Grow Local: In Which I Walk the Talk

May 6, 2014 § 3 Comments

650Food is six months old today! If you’ve been following along, you know that I’ve been writing about food — eating, cooking, buying, and growing — in the 650, aka San Francisco’s peninsula neighborhoods. A few weeks ago I wrote, admittedly with a smidge of garden envy, about neighborhood gardens. Well, today my garden envy is gone…over…pfffffttt! While I’ve been encouraging people to “grow local” here (and on Twitter, if you follow me there), I want to tell you that I’m walking the talk. For the first time in many years, I’ve planted a small, edible garden. Hell yeah, I’m excited — I’m growing food! Well, right now they’re just baby plants, but by mid-summer, if all goes well, I’ll have food.Left to right: Little Gem lettuce, Burgundy Red Mix lettuce, purple jalapeno

There’s a lot to be said for growing your own food — reconnecting with the outdoors, teaching kids about where food comes from, eating simple, fresh meals — just to name a few reasons. You don’t have to plant an entire farm’s worth of produce, but you can easily get a small kitchen garden going to supplement what you buy weekly at the market. Wondering where to start? Think about the herbs, fruits, and vegetables that you love to eat or can’t find on a regular basis. For me, it started with peppermint and lemon verbena.

While this is not my first edible garden, I’m also not a gardening expert by any means. I definitely did some researching and organizing before I got started. First, I had to figure out where the “full sun” areas are in my yard — those spots that get 6-8 hours of direct sun. Most edibles love full sun — and it’s definitely necessary for fruit, which needs that light and heat to fully develop its sugars. Turns out I don’t have many full-sun spots in my yard, so that limited the garden size and location, right off the bat. (Good thing, too. Because once I got to the nursery to start buying plants, I wanted everything.)

Next I had to decide what I really wanted to grow. Sweet herbs — lavender, lemon verbena, and mint — were at the top of my list. After that I started thinking savory — sage (mmmm, fried sage leaves!) — and spicy, which meant peppers! I love summer salad greens, so if there was room, maybe I would give those a go. And finally, if I could squeeze out one more spot, I wanted just one tomato plant. My neighbor with the tomatoes was already making deals as soon as I mentioned my plans: he’d happily trade his tomatoes and basil for my peppers and mint.

Having picked my spot, I decided that a combination of pots and raised beds would take less time to set up and give me some flexibility in placing what I want to grow. I’m not exactly what you’d call “handy,” so getting pre-made raised beds sounded like a lot more fun than making beds. Fortunately Home Depot had these cedar boxes that just slide together (no tools involved, yay!).

Raised garden boxes

Cedar boxes 16″ x 16″ x 4″

I’d already decided that I wanted my garden to include as many organic components as possible, so here’s where the research really kicked in. I’d waited too long to start plants from seed, so that meant finding a reliable source of quality organic plant starts (baby plants). While the big-box home improvement stores stock a small selection of certified organic plants, you’ll do better to go to a local, independently owned nursery. Typically you’ll find better quality plants and better customer service. (Not to dis the big stores, but sometimes the folks working the garden section don’t know much about gardening. Or they usually work in lumber, or electrical, or plumbing. You get the idea.) A nursery can provide advice on planting, fertilizing, and managing your garden. Two mid-peninsula nurseries that stock organic plants: Wegman’s Nursery in Redwood City and Common Ground in Palo Alto.

Pots and plants at Wegmans Nursery

The first load of pots and plants

Finally, I had to source the soil and fertilizer. This was a tough one, and probably where I spent most of my research time and energy. The large home-improvement stores and small nurseries carry “organic” soil, but you have to read the labels to see what’s really in it. The challenge was finding a brand of organic soil that didn’t contain chicken manure, blood meal, or GMO’s. Unfortunately, most of the companies that use these components can’t or won’t disclose their source, so you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. For example, is the chicken poop in your soil happy, free-range chicken poop, or over-crowded, full-of-antibiotics, just-ate-the-dead-guy-next-to-me chicken poop? I mean, if I’m growing food in it, I want to know.

I ended up choosing Dr. Earth brand, which you can get from Orchard Supply. Dr. Earth is all about no GMO’s, chicken manure, or sewage sludge (who knew that was even an option in soil mixes??). Keeping it in the family, I also went with the Dr. Earth fertilizers.

Dr. Earth Pot o'Gold soil and fertilizers

Dr. Earth Pot o’Gold soil and fertilizers

So, I had my raised beds, pots, plants, soil, and fertilizer. All I had to do was wait for a not-too-hot, not-too-cold, not-too-windy day, and I could put it all together. Fortunately Mother Nature cooperated this past weekend, and I was finally able to plant everything (well, almost). Ta-dah! The big reveal…

Full view of containers and raised beds

From bottom to top: Peppermint, spearmint, sage, Little Gem lettuce, Burgundy Red Mix lettuce, purple jalapeno, Indigo Apple tomato, jalapeno, Ancho chili

And a few closeups…

Left to right: Peppermint, spearmint, sage, Little Gem lettuce

Left to right: Peppermint, spearmint, sage, Little Gem lettuce

Little Gem and Red Burgundy Mix lettuces

Little Gem and Red Burgundy Mix lettuces

Purple jalapeno

Purple jalapeno — just because, well, it’s a purple jalapeno!

