Thursday, February 21, 2008
I could list my gardening limitations to the soundtrack of a slow violin. My yard is a thin strip of lava rocks that I, as a renter, don’t have the liberty to disturb. And even if I did, I wouldn’t have the time, money or energy to get all Alice Waters-y in the dirt.
But when I moved to this area last winter, I just couldn’t rest easy until I’d planted some vegetables. The fertile Central Coast climate, which seldom dips below 40 or exceeds 75 degrees Fahrenheit, allows frost-sensitive plants to grow through the winter. Letting that gourmet growing weather go to waste felt like touring Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory without eating any candy. (Except I wanted to grow blueberries, not turn into one.)
As it turns out, none of my excuses would pass muster with three local green thumbs, who offer plenty of easy, low-budget ways to get tiny spaces producing.
Take Gordon Russell, who ran a successful gardening business in Carmel for years. After injuring his back, Russell began advocating gardening as therapy – teaching members of his chronic-pain-and-grief groups to make space-saving planters with old tires they found littering the countryside. “Gordy’s Survival Garden,” as he calls his method, can turn a compost-filled tire into a toasty home for heat-loving plants, such as heirloom tomatoes, watermelon and squash. The black rubber transfers warmth to the soil and roots, encouraging plants to grow hardy, and often twice as fast as veggies in traditional gardens.
“You don’t hardly even see the tire when the plants grow real big,” Russell says.
For the space-constrained, he suggests growing upward. Peas and grape vines work well on a trellis; so do tomatoes, if you train them by tying them up gently.
Key to a garden’s success, Russell stresses, is good compost. To a base of fruit and vegetable kitchen waste he adds human hair and fireplace ash for protein and nutrients. Chicken manure imbues a healthy dose of nitrogen – but his dad’s macaw, Polly, produced some of the best guano Russell’s known.
“That was good poo,” he says fondly.
If you don’t have an abundance of compost ingredients handy, try the Organic Materials Exchange (omexchange.org), a project of the Santa Cruz County Resource Conservation District and Ecology Action. A quick search of the site in mid-February reveals free flower clippings and organic kitchen waste, ready for pick up from Pacific Grove’s Oh! Flowers and Sand City’s Ol’ Factory Cafe, respectively.
Barbara Gordon, a member of Monterey Bay Master Gardeners, has a deep understanding of how things grow, but one of her suggestions is two-dimensional: Try an espalier fruit tree, with branches pruned to span left to right rather than all the way around. “The trees do very well,” says Gordon, who cares for espalier fig and apple trees in her own yard in Santa Cruz. “They produce just as well as if they had a round canopy, and it’s a real space saver.” For even more garden greens, she recommends planting low-growing vegetables directly in front of the trees.
Another space-savvy trick from the master’s playbook: a geometrical herb garden. Gordon suggests starting with a 6-foot-square frame, filled with soil and encircled with gopher wire. A second, smaller frame goes directly on top, rotated 45 degrees, so it looks like a diamond inside a square. That, too, gets filled with soil. Finally, an even smaller frame tops the stack, again rotated 45 degrees so the square is inside the diamond. Now you’ll have nine separate planting sections on three tiers. Gordon grows nearly a dozen herbs on her own contraption, which is pretty to boot.
A cornucopia of advice comes from Gil Falcone, who manages Sustainable Pacific Grove’s demonstration garden at its Forest Avenue headquarters (dubbed “The Green Spot”).
To prime soil in an overgrown area, Falcone prescribes the “lasagna” method, which entails covering the ground with newspaper, compost, soil and straw. The newspaper kills weeds by blocking out sun. Then the four layers break down into a rich planting substrate, with no need for soil-damaging tilling. “The philosophy is to maximize what you can produce in a sustainable way,” he says.
Falcone, a dive safety officer at Monterey Bay Aquarium, also keeps up a home garden. As a renter, he made a bargain with his landlords: He mows the lawn and keeps the yard looking good, and they let him install veggie beds and fruit trees.
Key to maximizing small spaces, Falcone says, is an awareness of climate variations around your property. South-facing walls offer plants such as tomatoes and hot peppers more sun. Sturdy sunflowers planted along a breezy fence help buffer the wind. Hot, dry areas work for herbs like rosemary, oregano, sage and thyme, while shady, damp areas nurture cilantro, parsley and chives.
Wine barrels, sawed in half and drilled for drainage, make great vegetable planters for patios and decks, adding to the beauty of your home. Potted basil thrives inside, protected from insects. Falcone suggests themes – for example, a “salsa garden” with cilantro, onions, garlic, tomatoes and peppers.
Biointensive planting means digging deep beds or using tall containers so roots can grow deep, allowing them to access groundwater so they won’t need as much from the hose. That method, Falcone says, allows you to plant seeds or starters closer together.
To save even more space, try companion planting. From a space perspective, that means planting things that grow up next to things that grow down – carrots with peas, garlic with tomatoes. A similar concept applies to soil chemistry: Legumes take nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, while veggies such as corn need nitrogen to grow. Planting them together benefits both.
“Stay simple and stay organic,” Falcone says. “Your pets, kids and family don’t need pesticides or herbicides in their yard, and organics actually taste better.” To take care of pests the natural way, he suggests using one plant to ward off another’s pests. For example, rosemary deters the moths, beetles and flies that feed on cabbage, beans, carrots and sage. Basil repels tomato-munching thrips while improving tomatoes’ flavor. Garlic repels aphids and accumulates sulfur, a natural fungicide.
In Monterey County, the biggest limitation for resource-thrifty gardeners is the bone-dry season between June and September. Sustainable P.G. members took a proactive approach by putting three barrels on their office’s roof; they’ve already captured 150 gallons of rainwater for irrigation, Falcone says.
To minimize the need for watering at home, he recommends planting beans and climbing peas. Ditto for lemon, pear and apple trees, whose roots are able to draw water from deep underground. “You give them a little bit of water to get them started and they grow pretty readily,” he says.
As for my own limited little garden, I’ve managed a perpetual tiny harvest with just a half-dozen containers. And while it’s satisfying to eat spicy salads from my own backyard, growing food has had another, less tangible but important benefit: The sight of green outside the kitchen window makes me feel a bit more rooted.