It’s the start of a new year and I’m thinking about my garden. Being from the Midwest, I associate winter with seed catalogs and snow. Now that we’re here in the mild climate of northern California, I associate winter with digging in the garden. Seriously. Right now, I should be growing a whole host of winter crops – things like lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and peas. But the seedlings I planted back in October (red cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower) were promptly devoured by squirrels and rabbits.
Sadly, I never quite found the time to plant replacements. On a more positive note, thanks to last summer’s bountiful harvest, I’ve been able to avoid a fair amount of grocery shopping and cooking. This past weekend my husband made pizza sauce from tomatoes we “put up” in the freezer and today I’m defrosting a quart of vegetarian chili for dinner.
And it made me wonder, “why didn’t we ditch our lawn and grow our own vegetables sooner?” And more importantly, “why aren’t more people – especially my neighbors here in California – doing it too?”
Our vegetable patch, originally a typical backyard lawn, is rectangular in shape and measures approximately 13 feet wide by 18 feet long. It’s surrounded on three sides by beautiful exposed aggregate concrete while the fourth side runs parallel to a mixed hedge and fenced property line. The garden sits in plain view from our kitchen, dining room and living room – a location that can be both a blessing and a curse. Precisely because the garden is in plain sight, I knew it would need to look beautiful. So along with a variety of vegetables (four different tomatoes, bell peppers, sweet corn, blue pumpkins, cucumbers and artichokes), I also planted plenty of herbs (dill, basil, thyme and sage) and flowers (sweet alyssum and cosmos). The flowers would help the garden look good and attract beneficial insects (we saw aphid-eating green lacewings on the sweet alyssum). We used sturdy, attractive supports and because the garden is in plain sight, I knew we’d be motivated to keep things looking tidy.
Sure enough, the garden became a magnet. I couldn’t wait to see what was growing, what had flower buds and what was ripe. Meal planning suddenly began with a trip outside rather than just a list for the grocery store. Both my husband and I soon fell in love with mornings spent drinking our coffee in the garden, fussing over our plants and admiring their progress. It became addictive. After work, he couldn’t wait to get out there and I visited throughout the day, whenever I needed I mental break.
Mid-day, small lizards would sun themselves on the stepping-stones and a covey of 14 California quail began visiting our yard like clockwork – early morning and evening. They scratched in the dirt, pecked at the sweet alyssum and even drank dew off the bottom leaves of plants. Gradually, more birds began frequenting our yard: woodpeckers, chestnut-backed chickadees, white and red-breasted nuthatches and tiny little bushtits joined the ever-present hummingbirds and juncos. The plan worked better than I could have hoped – suddenly, our yard felt alive!
I just wish we had done it sooner, but when we bought this house five years ago, we became the proud owners of a beautifully designed house suffering from years of deferred maintenance and neglect. We immediately turned off the leaking irrigation system and watched as the native shrubs in the front yard flourished while the backyard lawn died. I cut a dead looking hedge down to the ground and similarly coppiced several sad-looking, 45-year-old Pittosporum tobiras. Within one year they all grew back without any irrigation and today, they look better than ever. We dug out and eradicated a patch of running bamboo planted so close to the house that it sent shoots up and under the exterior siding and began growing inside the wall! After that hellish adventure, we paid two young men to rid our hillside of ivy and turned our attention to the house.
For all of 2008 and most of 2009, we worked on our Eichler. At the time, I considered blogging about it, but it’s for the probably for the best that we didn’t. Our original contractor turned out to be completely irresponsible, so my posts would have been a bunch of angry rants. Things like, “if you and your sheetrock crew had read the plans, you would have noticed the words “METAL J-TRIM” so yes, you do need to re-do everything and no, we are not paying for your blunder!” 2008 was not a good year. Thankfully, we fired him and found more responsible and talented people to help us restore our dream house.
In early spring of 2010, with the house just about finished, we focused our gaze back on the yard. We planted a handful of vegetables: one tomato plant, a banana pepper, one sweet bell pepper and some basil. I was hand watering and things were looking good, until the squirrels attacked and began throwing half eaten green tomatoes from their nest up in a pine tree. Then we had houseguests, which raised my spirits, but caused me to become distracted. We were forgetting to water and the vegetables suffered. Summer passed into autumn and our entire harvest consisted of two lousy looking banana peppers and a handful of basil.
