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10 Things to Consider Before You Start an Edible Garden

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Photo: Linda Ly
Photo: Linda Ly

Watch the California Matters episode about UC Santa Cruz Farm, a pioneering, organic farm that's benefiting an entire community.

So you want to start an edible garden. Excellent -- there's no better time than now, especially if you want to start harvesting the fruits (and veggies) of your labor this summer. But before you dig your first hole or sow your first seed, here are ten things to consider for first-time garden success.

#1 Location. Perhaps the least obvious factor but among the most important is the location of your edible garden. While you may be tempted to simply put one wherever you have space (the side yard? Balcony? Rooftop?), the phrase "Out of sight, out of mind" rings very true here. An edible garden needs to be seen. Keeping your garden close -- whether it's a row of pots right outside your kitchen window or a raised bed next to the barbecue -- reminds you to water, weed, and harvest more frequently. Put your plants in a place that you use or pass every day.

#2 Sunlight. Besides a good location, an edible garden also needs a good amount of sunlight. Most plants require at least six hours of sun a day, with "fruiting" plants like tomatoes and squash doing best with eight or more hours. Leafy greens can make do with as little as four hours of sun, but may be slow growing.

#3 Climate. Central and Southern California fall within the warmer growing climates of USDA Hardiness Zones 8 through 10, which enable us to garden year-round. But within these zones are many different micro-climates that can make a big difference on crop success.

If your yard gets a full day of direct sun but you live in the hot and dry desert of the Inland Empire, you may need to shelter some of your more sensitive plants from the midday summertime sun.

On the flip side, if you live in the coastal micro-climate of the South Bay where fog is common, you would need more sun (by planting a south-facing garden) or more heat (as in a greenhouse).

#4 Soil. Few of us are blessed with the rich, sandy loam that edible gardeners dream about and strive for. The most typical soil found in a virgin backyard is comprised of sand (which drains quickly and does not hold nutrients well) or clay (which can become heavy and water-logged).

If you can wait a whole season before you start planting, a lifeless plot of dirt or grass can turn into a healthy bed of black earth by sheet mulching (also known as lasagna composting). Handy around the house? Then you'll benefit from building your own raised beds and filling them with store-bought soil and compost. Raised beds allow the soil to drain better and to warm up quicker in the spring. Or if you're short on space, consider a container garden filled with potting mix for ease and mobility's sake.

#5 Critters. Every neighborhood has 'em, and this can factor into the type of garden you build. If you live in a rural area, you may need to fence off your edibles from rabbits and deer that are quick to chomp down your entire garden in a single night.

Suburban areas should consider raccoons and skunks that love to dig in freshly seeded soil, or even feral cats that love to poop in your yard.

City farmers may need to contend with birds that tend to swoop in on fruit trees. Whatever the case, having the proper protection in place will ensure your efforts aren't dashed by a hungry critter.

#6 Plant what you like to eat. The excitement of growing your first garden can lead to some rash decisions when you're faced with hundreds of different herbs and fruits and vegetables at the nursery. Artichoke plants may be beautiful and exotic, but do you really see yourself eating the dozen or so artichokes that a plant will produce each season? (And do you even have the space for a plant that easily grows to 5 feet tall by 3 feet wide?)

Likewise, if you love to host backyard parties, a variety of grill-able veggies (like corn and zucchini) and a cocktail garden (like mint for mojitos and oranges for mimosas) are right up your alley.

Personally, in the summertime I like to grow the two things that are most expensive to buy organic: tomatoes and peppers. Think about what you tend to buy most from the market, consider the space and sun requirements for those plants, then add a couple of "curiosity" varieties to try just for fun.

#7 Maintenance. Gardens (productive gardens, at least) are a lot of work ... if they weren't, everybody would be doing them. Consider how many hours you have each week to dedicate to watering, weeding, pruning, fertilizing, mulching, and most importantly, harvesting.

#8 Watering. Based on your maintenance schedule, choose a watering system that makes sense for your garden. If you travel often and work late, you might want a garden grown entirely in self-watering containers, or a vegetable plot installed with drip irrigation on a timer. If you work from home and have a small garden, hand watering with a hose is easy and effective. You can even recycle gray water from your house to save on water for your yard.

#9 Annual versus perennial. Many herbs and vegetables are annuals -- that is, they grow for one season, then form seed and die off. That means you'll be spending a fair amount of time at the beginning and end of each season cultivating the soil and establishing new plants.

To minimize the turnover (and plan for aesthetics if you want to grow edibles in a front yard or among your landscaping), you can mix in a few perennials: plants that thrive year-round, or become dormant over winter but will re-grow in the spring.

Herbs like rosemary and sage can be planted permanently and decoratively in a garden, rhubarb and radicchio will live for several years, and asparagus doesn't even get going for a couple of years if started from seed (but then you'll be blessed with an asparagus bed for many, many years!).

#10 Starting from seeds or small plants. Now that all the logistics are out of the way, let's move on to the fun stuff -- the actual planting! You can start plants from seeds or buy starter plants from the nursery. Gardeners on a budget can grow a few dozen plants from a packet of seeds for less than the cost of a single plant packaged neatly in a pot. If you're planning a large garden, the cost of starter plants can add up quickly.

The benefit of starting from seed is the sheer variety of veggies available to you from nurseries and catalogs both online and off. Your local garden center may only carry a handful of pepper plants in 4-inch pots, but you'll find twice as many varieties offered as seeds (and even some from other parts of the world).

On the other hand, starter plants are a good way to go if it's too early (or late) in the season to start seeds. That means you can buy a tomato plant that's already flowering in spring, or salad greens that can go in the ground in summer. With half the work already done, you can harvest from your garden much sooner (sometimes months ahead of time than if you were sowing seed). And that's what we're all aiming for: a bountiful harvest!

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