A recent conversation with a friend got me reminiscing about growing up in L.A. and how much I enjoyed my high school years here. “Most people are tortured by that time in their life, why do you think you had such a good experience?” he asked me. I had to think for a moment, but then the answer was clear: I never saw myself as part of a particular clique. On the contrary, my goal was to simply enjoy the experience regardless of whether I chatted before the bell with the athletes, spent lunch with the cool crowd or did my homework after school with the musical theater enthusiasts.
The same is true for me in the garden; I find that I can roll with any dirt demographic. As you may already know, just like in high school, even the garden world has its cliques. There are the “horticultural scientists” who are adept at identifying every last component of a microscopic soil sample. There are those whom I’d affectionately call the “underground gardeners” who dream of living off the grid, recycling their grey water and existing almost entirely on food they’ve grown themselves. Then there are the “fancy farmers” who have the funds to hire staff to tend their backyard beds and harvest the perfect tomato for their personal chef to prepare.
Just like in high school, while I am friendly with and admire the skill, knowledge and dedication of all these different kinds of gardeners, I myself don’t really fit into a specific garden niche. I am simply an “everyday” person who wants access to healthy food and to experience the enjoyment of growing it myself, and sharing it with others. Yes, I have formal training as a designer, am a certified Victory Gardener and have had my own landscape design business for over 15 years. But when it comes down to it, I just want to walk out my front door to pick some fresh lettuce for a salad, a bunch of kale for a smoothie or a handful of herbs to throw into some eggs on Sunday morning.
What does all of this have to do with you? Well, I have found that by and large, most people, like me, fall into the “everyday gardener” category. That means we are not going to study the science behind what makes one bitter green spicier than another (though there’s something fascinating about that), or recycle our grey water (though I hope to get there one day), and we (unfortunately) don’t have a private chef. But if you live in L.A., that means you trade traffic hell for the gift of gardening all 12 months of the year. So you get to bring a homegrown salad to a holiday potluck while friends back east are wearing three pairs of socks just to take out the trash.
Ok, so let’s get started…
What to Plant
Though it sounds counter intuitive, the cool season is actually a great time to get started at gardening or to dig into those abandoned raised beds you’ve been ingnoring since last spring. Why? Because contrary to popular belief, many crops actually thrive in a cooler climate. For example, salad greens enjoy the crisp air of this season and tend to wilt or bolt (or both) in the summer heat (bolting is shop talk for going to seed and getting bitter – good if you are saving seed, bad if you want to enjoy your salad). I’d encourage you to plant a winter salad garden that would include a mixed variety of baby lettuces. Have fun with it. Be playful and don’t take it too seriously. It’s just lettuce. Start with oak leaf lettuce for it’s beautiful ruby red tips (ombre, if you will, this is L.A.), butter lettuce for its mild taste and bright color and of course arugula for its leaf shape and assertive, peppery flavor. Greens prefer less sun, so the shorter days are the perfect time to get started. Like asking out the cute girl who is not in your clique, go for it. You simply have nothing to loose.
While you are at it, plant a bed or even a pot of herbs. Sage is great with the squash you can purchase at our neighborhood farmer’s markets (Wednesday in Miracle Mile and Sunday in Larchmont Village). Parsley pairs nicely with holiday stuffing, blended into a green smoothie, chopped into gremolata to top onto pasta or pureed into chimichurri sauce to top onto steak. If you make any of the above, please remember I am available to taste test.
Don’t get cold feet, you don’t need a lab coat or master’s degree in science to get your yard up and running from the ground up. It is important to know, though, that soil is a living organism, and that the more nutrient dense your soil, the more nutritious and healthy your veggies and herbs. Additionally, the healthier your veggies, the less susceptible they are to fungus and pest infestations. So how do you get healthy soil? The best thing to do is to amend (i.e. mix) it with some compost and organic plant food. Some worm castings would be great if you are feeling ambitious. In doing so you are building up the organic material of your soil and in turn boosting the nutrition of your crops. When I was a kid gardening with my dad, I saw the soil as just some “brown stuff” that held the roots of the plant in place. Boy was I wrong!
Last but not least, please do not step on your soil. Ever. There’s a fragile ecosystem going on just under the surface. Treat it with care and it will reward you immensely when it comes time to harvest.
Ok, I may really lose some of you here, but I’m diving in anyway. Years ago I thought that composting was something only those who had magical powers could master. Once again, I am happy to report that I was very wrong. While there are definitely compost cliques out there (and some seriously talented folks doing it), I am not a part of that group. I am, once again, the “everyday” gardener who wants the benefits of compost without too much fuss. So I purchased a pre-built compost box from a local hardware store and religiously throw in all my kitchen scraps (i.e. apple cores, coffee grounds and winter squash skins) along with some brown leaves collected from the yard next door (actually I make my son do it, so I’m already ahead of the game).
The compost clique might wince at this elementary explanation, but basically you want a mixture of ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ in your compost to create the ideal conditions for all of the material to decompose into this dark, rich material that provides amazing nourishment for your soil. If your compost pile looks too dry, add some more kitchen scraps or grass clippings (or even hose it down if that’s all you can manage). If it looks too wet, then add some dry leaves. You can mix it up with a shovel once a week, or just let it decompose naturally. Either way, you will eventually get this amazing (and free!) soil amendment that you’ve made yourself. You’ve also kept a ton of plant waste out of the landfill, and thus reduced methane emissions into our atmosphere. Did you know that according to the EPA, “landfills are the third largest source of CH4 emissions in the United States”? Go ahead and Google “methane gas” and you might just find yourself saving your coffee grounds for the compost bin after all.
In the end, regardless of whether you’re a horticultural scientist, underground gardener, fancy farmer, or just an everyday person like me, the joy and benefits of growing and sharing homegrown food is something we can hopefully all agree on.