. Growing and learning about fresh food has brought her and her 12-year-old son Fausto closer together, as he’s taken an interest in how food is grown and how produce is tended to.

“He’ll grab his hat, his gloves and his shears, and come out to the garden with me,” she said. “When I need a lemon, he’ll grab a lemon. My son has always been very much a part of this process.”

She added that Fausto’s friends have even become more interested in gardening—which has been an impactful experience for her.

“As sad as it sounds, a lot of kids literally think food comes from a box,” Valladolid said. “They don’t make the connection that a seed becomes a plant that becomes a vegetable that then becomes soup in an hour. They don’t get it. It’s such a cool thing for them to watch me make something in the kitchen with that produce—it blows their mind.”

She said that while her home isn’t free of packaged food by any means, she likes to live by buying her groceries day-of—and that bill that has gotten significantly slimmer since starting her home garden.

“We plan menus depending on what we have outside. There’s less grocery shopping,” she said. “Eating is much healthier because I want to take advantage of the four kale plants I have outside. It really has changed our lives for the better.”