Perhaps your 401(k) cratered or you sold at the bottom and invested
the remainder in a gold mine. Or perhaps you’ve been breathlessly
— or anxiously — awaiting the end of Western civilization
(three more years till the end of the Mayan calendar). In either case,
while you’re waiting for a stack of bullion or your own private
Armageddon, you still have to eat. The solution: Plow up the back forty
and grow your own grub.
Your grandparents, in their own version of the depression we’re not
having, had a leg up on you, such as more arable land to work with. If
you’re like most people in the East Bay, your farm falls into one of
three categories: a postage-stamp patio, a postage-stamp lawn flanked
by junipers so old they’re moldy underneath, or a sea of foxtails and
Himalayan blackberry holding up a sagging fence. No matter which you’ve
got, you can grow all your salad greens, braising greens, and
strawberries. If you think that won’t dent your grocery bill, you
either haven’t been eating your spinach or haven’t been doing the
First, a few don’ts. Do not rush to buy starts of hot-weather plants
like squash, tomatoes, and corn. You will be poorer and hungrier.
Because you’re smart enough to live in a microclimate where it never
gets too hot or too cold, your best way to grow tomatoes and sweet corn
is to cultivate friends in Walnut Creek. You bring them lettuce, they
bring you zucchini. In the winter, let them beg while you gloat, but
don’t make ’em too mad, or they won’t give you enough tomatoes to can
Do not plant things you don’t like to eat. If broccoli makes you
cringe, why devote energy and space to growing it? Plenty of people
have thought that because they love artichokes, they’d adore Jerusalem
artichokes. Enough said.
Do not spend hundreds of dollars you don’t have on raised beds and
fancy this-and-thats. Instead, as you garden, pretend you’re six. I
need a trellis, so how ’bout that ladder over there, or hey, let’s use
those old windows for a cold frame. A cold frame is used to warm the
soil so that you can start seeds in flats or harden-off those babies
that have been living on your kitchen table. Lean the window frames
against a back — a 2×8 on its side works nicely. Cover the open
sides with a bit of clear plastic. Get creative, recycle, and save
For those with limited space: Think vertical. If you have a balcony,
truck on over to the nursery and buy some grow bags. These are black
plastic baggies that you fill with potting soil and seeds, and then
water. Nearly instant salad. Roots Organics maker Aurora Innovations
had the bright idea of putting the soil in the grow bag — a camo
bag, to boot. The Roots bags (they come in 1.5 and 3 cubic feet) stand
up, while others lie on their sides. Of course, you can turn any bag of
soil into a makeshift grow bag, but you need to be more careful with
mixes packaged in lighter plastic. Put a few drainage holes in what
will become the bottom, cut out a rectangle at the top, and plant.
Ring the balcony with the bags, and plant snow and snap peas and
beans near the railings, with lettuce, spinach, Chinese cabbage, and
bok choy toward the middle. There are gorgeous lettuces — try
Sunset and Oakland’s own Kitazawa Seeds’ Okayama Salad for beauty as
well as exquisite taste. Check out Kitazawa’s Asian greens and peas,
too (KitazawaSeeds.com). Most
of these are cut-and-come-again; they’ll go for weeks as you trim,
growing back to feed you more. (Emphasis on trim; you take a few
leaves from this plant, a few from that.) Root out those that taste a
little bitter or seem to be getting taller — they’re going to
seed, which means you need to plant more. Succession planting, where
you start seeds every few weeks, is important, because it’ll keep your
bags full of good greens.
Go skyscraper with your strawberries; they like to grow in stacks.
They will flourish in cinder blocks stacked one or two blocks high.
Fill the holes with soil and plant your strawberries inside. You can
even use the blocks as a short retaining wall for raised beds. Again,
recycle — you’re certain to have containers that can be
repurposed for strawberries. Punch a few holes at the bottom for
drainage — standing water will kill the plants. And be sure to
get everbearing varietals, such as UC Davis introductions Seascape and
Sequoia. They do better in our mild winters, and they fruit for
But wait, you’re saying. Shouldn’t I buy my lettuce in those little
six-packs? You can if you insist, but since you can plant lettuce,
braising greens, and spinach all year round, it pays to get seeds of
these. A packet will feed you for months. And if you’ve torn your hair
out in the past because slugs and snails ate your babies, surround your
seedlings with Sluggo. It’s non-toxic, harming no one but mollusks.
You’ve got more space than a balcony, but you’re not convinced by
drought and starvation that it’s finally time to tear out the lawn.
Stack the bags of dirt on top of the grass. Next year you’ll be ripping
out the lawn anyway, once you see how tasty and succulent your own
veggies are, and at that point you can put in a few nice-looking beds.
Still, you’re concerned with looks this year. Remember your
ABCs: amaranth, artichokes, asparagus, thornless blackberries, Bright
Lights chard, and Chinese cabbage. Toss in a few espaliered fruit
trees, and Better Homes and Gardens will be on the way to your
Wait a second, you say. I plan to go away this summer; how will my
plants survive without water? You could leave in July, when it’s
freezing, or you could lay soaker hoses across your bags and around
your yard. Get a timer (they cost less than $25) and attach it to the
hose bib. Then screw the hose onto the bottom of the timer. If you need
more than one soaker hose, put a two- or three-way diverter on the
bottom of the timer, then attach the hoses. Set the timer for every
other day, watering around 6 or 7 p.m. It’s best to water in the early
evening, when the plants have all night to quench their thirst. You can
start with a half-hour at a time, but remember to increase as your
plants grow; you may even go to once a day. You’ll find the soaker hose
regimen saves a lot of water.
Now you lucky people with the endless fields of weed-plugged grass:
clear it out. Use that fertile soil for blocks of vegetables, plant
berry bushes and table grapes on those falling-down fences, plant
sunflowers in the sunniest corners and grow beans up the stalks, get
your neighbors involved and knock down those fences and use the wood to
build chicken coops.
And if you’re all moody about tomatoes, get a few cherry tomato
plants and put them in a container against a south-facing wall. Toss
’em in the salad along with your fresh-trimmed greens. Get into the
spirit, folks. Offset the losses in your 401(k) with the best food
you’ve ever eaten.