Let me stop here to emphasize the importance of a drip irrigation system. Hand watering is labor intensive and makes it nearly impossible to leave town. Once our drip system was installed, our vegetable garden felt less like a chore and more like a relaxing diversion. Two things directly contributed to the wild success of our 2012 garden: soil amendments and drip irrigation. Neither one needs to be fancy or expensive.
So why didn’t we plant vegetables in 2011? The answer is simple: after the disappointment of our initial attempt, we became discouraged, and more importantly, we had infrastructure to worry about. We had a perimeter drainage system installed and some much needed concrete work done. We hauled a ton of gravel to create a tidy, permeable base for my potting bench and a place to store my wheelbarrow and garden tools. We had new retaining walls, fences and gates built and we planted a hedge. In May, I took a four-hour “introduction to drip irrigation” class at Common Ground in Palo Alto, but it overwhelmed me. Feeling burnt out, we went on a local garden walk for inspiration. Needing a rest, we watched the hummingbirds and juncos that visited our yard and went wine tasting in Sonoma. I planted some native flowers (Salvia ‘Pozo Blue’ and Penstemon Margarita BOP) in hopes of attracting more birds and I devoured the excellent Las Pilitas Nursery website to learn more about how to properly plant and care for native plants (if you live in California, you really should check this website out).
Then one day in September, I came across The Urban Farmer Store website and after reading their excellent “introduction to drip irrigation” page, we drove up to the San Francisco store. The staff patiently answered all of our questions and a couple of hours later, we walked out with all of the supplies and information needed to get started. We felt great! Then we promptly drove home and put everything in the garage.
Time passed and inertia set in. Where we live, September is the hottest month of the year. The morning fog disappears and the days are brutally hot – not a great month for yard work. My sister visited in October. My husband and I went to Italy for Thanksgiving and spent Christmas at home, cooking, eating and relaxing. And then, on New Year’s Day 2012, I began planning my vegetable garden. A short time later, after the rains had passed and the ground was ready, my husband and I spent several days double digging our former lawn and amending the soil with organic compost (chicken manure, mushroom compost & kelp) and earthworm castings. Afterwards, we bought and planted two artichoke seedlings and some fava beans (for a cover crop) and just like that, our we had taken the first steps towards growing our own vegetables.
And then we noticed that the hedge we had planted wasn’t filling in, so we ripped out the Italian buckthorns and replaced them with a mixed hedge of native Myrica californica shrubs and not-so-native Pittosporum tenuifolium shrubs, which really doesn’t have anything to do with vegetables, but does however prove that we are addicted to gardening, attracting birds and committed to using less water. And since winter is the best time to plant natives (which thrive solely on winter rain), we added more manzanitas, toyons, ceanothus and salvias to our front yard, along with more rosemary.
My plan to grow warm weather vegetables from seed was sidetracked by some travel opportunities (Chicago! Istanbul! Ljubljana!), but we didn’t let that stop us. On the fourth Sunday in May, we raced to the local nursery to purchase seedlings. Despite the picked over inventory, we managed to come home with a Japanese cucumber, a Tromboncino squash, two sweet bell peppers, 18 white sweet corn seedlings, half a dozen basil plants, half a dozen thyme, some dill, sage and three good looking tomato plants: an Early Girl, Green Zebra and Yellow Brandywine. My friend Kerry generously shared an Australian blue pumpkin she started from seed and a “volunteer” cherry tomato plant that proved to be a winner – pest resistant, prolific and delicious (I was still harvesting in mid-October)!
On Memorial Day, May 28th of 2012, we put everything in the ground.
I added fish heads, crushed egg shells, bone meal and a bit of 4-6-3 organic fertilizer to each tomato planting hole, just as my dad taught me when I was little, and just like Love Apple Farm recommends. For the other plants, we added the 4-6-3 fertilizer. It worked like a charm. Initially I hand watered. That was fun for about a week.
