From the term "locavore" to the invention of the 100 mile diet, the idea of eating locally has really started getting more notice over the last few years. But what about growing your own? You can't get more local than that! Unfortunately, it's not always easy to grow your own food.
So are you curious about heirloom tomatoes? What about edible flowers? Or maybe you're looking for Dee Dee's secret to getting rid of slugs. Read on and definitely check out Dee Dee's book!
Q: I live in a Mediterranean climate and have a home garden. So what can I plant this spring and expect to have ready by this summer? (question from nightmancometh)
A: Hi NightMan. First, count your blessings! A Mediterranean climate means year-round fresh veggies in your backyard. Those of us in cooler climes can only dream of the bounty. April is the end of spring and beginning of summer for you, so now is the time to be putting in your warm weather plants like tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, squash, and melons. With long sunny days and lots of warm weather, they’ll be producing by mid-summer or even earlier, depending on the varieties. Most herbs like it hot too – you can grow some of them, including parsley and basil, from seed. You may be able to grow some lettuces from seed too, but they don’t like hot weather…look for some heat resistant varieties. In the late fall, plant some cool weather plants like spinach, chard and lettuce from seed. Then get an early start next winter on more of those cool weather veggies.
Q: What are your recommendations for urban gardening? Do you have any tips for using window planters? Are there any vegetables or herbs you can successfully grow indoors? (combined question from stins and deej)
A: This is one of my favorite topics, Stins & Deej. Thanks for asking. You can grow lots of things in outdoor window planters. The key is depth of the box and the amount of sun. Most vegetables require at least 5 hours of sun a day, and most prefer 8 or more hours. As for planter depth – you’ll need at least 6 inches of soil. You won’t be able to manage vegetables with big roots but there are a lot of things you can grow. Try different lettuces, herbs, sweet and hot peppers, eggplant, bush beans and peas, and strawberries. Look for dwarf varieties whenever possible. Make sure your planters are very well secured, water often as they will tend to dry out. Growing veggies indoors is not so easy – it’s very difficult to get enough light. But herbs will be more adaptable to a sunny window.
Q: Do you have any tips for growing plants from seed? (question from jessg)
A: Starting plants from seeds is a great way to save money and try hard-to-find varieties of vegetables, Jess. An important key to growing plants from seeds is keeping them evenly moist without over-watering. So you’ll need to keep your eye on them every day. Try using a gentle mist rather than a stream of water on just-planted seeds. You’ll also want to keep your flats or pots warm so the seeds will germinate. Once the seeds have sprouted, they’ll need lots of light. If it’s still too cool to put them outside, you may need to install a grow light until it’s time to set the baby seedlings out. You’ll also want to be ready to bring them back inside in case of a late, unpredicted cold snap. Read the planting guide on each packet of seeds carefully – you’ll find lots of helpful information there. And if you are having problems, call your County Extension for advice. Also, if you grow a lot of plants from seed, think about building a cold-frame.
Q: What would your recommend for a novice gardener's vegetable garden? (question from jessg)
A: These are some of the easiest plants to grow: lettuce, radishes, tomatoes (just make sure you give them support like a tomato cage or stakes), beans – especially bush varieties, herbs, peppers and squash. That should be enough to get you started!
Q: How do you keep your soil in healthy condition? Do you recommend using fertilizer or compost? (question from MagdalenaC)
A: Magdalena, this is such an important topic. Healthy soil is essential to growing healthy vegetables. There are many factors that go into making soil healthy or not. First, there is the quality of the soil – is it rich, loamy, loose and easily worked? Or is it rocky, compacted and dry as a bone? If you have poor soil, you will need to amend it. That means adding lots of organic matter and mixing it up well. Soil with lots of organic matter will provide the nutrients plants need and will help it retain water, which is also essential to growing healthy veggies. You’ll also want to know the pH of your soil – this is the relative acidity or alkalinity of the soil. Most vegetables will require a pH of around 6.5 which is just slightly acid. If you soil has a pH of 5.5, your tomatoes and peppers will grow slowly, won’t produce much fruit and will be more prone to disease. To find out what the pH of your soil is, purchase a soil test from your County Extension or garden center. The results will then tell you if and how you need to amend the soil in your garden.
