10 April, 2011

Creative Container Gardening Nourishes Ourselves And Our Earth

(This is a reprint of an article that first appeared in LA Yoga magazine, June, 2009.  It is still applicable.)

NOTHING COMPARES WITH THE TASTE of freshly picked, vine-ripened, home-grown tomatoes. Sweet, juicy, delicious, colorful, bursting, it’s something special. Even the most organically grown, farm fresh produce isn’t quite the same as the loving care we take with growing our own food. While we may long to grow our own, we may feel constrained by apartment or urban living. By thinking out of the container a little bit, it’s possible to grow food in a very small space, even a patio or balcony. If we are creative about it, it can be an exercise in artistic living. It’s time to scrap the old mentality that has food production in containers looking like little mini-farms with Roundup-clean fields. We can cultivate containers filled with edible plants that are as glorious to look at as they are to eat.
Growing food is a project with a time commitment that gets stretched out over several months. Before beginning, it’s a good idea to meditate on why this is important in order to prevent (or minimize) any potential for the spirit to start flagging midstream.
Some popular reasons to grow your food include:
  • A feeling of freedom from the food grid.
  • Knowing this food was grown without chemicals. • Making an ecological statement that the current methods of peroleum-based food production and shipping miles before consumption is a precipice built on cheap and abundant fossil fuels.
  • And, dare we say it, love.

Plants nourish us in so many ways, yet our modern society has attempted to reduce all life to a soulless materialism based on constant consumption. A focus on growing our own food breaks the societal patterns which pull our heads in a million directions with constant messages about spending and conforming. Actually growing food is at odds with the consumptive mindset. This can force some uncomfortable decisions. When the plants need attention, do we dare choose the silence and peace of growing plants over the glitter of a night at the movies? It is important to remember the benefits of having your own garden: the taste of freshly-grown produce, and the connection with the earth and the cycles of life. These benefits are motivations to water your plants before you fall into bed countering the temptation to neglect our garden, especially after coming home exhausted after a rough day.
There’s an affirmation here, though, growing your own food, even if it’s a small portion of what you eat, makes a very direct statement, to you and to the world, of your intentional love of yourself. By enjoying food cared for with love and intention, you express your love for the planet so many people call home.

Once you have decided to grow some food, you need to realistically appraise your site. Light, of course, is very important as plants utilize the energy from sunlight to grow. The city presents some opportunities an urban farmer can exploit due to the abundance of reflective surfaces. We are told that food plants must have a minimum of six hours of sunlight per day, but that figure doesn’t take into account the massive amount of reflected sunlight that shines all around us.
North, South, East or West?
First, determine which direction the open side of your growing area faces. If your site faces north, your choices will be the most limited as your growing area will likely fall in the shade of a building most or all of the day. But look around, since a light-colored wall that gets plenty of sunshine and happens to face your growing area can reflect sunlight back onto the plants.
East-facing sites are the next most challenging. In these cases, again, look for reflective surfaces and an increase in the available light in the form of a bright building, a street or another large light-colored object.
West-facing usually makes for abundant sunlight. The South-facing direction, though, is the cream of the directional crop. However, in some city situations, West or South, combined with lots of reflective surfaces can be too hot. Still, too much sun can be solved more easily than too little sun.
Have Hope And Begin
Plants are more willing to grow if there’s hope. And the situation might not be as bleak as perceived; there may be windows of light here and there that are not readily apparent to a human (non-plant) eye. If in doubt, start your container garden with some perennial herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme or marjoram. If these hardy plants do poorly for lack of sun, it may be time to stand in line for a community garden plot.
However, if you successfully cultivate some sprigs of fresh thyme or oregano to add prana (life-force) to your cooking, then you can move on to something a little more challenging. Different plants have different light demands.

