There’s perhaps nothing more gratifying than growing your own food. But many of us, standing pole-axed in the garden aisle filled with heat mats, plastic domes, fluorescent lights, and weird flat pellets that expand into potting soil, decide growing vegetables requires experience and too much money.
Good news: Vegetable gardening is like learning to play the piano. Boogie-woogie may be beyond you, but most of us can plunk out a recognizable tune after one lesson. If you follow these easy directions, you’ll be pounding out snow-pea-and-mustard-green stir-fries in no time.
The first trick is to choose the right veggies. You don’t need anything from the garden aisle to grow a head of lettuce, even if how-to books try to convince you that you’re water-boarding your romaine if you don’t provide bottom heat. Only a few vegetables need the spa treatment, namely melons, tomatoes, and peppers. Forget those divas (or buy them as starts at your nursery) until you’ve mastered “Chopsticks.”
What you’re after are super-easy-to-grow-in-the-East-Bay cold-weather vegetables, which can be started right in the ground. Try peas of all types, mustard greens, chard, lettuce, cilantro, carrots, or beets, for starters. If it goes in a salad, it usually can be planted directly in the soil.
It’s much more cost-effective to grow these vegetables from seed, and you get the pleasure of poring through catalogs and websites to select the varieties that sing to you. For the price of a six-pack at the nursery, a package of seeds will last all year and even into next spring.
The hard part (you knew there had to be one) is preparing a nice seedbed in which to plant your seeds. You can’t buy a seedbed at Sleep Train, so it’s time for elbow grease. Look around your yard and think about the sun. What direction does your backyard face? If west, you’ve got lots of sun. If east, it’s likely shaded in the afternoon. North is shady, south sunny. Pick a sunny location — which might be in your front yard — and dig out the weeds you are most likely harboring. (If there aren’t weeds or grass, ask why — does a giant tree shade the area? Did your neighbor “recycle” his motor oil in your yard?) If you’re unsure about shade, winnow your list of easy vegetables a bit more. Chard, lettuce, and spinach will do fine with half-day shade, so plant them on the east side and reserve broccoli and cabbage for a sunnier spot.
Once you’ve weeded your plot, turn the soil and spread a bag of potting soil and another of compost. Turn the soil again. Now level it off, as if you were going to take a nap on top. You’ve made a seedbed.
Follow the instructions on the packages of seeds as to spacing and depth. Plant in blocks, not rows; tractors and irrigation equipment aren’t coursing through your yard. Firm the bed with the flat of your hands so the seeds are well in place (or with your feet if you’ve made a large bed), and water with a fine spray a couple times, not heavy enough to dislodge the seeds but sufficiently to dampen the soil. Dramm wands come with fine-spray heads, and the wand will screw right on your garden hose. Keep the bed moist but not wet. Congrats — you’ve started your garden.
Slugs and snails are high-fiving, too. Sprinkle Sluggo around, and that’ll do most of them in. You may lose a few leaves, but you won’t lose them all, and you won’t be poisoning cats or birds. Sluggo Plus also decimates earwigs and sow bugs (aka pill bugs), and although the roly-polys are cute, they will eat your plants.
Here’s something you may not anticipate or understand: labels. Get plant labels, write the variety on it with a permanent marker, and stick it in your bed. Every single person who comes to visit your garden (and by July or August, you’ll be insisting people view your masterpiece whether they want to or not) will ask what that lettuce or chard is. If you don’t know, your guest’s face will fall, and you’ll feel rotten. Label your veggies.
And make your garden a work of art. Even though you’re a neophyte, you can have a gorgeous garden. Fan your seedbed into a crescent shape, or put a few tall plants (for instance, peas on a rustic bamboo teepee) inside a circle of lettuce and other greens. Vary your greens — Chinese cabbages next to kale, for instance, and lettuce intermixed with all. If they begin to crowd, pull out a plant here and there for dinner. The rest will fill in the hole in a couple days. If you want a bed of all lettuce, buy the most interesting varieties you can find, mix the seeds in a bowl, and plant them randomly. Red romaine looks amazing next to lime-green butter lettuce.
You can plant cold-weather veggies pretty much anytime in the East Bay, but it helps to get your over-wintering plants in by late July or early August, so they have some heat to start. Chard, kale, broccoli, and peas all benefit from growing time before the rains hit. Peas will climb, so give them a few poles. You’ll be rewarded all winter.
When you harvest your magnificent crop, don’t pull out the whole plant unless you’re making space. Instead, cut off the outer leaves from as many plants as you need to fill the bowl. Next time you’re ready for a salad, you can harvest another set of new leaves from the same plants. This works for spinach, lettuce, chard, and other salad and cooking greens.
For interesting varieties, try Wild Garden Seed in Oregon for exotic lettuces. Sand Hill Preservation Center has a huge selection and very reasonable prices, and Oakland’s Kitazawa Seed Company is best for Asian greens.
A community garden is a good spot to learn more. Hang out with the gardeners and ask questions. Gardeners are patient folks; it’s an occupational hazard. You might even sign up for a slice of land if you live in an apartment.
The best way to start is to start simple.