One of my favorite memories is of my grampa sitting at the kitchen table, gnawing on the end of his cigarette while the rototiller idled noisily in the back yard. I have no idea why he’d let it sit there running for so long, especially since it was a horrible noise and even worse smell, but there you have it. After the farm-perfect rows and furrows were planted, he’d tediously weed, water, and await the coming of the horn worms. His tomatoes were huge, juicy, and heavenly.
This is where my love of gardening began. This is where I learned to listen to plants to learn what they needed and where they would be happiest spreading their roots and stretching their branches. When I was grown and had my own home, I spent all my spare time designing my flower gardens – all to no avail, thanks to my German Sheppard who loved the cool soil and soft flowers I’d just laid out for his afternoon nap.
Thanks to the endlessly changing tides of our lives, I now have the garden of my dreams (though scaled down to suburban living), which elicits much appreciated oohs and aahs and questions. Reading between the lines of these questions, I have come to the conclusion that people who did not grow up in a family of gardeners believe that gardening is a huge, expensive, time consuming endeavor. They don’t realize it can be as simple and inexpensive as simply putting a plant in a pot of dirt on the patio. What’s that cost – $15, including the pot? Three minutes a day of TLC, on average? Yes, if you want a small farm to sprout up in your back yard it will cost a bit more and take considerably more time, but most people simply want a few tomatoes and maybe a pepper plant.
The basics of vegetable gardening, on the cheap and easy:
- pick your spot,
- dig a hole twice the size of the ball of roots that comes out of the seedling pot (aka “root ball”),
- plant your seedling, filling the whole with soil you bought at your favorite big box store,
- press the soil firmly around the base of the plant,
- check your plant the next day and water again, as long as the soil is not soggy from the day before,
- water your plant daily for the next week or so, then you can slack off on watering.
It’s a good idea to check your plant(s) daily, so make this quick trip to the back yard part of your after-work routine. It takes 2 minutes and can prevent many problems, like forgetting to water for too many days in a row.
What to do – a little more detailed:
A place to plant:
good soil (it’s cheap, buy it)
easy access to water
Container, or no container, it’s up to you:
Whether you plant in a large flower pot, raised beds, or straight in the ground, just be sure what ever will be in contact with your plants and the soil is healthy! Old tires, railroad ties, and concrete blocks all leach chemicals into the soil, which your plants will transfer into your homegrown veggies.
What to plant when:
Conejo Valley and Simi Valley are in Zones 18, and 19, and Burbank and LA are in in Zone 20. USDA also has their own zone codes, which put us (Conejo and Simi) in 10A and 10B (maybe 11A, it’s difficult to tell exactly which shade of orange is which). We can plant pretty much from early March thru early June.
Planting earlier puts you in danger of frost. Planting later means you’ll need to water more often, which is more work, more money, and more risk in losing the plants, so try to avoid planting any later than early June.
Broccoli, cabbage, etc are winter plants in southern California. Lettuce does not like heat, so you’ll want to grow it between the end of February (after danger of frost) through May -ish. Lettuce with thicker leaves can tolerate more heat, but not direct sun.
Most plants need as much sun as they can get for at least half the day.
If you are limited on space or don’t want to plant in/on the ground, you can plant in terra cotta pots or wood planters. I suggest lining wood planters with pond liner (poke a couple small holes in the bottom) to help retain water and discourage gophers. A sheet of plastic will work just as well, but will deteriorate by the end of the season. Pond liner will last for years. Add a plastic dish to the bottom of terra cotta pots to hold some of the water but still allow drainage. The bottom of a milk jug (that has been washed) should work fine, but be sure to poke a couple small holes in the bottom. Even a bit of pond liner or plastic will work. The goal is to slow the water draining from the pot, not create a stagnant pond – hence the holes.
Where to plant:
– raised planters
You can go all out and build raised planters with built in trellises, but honestly the plants don’t care. Raised beds are beautiful and easy to access, but expensive and take time to build, so it’s completely up to you and your budget if you want to go this route.
– in the ground
Large scale farmers have been digging long, narrow hills with irrigation trenches since before the beginning of recorded history and been very successful at it, and it will work for you, too. Be sure to amend the soil where you’re planting – in other words, dig in some compost or fertilizer.
– planting frames
Our preferred method, when we actually plant in the ground, is to build a simple frame of 2 x 8″ boards that are held in place with rebar that’s pounded into the ground. Lay out weed barrier and fill with either poultry or steer manure. If you have a problem with gophers, you’ll want to lay down hardware cloth (1/2″ squares similar to chicken wire) – it’s worth the hassle and expense.
* What to plant:
Rule #1 – keep it simple. Seeds can be difficult, so buy seedlings. Bonnie Plants are organic, non-GMO, and available at your local big orange box store. (YAY!) Tomatoes are easy and can be crammed together (about 18″ apart) to conserve space. You’ll want to pick up a tomato cage for each of your new plants so they grow up, instead of out. Zucchini and hot peppers are also easy plants. If you like fresh herbs, basil and thyme are great starter plants. Rosemary and culinary sage are true evergreen bushes, so feel free to incorporate these into your landscaping.
In my experience, corn is more trouble than it’s worth. It gets bugs, needs a lot of water, gets torn up in the wind… We’ve also had some trouble with melons, mainly because they need more space than we’re willing to give up. (You can plant a lot of tomatoes in the space a melon needs.)
So stop worrying, stop planning, and get planting!