The Light Continuum

Most light-intensive
Grains: corn, wheat, rice, barley
Legumes: beans, lentils, peas
Fruits: eggplant, tomatoes, peppers
Least light-intensive
Edible leaves: parsley, lettuce, cabbage
Edible flowers: broccoli, artichokes
Edible roots: carrots, beets, radishes
Start with leaves and roots and give it a whirl. Allow the plants to talk to you in a way that informs you of their needs for sun and water.
Equipping Your Space
You will find there is not as much to buy as the gardening magazines tell you. And of the things you do need, make the conscious decision to invest in them. Tools are not the most important thing to consider. However, the container itself and soil you put in the container are both very important.
Plastic permeates our lives today. It is not sustainable and is a blight on the Earth. Use it if you must (because of weight), but do so understanding that it is not ideal. There are lightweight paper pots sold in most nurseries and big box stores that durable for three years. They eventually rot out, but they are about as fossil-free as anything else is today. And they come in a variety of sizes from small to those able to hold a large artichoke.
Found objects make great pots. The two requirements for any found object are: it can hold soil and it has a hole in the bottom to allow excess water to drain. (Drainage is necessary; please don’t kill your plants by drowning.) If the container doesn’t allow for drainage, it is not an acceptable choice. Cover the bottom hole with a piece of screen – readily available at hardware or other stores. A lifetime supply will cost about five dollars and only needs to be large enough to amply cover the hole. Do not use a broken piece of pottery, called a ‘shard,’ to cover the hole, as shards make a lovely home for snails, slugs and other plant-eating critters. The screen is a marvelous improvement.
In Southern California and many urban areas, thick containers are almost essential – like those made from wood or pottery. The sun that beats down here can raise the soil temperature in a plastic pot to a temperature very uncomfortable for plant roots. Black plastic, often found in nurseries, has killed more plants than the so-called ‘black thumb.’ Terra cotta is a beautiful and practical choice for Southern California – the properties of breathing (terra cotta isn’t completely sealed and there is moisture and air exchange that closely resembles a more normal environment for plant roots), beauty and variety of form makes it a good choice for our homes. It is breakable, of course, and for people with overactive children or animals, another choice might be more intelligent. Wood also has many of these same characteristics, but it does tend to rot over time (if it’s treated to not rot, it’s not fit to grow food!)
The container needs to be large enough to accommodate a plant’s root system – while experience will be the best teacher, a simple look at the size of the plant and its growth pattern will tell you a lot. Root plants (carrots and beets) will need much deeper pots than lettuce or any of the culinary herbs.
One last technical detail and you can plant: Soil. Do not get cheap potting mix and don’t get a potting mix loaded with fertilizer or the new ‘soil polymers.’ These are manufactured ‘beads’ in the soil that are supposed to hold water for a longer period of time – if you dig up soil that had these beads in it a few months ago, they are now gone. “Where did they go?” you might ask. They dissolved into the water around the roots of the plants and went into your food. Are they harmful? Like most new inventions, they’ve never been tested in human food. If that bothers you, make sure your potting soil doesn’t contain them.
A potting soil labeled ‘organic’ should be somewhat more expensive than the non-organic blend; if it is cheaper than the non-organic mix, be suspicious. Sand, which is a very valuable part of a good potting soil, is heavy and costs more. If the producer has substituted some other ingredient, the soil will not drain sufficiently to keep your plants happy.
The bag should also be labeled “potting soil.” Planting mix, organic compost and other bagged items are not acceptable for container plants. Soil from the local ground is not acceptable either.
A plant in a pot is not in a natural environment. Plant roots need water and (surprise!) air to be healthy. Potting soil is a mix of many ingredients that allow the roots to live happily inside the pot. Beginning gardeners will especially benefit from a lot of sand in the potting soil.
Planting Day
A tomato is a rather large plant. It needs a deep pot – imagine a five gallon bucket, the ubiquitous white plastic bucket that ships everything from paint to pickles these days. That’s about right for a tomato. But while it wants all that depth for its roots, the tomato will do very little with all the surface area of such a large pot. That space can be used for color and for more food plants. A tomato will grow to be at least four feet tall. Think about filling in the space in the pot around the tomato with something of visual – as well as culinary – interest that can please your eye as you gaze at the tomato. A perfect companion, to the eye as well as the palate, would be basil which could grow to about two-and-a-half feet tall. Then think about another plant that grows closer to the soil and could be planted beneath the basil. Oregano, in this case, would be a wonderful addition. That almost makes a pizza garden!
One could easily add a small flowered plant as well – in the city, I love to use alyssum, a small white-flowered annual that smells a lot like honey. Usually sold in white, a color which lends itself to blending with all other hues, the scent is heavenly and it is carefree and exuberant in a way that pleases the spirit. Other choices are the little lobelias that come in many different colors although they lack the same alluring aroma.
Most of us have a mental model of growing food in austere conditions that consist of only one plant surrounded by lots of bare soil. This is the image given to us by a culture divorced from nature. In truth, if you look at the real world of plants, they are all mixed in together – there are a multitude of species happily occupying the same space. Not only is it possible to mix lots of plants together, it is preferable. You will have happier plants and a more pleasing visual atmosphere on your balcony or patio.
When asked how often to water, anyone who answers “once a day” or “once a week” isn’t being accurate. That is another holdover from an industrial, mechanized worldview that simply doesn’t apply to living, growing beings. Water your plants when they need it. Stick your finger in soil to the first joint. Is it wet? Hold off. Moist? Add some water. Are you finding yourself having itchy skin because of dryness in the air? Water. Santa Ana winds blazing through the land? Water. By tuning yourself to what is going on around you in the natural world and less to what is on the radio, being able to discern the needs of your plant on a daily basis will become more natural to you.
Growing even a small portion of your food is not just healthier eating, it is a way to manifest your natural presence in a world of honking horns and concrete. It is satisfying to the soul and brings a peace beyond the simple act of looking at a growing plant. Growing food brings a person into a harmonious circle that resonates with life and nature. No one more than modern ‘civilized’ man needs that blessing.
David King is the Gardenmaster at The Learning Garden, located on the Venice High School campus. He teaches Southern California gardening at The Learning Garden and for UCLA Extension. His blog is found at: beautifulfoodgarden.com

