How are you getting dirty for Earth Day? This year, the official commemoration falls on Monday, April 22nd, but San Francisco (and other places around the Bay Area) are holding celebrations this weekend, all focusing on greener, healthier living. It’s a great opportunity to think about growing some of your own food, whether you’ve got a sprawling backyard, an underutilized front yard, access to a community garden down the block, or even just a handful of pots or planter boxes on the back stairs. What does it take to turn your urban thumbs a little greener? No matter how much (or how little) space you’ve got, we’ve put together some easy-to-follow steps to get you digging deep this spring.
Assess Your Space
How much growing space can you find? How much direct sun (and wind) will you have? San Francisco, in particular, is rife with micro-climates; growing a garden in the Outer Sunset is a very different proposition from planting in the Mission. You can grow lettuces, herbs, and hardy greens, like kale and collards, almost anywhere, but warmth-loving, sunshine-demanding plants like tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers need a reliable 6 to 8 hours of direct sunshine to ripen flavorfully. Making fruit (and seed-filled, fleshy vegetables like tomatoes and peppers count as fruit) takes a lot of effort on the plant’s part, demanding a much higher level of nutrients and food (in the form of sugars produced by photosynthesis) than those needed by leafy greens. So, if your yard is a shady one, don’t break your heart by planting lots of tomatoes that won’t ripen. Stick with cool-loving plants like lettuce, chard, and Asian greens.
Don’t Skimp on the Immediate Gratification
Starting from seed is the cheapest way to get a garden going. But it’s also the slowest, and depending on how slug/snail/bird-mobbed your beds are, it can also be the most dangerous, as just-sprouted tender seedlings are the most vulnerable to pest attacks.
If you need to see some evidence to stay interested, buy some well-established seedlings instead. And fun (and tasty) as tomatoes and potatoes can be, they also take months to produce. So remember to plant some quick-to-harvest treats, like lettuce, spinach, mizuna, Asian greens, arugula and radishes, which go soil-to-table in less than 6 weeks. Beets, too, can be harvested young, when they’re extra-sweet and tender. Sugar-snap peas also grow like Jack’s beanstalk (give them a trellis to crawl up and cling to) and are wildly productive. Plus, they make a great sweet snack right off the plant.
Know Your Soil
Urban soils, even in residential neighborhoods, can have less-than-pristine histories. That’s why container gardening–or building raised beds and filling them with fresh soil and compost–is usually preferable for edible plantings, rather than digging straight into your backyard topsoil, especially if you’re planting root crops like beets, turnips, carrots, radishes, potatoes. Raised beds or containers can also help discourage critters (like gophers) from digging in from below, while opper strips around the edges can keep snails and slugs at bay. Building your own beds also means you can arrange the height to suit your flexibility; if crouching and bending close to the ground is difficult, plant in barrels or build tall, crate-like beds at a more comfortable level. Sunset magazine’s website offers great step-by-step instructions for
building your own redwood or cedar raised beds.
Get Some Good Books
An invaluable resource–and one that no city grower should be without–is Pam Peirce’s Golden Gate Gardening, now in its 3rd edition. Peirce has been talking to gardeners all across the city for decades, getting their feedback on what grows best where. Her book is straightforward and readable for gardeners at all levels, and explains micro-climates, fog belts, wind patterns, and how to lay out your garden to make the most of both sun and shade, as well as listing all the best varieties of vegetables, flowers, fruits, and herbs for growing around the Bay.
The New Western Garden Book; (9th edition) is another must-have for gardeners throughout the West, especially in California. I can’t think of a gardener I know who doesn’t have a dusty, dirt-smeared copy of Sunset’s gardening bible in her shed or garage–and often a newer, more pristine copy among the inspirational gardening books inside.
If you’re limited to what you can fit in pots on your back steps, pick up a copy of A Little Piece of Earth: How to Grow Your Own Food in Small Spaces, local author Maria Finn‘s book about container gardening. Finn knows firsthand about growing edibles without a backyard–she lives on a houseboat in Sausalito, and does all her gardening in pots on her upper deck.
Feed Your Soil
Before you plant a single seed, you’ve got to get your soil right. Yes, this can seem boring; you can spend a whole afternoon hauling bags of compost or smelly chicken manure, double-digging or spreading mulch, and not have as much a sprig in the ground to show for it. But putting in your plants should be the very last step in building your garden. Skip or skimp on this step, and you’ll be fighting bug infestations, weak growth, and nutrient and mineral deficiencies in your plants the whole rest of the growing season.
Do Some Spring Cleaning
Make room for spring! Pull out any bug-infested or mildewed plants that you planted last fall or winter. Quick tip-offs that your plants have bolted and are ready for composting: Thick, bare, woody stems; heavy infestations of aphids (check undersides of leaves); normally low plants, like lettuce, shooting up and producing long, skinny flower stems; an abundance of yellow flowers on broccoli and other brassica-family plants; anything that looks leggy, overgrown, and just plain tired.
Bolted plants are concentrating their efforts on reproduction, meaning their leaves will be bitter and less flavorful. Pull ’em out, compost them to feed the earth (anything extremely buggy should be discarded, as home compost probably won’t get hot enough to destroy insects and their eggs), and be sure to beef up your beds with fresh compost and/or organic fertilizer before planting fresh seedlings.
Rotate Your Beds
Don’t plant seedlings from the same plant families in the same place year after year. Every plant family attracts a similar family of predators and disease-causing microbes to it. If you plant your potatoes where you put your tomatoes, you’ll be encouraging the same pests in the soil, since both potatoes and tomatoes are in the Solanum family. Think of it as changing your plants’ passwords every season. Strawberries, in particular, should be rotated around the garden frequently.
Feed Your Pollinators
You know what makes a lot of your seed-bearing edible plants productive? Pollinators! That includes not just honeybees but all kinds of native bees, wasps, and other insects that crawl from flower to flower seeking nectar and, along the way, spreading pollen to make the reproductive fruiting magic happen. Planting compatible, pollinator-pleasing plants alongside your edibles will definitely make a difference in how many zucchini, cucumbers, apricots or apples you’ll get. And they’re pretty, too! Bees are particularly fond of blue and purple flowers, so be sure to include borage (whose dainty star-shaped edible flowers are adorable on cupcakes), bachelor’s buttons (cornflowers), and lavender. Other easy-to-grown pollinator buffets include cosmos, calendula, African blue basil, butterfly bush, coreopsis, dusty miller, sweet allysum, lamb’s ear, scabiosa (pincushion flower), rosemary, and sage.
Head up to Novato, where the Indian Valley Organic Farm and Garden, an educational farm that’s part of the College of Marin, will be holding a 2-day Spring Plant Sale, complete with farm tours, live music, sales of plants, seedlings, and produce grown on the farm, bouquet making, and tastings, from 10am-3pm on Sat, April 20 and Sun, April 21. Buying seedlings from a farm often means getting more creative choices and more variety–a great way to try out some healthy new veggies. Purple carrots? Easter-egg radishes? Tokyo turnips? Rainbow chard? Golden raspberries? Why not? And consider investing in some perennials, too, like artichoke or rhubarb crowns, which can be productive for decades once established. Go colorful and get ready for a delicious spring and summer dining in the garden.
In Santa Cruz on May 4 and 5, the apprentices at UCSC Farm and Garden program will be holding their annual Spring Plant Sale, organic plants and seedlings grown on the farm, including both annual and perennial vegetables, medicinal and culinary herbs, flowers, and fruit.