Once you have improved the soil in your garden, keep it healthy with good garden hygiene which means weeding and removing dead plant material; fertilizing as need by the plants your are growing (try to use organic fertilizers whenever possible) and adding compost at the end of the season to sit over the winter. Also, if you have trouble with plant pests and diseases, don’t grow that particular plant for a year or two. That may help eliminate the pest, virus or bacteria that is causing the problem.
Q: What techniques, etc. do you recommend for keeping bugs and snails from getting to your vegetables before you do? (question from Alejandro)
A: Do you hate snails as much as I do, Alejandro? They are a big problem in my garden. I choose not to use toxic chemicals so the solution to slug problems is kind of icky…I go out in the garden at night with a flashlight and pick the slugs off the plants and put them in a jar with a bit of alcohol (the dregs of a beer bottle will do). The slugs die in the jar. I always wear gloves when I perform this unpleasant task because the slugs are covered in a repulsive slime that has to be scrubbed off bare hands. I’ve also seen slug collars on plants – these are made of circles of plastic cut from milk or juice containers. You make a small slit from the edge of the circle to the center, where you cut a hole wide enough to accommodate the stem of the plant. The plastic circle sits on the soil surrounding the plant stem. It discourages slugs and a few other nasties. Another trick to try is pouring a ring of sand around each stem – apparently slugs don’t like to crawl through sand. Sinking small saucers or bowls filled with beer near vulnerable plants will also trap and kill slugs but you have to remember to keep refilling the containers.
Handpicking other harmful insects as you see them is the tried and true organic method to protect your vegetable plants. You can also investigate some of the organic plant deterrents that are commercially available. Also, some plants, including marigolds, borage, chives and hot peppers among your most vulnerable vegetable plants may help in the fight against bad bugs.
Q: What's your favorite vegetable to grow? (question from stins)
A: You may have stumped me, Stins! Every year I seem to have a new favorite. Last year I grew kale from seedlings with my geraniums in big planters on my terrace and it was incredible. I harvested leaves from those 6 plants for months, and I gave away and froze seemingly endless amounts of it. This year I am planting rainbow chard from seed. I was smitten by this beautiful, colorful and very tasty green when I helped pick it in a friend’s garden last year. If I could only grow one vegetable, it would probably be a mini Roma – the plant isn’t small; the fruit is. These 2 inch plum-style tomatoes have the freshest, tomato-iest, rich flavor you can imagine. Last summer, at least 3 times a week, we turned them into fresh sauce for pasta with just a little olive oil, a handful of basil, and maybe some pine nuts or olives if we felt like being fancy.
Q: What are the best sources for high quality seeds and plants? For example I've had 'heirloom tomatoes' at a couple of restaurants here in San Francisco that were incredible. They were head and shoulders better than any others I've had, home grown or not. Do many other vegetables also have much better tasting varieties/breeds/strains (whatever you should call them)? Are the better tasting types typically a lot more difficult to raise? (question from Ted Gill)
A: Ted, I think you’ll find that just about all heirloom vegetables are among the best tasting available. And they are no harder to grow than any other vegetable. Some of them may not be as disease or pest resistant as the hybrids, but the unique flavors are worth even the little extra work that may entail. The seeds may be a bit more expensive, and it may be hard to find heirloom plant seedlings, but more and more seed companies are jumping on the heirloom bandwagon. It’s important to note that it’s not all about flavor. By preserving old varieties of seeds, we are protecting the biodiversity of our planet.
Q: Where can you get some trustworthy organic seeds that you can't find at an organic market? (question from seattlite)
A: Are you ready for some real back-to-basics effort, Seattlite? Try seed saving. Granted you’ll have to find the mama and papa plants first – and that may just be by searching the web, reaching out to organic gardeners and farmers and asking probing questions about certification of seed sellers. Once you have found some seeds you trust and have grown the plants, save some seeds for next year’s garden. You will know that you have raised the plants according to your own standards. I am confident, though, that as more and more people are looking for true, certified organic seeds, more will be available on the market.
Q: What are some of your favorite edible flowers for cooking and landscaping? (question from seattlite)
A: I like nasturtiums and calendula in salads. I’ve tried making candied violets and rose petals and failed dismally. My all-time favorite is squash blossoms – especially when they are stuffed and fried the way they make them in Rome. Alas, I have never grown squash just for the blossoms and neither my CSA farm or the local farmer’s market vendors have offered them thus far.
In the garden, I like fennel and dill as a feathery foil to my daylilies.