04 April, 2011

The Garden in April

The summer garden's plants are in their little starter pots right now (vaguely reminiscent of training wheels on a bicycle) really begging to be transplanted into the earth. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, the stalwarts of our summer garden are almost ready to hit the big time. In some years, it's too cool until after your taxes are done, but in many others, heed their pleas and put them out sooner.

It seems like the crops most of us think of as 'value crops' are the summer garden crops. Back in March, if I sowed a couple of short rows of purple snap beans. I Some folks swear they are 'purple green beans, ' but that seems a little contradictory to me. They aren't green, they're purple – until you cook them. Purple beans turn green when they are done to a toothsome crunch and so the beans tell you when to stop steaming them!

They are good, but in my book, they aren't the real deal of the bean world. In April, gardeners put out their main crop of snap beans. Most folks plant green beans, including, Blue Lake, Kentucky Wonder, Romano and others, either as a pole bean or a bush bean, depending on need, so check the package to make sure you know what you are buying.

I like to plant yellow beans, also called 'wax' beans. I hated yellow beans as a kid, mainly because they were different and I never saw them for sale in the grocery store; I didn't want anything on our table that wasn't on someone else's table. As an adult, I've come to love the yellow beans pickled. The yellow ones are like 'sunshine in a jar' that I can put on sandwiches and in salads all year long. Yum! I look for Pencil Pod or Carson, both of which are delicious and good croppers. For something a little different, plant Dragon Langerie, a Dutch variety that has purple strips down the large flat yellow bean. They can be quite large and still tasty.

In the first half of the month, start planting beans directly in the garden, I don't bother with transplanting from beans in starter packs. You can put out any bean from this point on, but I usually wait yet another month for the beans I want to dry, like the famous Italian Cannelini, or the American Cranberry Bean or Black Turtle, to insure they will ripen when the garden is basking in the dry heat of late summer/early fall. There are a lot of drying beans, but a gardener of a small plot can be forgiven if they pass on the dried beans – it can take a bit of space to get a decent crop. For the best drying bean selections look into Native Seed/SEARCH in Arizona or Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa.

Beans can be 'climbing,' 'bush' or 'runner' beans. Runner beans are somewhere in the middle and bear over a longer period of time, which is good if you want to have beans over several weeks or more. Runner beans look like some sort of compromise, being a bush bean that throws out 'runners' that look like they would climb if they could just get a little caffeine or something. If you plan on freezing or pickling your beans, bush beans will bear their crop pretty much all at once. Climbers will produce the most beans of all, as long as it stays warm enough climbing beans should keep producing until the weather turns cool – I have found, though, that maximum production can be halted by failing to keep them picked and at some point, I just give up on beans, so the bush beans are my choice.

