Beginners Garden

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.
garden raised beds
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,
  • water,
  • 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!
2016.04 AHTG

Autumn Vegetable Gardening in So Cal


Are you ready for fall season vegetable gardening yet?

Summer is almost over and in Southern California it’s time to think about your favorite cool weather crops.

For many gardeners, autumn means cutting back on the amount of gardening you do and getting your garden ready for cold weather, but for us, that is not the case. Instead, we get ready for another growing season filled with delicious vegetables and fruits.
Continue reading “Autumn Vegetable Gardening in So Cal”

The California Greenhouse


If you plan to raise flowers, herbs, vegetables, or fruiting plants year round, I highly suggest you invest in a good greenhouse that will not only provide protection for your plants, but also protects you against the environment while you tend your plants.

Make sure the structure is safe and sturdy. There are greenhouses on the market that will do fine in calm days, or in areas where there is no heavy snow or harsh sun beating on them. Put the same structure in a decent Santa Ana wind and you will see them rattle, shake, and fall apart in a hurry. There are good DIY plans out there that will meet your needs, and your safety requirements.
Continue reading “The California Greenhouse”

Fall is Finally Here in Southern California


I know it doesn’t feel like it yet, but before you know it the air will cool and the time spent in the garden won’t be as exhausting as it has been over the last few months. The sun won’t be beating down on you with its full power and the smell of heated roof tops, and scorching pavements will be replaced with the aroma of dew on the grass and the freshly harvested fields nearby.
Continue reading “Fall is Finally Here in Southern California”

How to Approach Plant Problems


We all want perfectly happy and healthy plants, but there are times when we take a stroll in our garden and realize some are not doing as well as expected.

In such situations, some gardeners rush to correct the problem, spraying their plants with pesticides, fungicides, or other liquids, be it from a chemical company or made of natural ingredients, to make sure their plants look as good as the ones in the gardening books. If you are one of those gardeners, I have one word of advice for you. STOP.
Continue reading “How to Approach Plant Problems”

Autumn Garden Chores

It’s September and time to start thinking about autumn in Southern California.  The weather doesn’t really agree with that theory, but it’s inevitable – autumn is just around the corner.  Here’s a quick reminder of a few chores to take care of around the garden.

Charles M. Schulz /
snoopy in autumn


It’s just about time to pull out old veggie plants and spent annuals. I’m sad to see them go, but a clear veggie patch really does look nicer than a bunch of mostly dead plants that probably won’t produce any quality vegetables.  Trim branches that are too close to power lines or the house.  Keep in mind that some bushes (like ficus) will grow more if you prune them at the wrong time.  Many flowers are still blooming, so you can hold off trimming back roses and other bushes.

Soak trees, bushes, and perennials to encourage deep roots.  If you’re able to tell when the wind is about to pick up, soak them before. They’ll probably need it after, too.  It seemed like it was windy more often than not last year.

If you’re close to the grassy hills, make sure you clear dead bushes, branches and trees that are within 30′ of your home.  Cut annual grass to no higher than 4″.  To learn more about fire prevention, visit


Batten down the hatches, the winds are coming!  With any luck, we’ll have a good deal of rain in a few months, so you may as well get ready for that, too. One weather report claims we can expect an “ark storm” – meaning a bad winter that only comes around every 150 years. Another weather report claims that we’ll have a bad El Nino winter, but they don’t know if any of it will hit the US.  Either way, put away anything light that could be blown away to Oz.  Also put away anything you don’t want soaked, in case it does rain. If we have another mild and dry winter, you can enjoy a nice clean yard because you were prepared for the worst. Remember to take down your wind chimes, too. (I always forget till they wake me up at 2am)


Although we should keep our tools clean and well maintained throughout the year, but how many of us actually do it?  Since there isn’t a lot of gardening to tend to, now is a good time to clean and sharpen tools, and clean up lawn equipment and such.  Be sure to store everything out of the rain.


If you haven’t already started, plant your next crop of seeds. There’s still time to grow and harvest another crop of cucumbers, chard, basil, etc.  Lettuce is a wonderful winter crop for us, so plant away!

It reached 102° at CSUN yesterday and today wasn’t much cooler.  Around about the time you start thinking it’s time to turn on the heater in the house, it’s also time to wrap your greenhouse.  There’s no need to remove the shade cloth unless it’s ready to be replaced anyway.  Be sure to add 1”x2” boards at strategic points over the plastic to keep the wind from ripping it off in the middle of the night. (can you tell we tend to forget potentially noisy items till it’s the middle of the night?)


If you have any pets that spend the majority of their time outside, look around their area with fresh eyes – do they need new blankets in their house, a new food or water dish? Is their house out of the wind? Will they stay dry if it rains?  What if it rains heavy?  If you have free-range chickens, do they have a place to go to get out of the wind, rain, and mud?  Will water get into their house or their feed?

We used to wrap the aviary and rabbit cages in plastic when the temperature dropped (leaving a window for air flow). It wasn’t pretty to look at, but the finches and bunnies were much happier and that made us happy.

Local hummingbirds do not migrate, and neither do many of our wild birds.  If you feed in the summer, please remember to feed in the winter.  Keep birdbaths full and clean, and move feeders to an area that won’t be affected by wind or rain. It’s nice to keep planter dishes on the ground for lizards and other small critters that might wander into your yard.


It’s surprising how little water mosquitoes need in order to develop, and they do not need warm weather to thrive.  Last January, I found mosquito larvae in a cup that had blown into the yard and then collected a bit of water from the sprinklers.  Keep a constant look out for anything that can hold water. (This should be a year-round activity.)  Rinse out birdbaths and water bowls every few days, too.

Hope you have a wonderful, relaxing autumn!

Happy Gardening!


An Hour to Garden


Growing From Seed

Seed Tray Collage

I currently have 3 greenhouses in my backyard: the long house, the square house and the hoop house.  Now that the long house is built and planted, it’s time for the square house to be taken down.  Unfortunately (for my flower garden), Fred has discovered a super easy way to grown from seed.  We’ve collected a few of those black basket-like flats you can get from nurseries and Big-Box stores to carry your new 6-pack annuals home in.  Fred lined these with weed barrier, filled them with coconut fiber, scattered the seed, and put the flats in the hydroponics beds. The system is set to water twice a day and the greenhouse keeps the temperature fairly stable. Five days later and the seeds have sprouted and couldn’t be happier.

It’s important to point out that the coco fiber could gunk up a hydroponix/aquaponix system, which is why Fred used the weed barrier.

Share your method for growing from seed – even if it didn’t work out, it could plant an idea that others can try.

Happy gardening!


An Hour to Garden


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