I know what you’re thinking – everything we needed for a drip system was sitting in our garage. I don’t know what to say. I was so concerned with simply getting plants in the ground that I just didn’t worry about it. It wasn’t a priority until I realized that we would be leaving town for a week to visit family. Then it occurred to me, my thriving plants would die. Suddenly, I had all the motivation I needed. I studied my notes, inventoried our supplies and visited Kerry so she could show me her system and offer a few tips (thank you Kerry!). Then, over the weekend of June 9th, while my husband was out of town, I got the job done. Nothing fancy mind you, but I installed it myself. And it worked!
I set up a basic little system attached to a garden hose spigot, set to turn on and off automatically each day via a battery powered timer. It kept our garden growing so we could leave town for short trips back to Chicago and up to Sonoma. Working alone, it took me three and a half days to install. One day was spent talking to Kerry, tweaking the design, inventorying our supplies and purchasing minor additional parts. Two days were spent installing everything, and the last morning was spent making adjustments and testing the system for leaks. At the end of each day I was tired and sore, but I felt great! It wasn’t easy, but the sense of accomplishment made it all worthwhile.
Obviously, a few things would have made the job much easier: having an assistant, setting the system up before planting, and not being so ridiculously obsessed with making it perfect. All of these would have helped immensely. Initially, the installation was very frustrating. There’s a bit of a learning curve involved, but once I got the hang of it, things began to go smoothly. If you enjoy Legos, you’ll do fine. I found the smallest pieces somewhat difficult to manipulate at times (my hands are getting a bit arthritic). Letting the black plastic tubing sit in the sun to soften made punching the emitter holes much easier. All in all, it wasn’t terribly difficult. Once the system was set up and tested for leaks, it took a bit of trial and error to figure out how long to run the timer. Initially I ran one ten-minute cycle per day, set to turn on at 7:00 am. The plants not only survived our absence, they actually thrived – so my installation was deemed total success.
After that, our vegetable garden required very little work, so much so that I decided to add three more tomato plants: a Paul Robeson, a Pink Brandywine and a Cherokee Chocolate. We suffered two waves of pests, but luckily we caught both early, before things got out of control. We spent one Saturday morning hand crushing little black gnat-like insects and another morning spraying neem oil on aphids.
After losing both the Paul Robeson and the Pink Brandywine, we began spraying the tomato leaves, early in the morning, with a solution of 325 mg of aspirin dissolved in one gallon of water to help ward off viruses. Starting in August, we began giving the plants a dose of worm casting tea (an organic fertilizer). After that, I kept an eye on the weather and simply tweaked the irrigation timer settings as needed. Our Yellow Brandywine and Green Zebra tomato plants were such vigorous growers, they quickly outgrew the four-foot tall industrial strength steel cage we used, forcing us to pound additional wood and bamboo stakes into the ground for added support. After that, we just sat back, enjoyed the view and reaped the rewards. Not once did we have to pull weeds.
Looking back now, I can fully appreciate what a delight our garden turned out to be. We found ourselves puttering around and enjoying it on a daily basis. The resident birds and lizards benefitted from the cover and food (mostly insects and seeds) the garden provided and we loved watching them – especially when the quail took dust baths! I became so infatuated with the visiting birds, I began sprinkling a handful of nyger seeds each day, providing us with a show of chirping birds all day long.
Sharing our harvests brought us closer to several neighbors. One in particular, an elderly woman living alone, especially loved my periodic tomato and basil deliveries. We began sharing recipes (she taught me to substitute almonds and walnuts in place of pine nuts in pesto) and later, she gave me several homegrown pomegranates. More importantly, the garden brought us an incredible amount of pleasure. It made us want to venture out into our yard, it made us excited to see how much plants had grown and once we began harvesting, it made cooking fun and spontaneous.
All in all, this garden brought us great joy.
Our favorite crops included the sweet corn, artichokes, blue pumpkins, cucumbers, dill, basil and Yellow Brandywine tomatoes, which we used them to make Pappa al Pomodoro, Pasta al Pomodoro, classic BLTs and my favorite summertime lunch: tomato sandwiches – good bread, Hellmann’s mayo, the best tomato you can lay your hands on and some freshly cracked salt and pepper. Yum!