About the same time you are putting your green and yellow beans into the garden, set out a couple cucumbers. I like Armenian and Japanese cucumbers which have the same mild flavor and awesome crunch, even though they couldn't look any more different! The Armenian cucumbers are a light green almost bordering on yellow, with smooth skin covering a straight fat cucumber while the Japanese are a very dark green, with massive prickles on a furrowed and absolutely convoluted twisty narrow cucumber. Both are delicious. The Japanese cucumber will bear over a longer period but there is much more eating on each Armenian cuke, so it probably ends up with both being about the same. Give both of them plenty of room! If your garden is small, allow these gangling fellows to climb up rather than out.

The beans and cucumbers aren't alone in being planted out about now. Tomatoes. However you say it, cucumbers and tomatoes are the number one plants gardeners think of when they think “Summer Garden.” There are more varieties of tomatoes than there are potholes in the greater Los Angeles area. Just check out the offerings of Seed Savers Exchange! Page after page of tomatoes. They come early, mid-season or late. Tomatoes are cherry, saladette, plum and beefsteak as well as black, cream, green, red, striped, yellow and many shades in between. Tomatoes come as plain ol' tomatoes or heirloom, and (had enough choices?) determinate and indeterminate. It's a complete overwhelm of choice. Determinate tomatoes are similar in growth to bush beans, giving you short plants that bear all at once (more or less), while indeterminate are like pole beans that bear over a long stretch and get quite large to boot.

Here are a few common ones to consider:

Cherry Tomatoes
Sweet 100 – a great productive and sweet little red tomato that is as dependable as a beach day in July.
Orange Sunshine – lots and lots of very sweet little tomatoes!
Golden Nugget – a ton of cream colored little guys that are sweet with low acid – always a bonus in my book.
Yellow Pear – a lot of folks like these, but I think they are mushy. Very productive though.
Jaune Flammee – a lovely bi-colored tomato (give it something to climb on!) that is red outside and gold inside – good tasting and beautiful!
Green Zebra – yup, it's ripe when it's green. I think they are little too acidic, but plenty of my friends like 'em.
Moonglow - Solid orange meat, few seeds and wonderful flavor. A favorite of any one who grows it.
Black from Tula – not really 'black,' but a very deep red. Delicious, though not a heavy producer – the skin is so thin I think it's best to take your plate and fork to the garden and eat it right at the plant!
Stupice – a small early plant that is worth growing because they also taste good and come in quick!
Plum (or paste tomatoes)
Black Plum – almost a mahogany tomato – tasty and meaty, an indeterminate tomato that produces quite nicely
Cream Sausage - A unique colored variety with creamy white to light yellow sausage-shaped fruit, very productive bushy plants do not require staking; a really different tomato sauce!
San Marzano – the most productive of the paste tomatoes and the biggest plant in this class of tomato – a very good, standard production tomato for paste tomatoes.
Brandywine – the taste that everyone is looking for in a big tomato, winner of many different taste tests. We can't really grow them very well in West Los Angeles because they need 85 F through the night as well as the day. Pasadena and other points inland can grow them, though.
German Johnson – a large pink tomato that is really juicy and yummy.
Mortgage Lifter – there's a great story about the name of this tomato I'll tell you at a cocktail party one of these days. For now, I'll say it tastes great and is not less filling, a lovely juicy tomato that rates.
Persimmon – this is the largest tomato I've ever grown in West Los Angeles. One sliced tomato could fill two dinner plates with meaty orange/yellow slices. However, the six foot plus plants only gave me one tomato each! Way too much space even though they were the sweetest and tastiest tomato I've had the pleasure of growing.