Lavender and lemon verbena ended up in pots on the other side of the yard, where they’ll also benefit from full sun.

Lemon verbena

Lemon verbena

Finally, yes, with the lime shortage in mind, I picked up a 5-gallon lime bush (no idea how I’m going to plant this thing). It will go in the sunniest corner of the yard, near the lemon tree.

Baby lime bush next to the lemon tree

Baby lime bush next to the lemon tree

There you have it: my attempt at a kitchen garden! I’ll try to post updates throughout the season, assuming the squirrels and raccoons behave themselves and stay the f— out. In the meantime, I’m pretty excited about the possibilities of what I might harvest later this summer!

Need help figuring out how to plant an edible garden? Check out this article from Houzz on growing edibles in 16 square feet. My go-to source for figuring out what plants will and won’t thrive in my area is the Sunset Western Garden Guide. (I received my first copy as a gift 20 years ago, and just finally bought the updated version this year.) For more garden and landscaping ideas and growing info specific to the Bay Area, Sunset.com is a helpful resource.

Have you planted a garden? What are you growing this year?

Inspired: Creating a Kitchen Garden

April 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

You know what I love about spring in the 650? Everything! The days are deliciously warm, and the sun sets late enough in the evening that you can have dinner outside. Spring color brightens every yard on my street, thanks to blooming trees, rose bushes, and freshly planted annuals. The luscious perfume of citrus blossoms fills my neighborhood, especially at night. It’s an indulgence just to sit in my backyard in the evening and enjoy that scent.

Citrus trees, full of blossoms, give off a heady scent all spring

Orange trees, full of blossoms in the spring

Spring gives me another chance to complete (hell, start) those “getaroundtoit” projects at home. It’s the time of year when I really start feeding my house-porn habit with stacks of design magazines and fantasizing about re-creating my backyard so that I can host fabulous al fresco dinners. (Hey, a girl can dream!) And in my fantasy backyard I would have a thriving kitchen garden, complete with herbs, vegetables, berries, and an assortment of fruit trees (again with the dreaming).

I have to admit that I’m having garden envy. I know — as if I don’t have enough fabulous, fresh fruits and vegetables in my life (some of which actually show up on my doorstep, thanks to my CSA)! Between the plethora of farmers’ markets here on the peninsula and the generosity of my neighbor with over-the-fence tomatoes and in-a-pinch limes, I’m pretty spoiled for locally grown produce. Yet, there’s something very special and satisfying about just slipping out the back door and snipping fresh herbs to finish off a dish, or seeing what you can pull from your own garden to make dinner.

On a recent walk through my neighborhood I noticed that my neighbors are using whatever space is available for creating gardens, including driveways and front yards. How cool is that?!

Driveway garden

Driveway garden

These homeowners are taking advantage of the sunny front yard for their garden.

Creative front yard garden

Creative front yard garden

Check out the artichoke plant in left corner of the yard:

Artichoke plant

Artichoke plant

My next-door-neighbor and his daughter just got the tomato plants in pots along our shared driveway fence last weekend. (He was pretty excited on planting day, and I have to admit, thinking about those summer tomatoes, I am too.) They also planted zucchini, basil, and lemon balsam.

A few months from now, there will be tomatoes here!

A few months from now, there will be tomatoes here!

I’ve had edible gardens off and on over the years, but planting one wasn’t really an option when I was running G√Ęteau et Ganache. I barely found time for the basics (sleep, exercise, or a meal that consisted of something more than taste-testing bonbons and marshmallows), let alone creating and maintaining a garden.

Being a seasonally focused business meant relying on local farms for the fruits and herbs I used for making bonbons. Sometimes I was able to plan fun field trips to places like Swanton Berry Farm to hand-pick organic blackberries. Other times it meant long, frustrating searches around the Bay Area to find a reliable source of fresh, organic peppermint. (Harder than you’d think, as it turns out. What’s up with that?). At some point I hoped to create a garden that would give me a reliable supply of the fruits and herbs I so loved working with when I was making chocolates.

Now that I’m cooking again and have a bit more time, I’m thinking about taking a step toward “garden-to-table.” Between my neighbors’ creativity in making their own small gardens and the impressive bounty of the farmers’ markets, I’m inspired to carve out a little space for my own garden this year. First on my list are the herbs I love using for sweet dishes: lavender, lemon verbena, and peppermint. They pair with most summer fruits and are perfect for infused syrups, ice creams, and yes, ganaches. Once I get those herbs going, I might add some basil and chives for salads and some jalapeno and poblano peppers, just because. If there’s time to get fancy, I might try some strawberries, or — dare I say it? — tomatoes. Stay tuned.

What’s growing in your yard and your neighborhood this spring?

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