You'll notice I didn't include any of the Best Boy or Early Girl or other common hybrids. It is true they are productive and will give you a good crop of bright red fruits, but I think they are too acidic and have tough skin, so I don't grow them at all. There are so many delicious tomatoes in this world, to stick to those few seems silly to me. I grow my standards (San Marzano, Jaune Flammee, Black Plum and Garden Peach) but I always experiment with some new tomatoes every year! Plant lots of basil and marigolds at the same time you plant your tomatoes they make good companion plants.

When transplanting tomatoes from it's container to the ground, set them deeper in the soil than they were in the container. This is a great exception to the rule (almost all other plants should be set in the ground at the same level they were in the container) because a tomato stem will sprout roots all along the stem that is in contact with the soil. If the soil is really cold however, you'll have to resort to a more advanced technique. Tomatoes, being a tropical plant, do not like cold soil and the deeper you go, the colder it gets (and stays colder longer), so don't dig deep to plant tomatoes. Instead, if you have long plants, dig a shallow trench and lay the plant in on its side, gently bending the top to an upright position. The plant isn't deep in cool soil and yet it gets to make a lot more roots from the buried stem. (If you planted the tomato straight on down, the soil would not be warmed for a lot longer and the sulking tomato plant would refuse to grow until the warmth was felt that much deeper in the soil.)

And I haven't even mentioned later in the month! After the taxes are in, set out growing plants of peppers, eggplants, okra, melons, zucchini, summer squashes and tomatillos. Sow seeds of corn directly where they will grow. Pumpkins are a winter squash and all those hard skinned squashes should go out in May or so. They are really heat lovers.

Peppers and eggplants are easily grown once it has warmed up. They usually get about 3½' tall and need about two feet between plants. As with most vegetables, you need to give them all th sun you can. You can also try growing some lettuce in the shade of larger plants. Lettuce dislikes heat, but I like tomatoes and lettuce at the same time and it's easier trying to get lettuce in summer than tomatoes in winter.

I love peppers but I hate eggplant. Both however, are beautiful additions to every garden. Peppers come in a wild variety of colors – all start green and eventually change to whatever color they want to be – every green pepper you've ever eaten would have turned to some other color if we'd only practice more patience. I like Anaheim, Early Jalapeno and Corno di Torno (Italian for 'Horn of the Bull') for warmer peppers and Cubanelle, Sweet Banana and Marconi for a sweet pepper. Eggplants can be Asian or Italian – I like the Italian Listada de Gandia or Rosa Bianca, primarily because they are very good looking in the garden. I have no intention of eating them. There are deep purple ones (almost black) and white ones as well as Turkish Orange and green eggplants.

Okra can be planted late in April/early May. Clemson's Spineless, Burgundy, Annie Oakley, and Star of David all are prolific producers. Put on a pot of gumbo in late summer! I'll eat 'em if I don't see 'em.

Not enough has been said about basil, but Genovese basil is the best in my book. Not just good production, but wonderful aroma and the taste is incomparable. Pick leaves all summer to keep it producing – once there are two pair of leaves on a stem, that stem will commence to flower. Once a flower has set seed, the plant begins the process of dying. If you keep it well picked, the plant gets bushier and bushier and you get a lot more basil from each plant. Throw the pickings in soup, salads or directly in your mouth!

Sweet corn is another delight of the summer garden. It is a little tricky to grow in our small gardens though. Corn, like all the cereal grains, is wind pollinated. The tassels atop the plant are the 'boy' flowers and the silks on the ear are the 'girl' flowers. The tassels produce loads of pollen that must reach the silks to fertilize them and create the corn seeds. This is hard to do if you don't have a lot of corn plants with pollen to be blown onto the silks. It is best to plant corn as a block of plants rather than one long row. There needs to be a critical mass of male flowers to produce pollen that falls on the silks. You can go out and shake the flowering corn stalks to cause the pollen to fall down and assist in corn sex if you're the adventurous type. If you've ever eaten an ear of corn and found a spot where there was a space instead of a kernel, that shows that one silk was not pollinated because every kernel has its very own silk. To get a fully populated ear of corn, every individual silk must be fertilized.

Boy are we busy this month! Don't worry. If you fail to get everything done, you can keep at it for the first two weeks of May. There is no need to rush in Southern California. Our climate forgives us for being too early or too late most of the time, so you can go wrong, but you have to work at it pretty hard.