If you've been thinking of trying your hand at an edible garden, no need to wait for spring. SoCal's perpetually sunny climate means planting can continue year-round, according to Tara Kolla, owner of Silver Lake Farms. "Winter gardens are underestimated," she says. "You can have a fabulous winter garden here, and if you like greens, the cool weather season is the best time to start."
Silver Lake Farms has been designing, installing and maintaining local edible gardens for over a decade. "The first thing you have to do is test your soil," Kolla says. "You're looking for toxicities, especially lead, as well as nutrients, PH, soil structure and soil type." A common approach for gardeners faced with problematic soil is to use a raised bed. "It's faster to build up than dig down," Kolla says, "and raised beds let you import clean soil to grow in."
Next, think about the space you have for gardening, including its orientation and exposure to sun and wind. Even architectural features of your home or apartment building can help a crop flourish. For instance, Kolla tells her Malibu-based gardeners to plant tomatoes against brick walls if they can; the brick holds in the heat from the day, helping the tomatoes thrive in spite of the chilly nights.
"The thing that people can underestimate is how much space it takes to grow food," Kolla says. "If your aim was to feed yourself year round, even a fifteen by fifteen community garden plot would be too small."
What to Plant
Gardeners with small spaces shouldn't be discouraged, however -- instead, they should plant strategically. "Some things are one-shot deals that are kind of pointless to grow yourself," Kolla says. "Onions -- why bother? Same thing with cauliflower -- it can get aphid-y and caterpillar-y. Brussels sprouts are hard. Artichokes are big plants, and you only get a few per plant. With heading broccoli, if you choose not to spray anything, you're not likely to get to the heads before the aphids or powdery mildew."
Kolla recommends getting these crops from your local CSA or farmer's market and focusing on bushier, higher-producing plants at home. Leafy greens like spinach do well in low-light environments; at this time of year, she's also planting snap peas, sprouting broccoli, leeks, bunching onions, baby carrots, kohlrabi and radishes.
Herbs are another natural choice for the home garden. "When you buy herbs in the store they come in a plastic container and usually get dehydrated before you can use them all," she notes. "By growing your own, you get them fresher and eliminate waste." Cilantro and Italian parsley can be planted now, she says.
Save some room for warm-weather plants, which, if you're starting from seed, can be planted as early as the end of the month, Kolla says. Bushy, productive summer crops that can thrive in our climate include tomatoes, squashes and eggplants.
Tips and Tricks
SoCal's variety of microclimates makes constant adjustment a must, Kolla advises. "Encino is very different from Malibu; Altadena has a climate all its own," she says. "I think drip irrigation is the way to go, and you need the timer box in a place that is easily accessible -- sometimes I feel like a contortionist trying to get to them! It should be at eye level and easy to reach so you can feel free to adjust your schedule with the weather."
Gardeners should check for weeds, bugs, powdery mildew and other threats on a daily basis, and should harvest often to keep their plants producing for as long as possible. "Harvesting is a big part of maintenance -- if you let the plant go to seed, it won't last that long," Kolla says. "You want to keep it in that state of suspended animation."
When growing root crops like beets, keep an eye out for exposed shoulders, which can appear over time as watering washes away the topmost layer of soil. Gardeners who hail from rainy climates have likely learned to keep plants' shoulders above soil level to prevent rot, but in our dry air, it's better to keep them buried to hold in more moisture. "You can always tell an East Coaster gardening in L.A. because their crowns and shoulders are exposed," Kolla says, laughing. "You can't do that here."
Kolla's decade-plus of experience in edible gardening in SoCal made her a natural choice for maintaining the Natural History Museum's Erika J. Glazer Family Edible Garden, where aspiring gardeners of all ages can learn more about the practice. "My goal was providing a design that could incorporate lots of different themes," she says. "I want visitors to be excited about all the things you can do with an edible garden."
Kolla is planting a juicer's garden with wheat grass, celery, carrots, beets, spinach, parsley, and dandelion greens; a soil builders' garden that emphasizes the use of cover crops to improve growing conditions; a cut-flower garden; a classic kitchen garden; and a basic botany garden for kids. "We ask the kids which part of the plant they're eating -- for celery it's the stem, lettuce the leaf, broccoli the flower, and so on," she says. "It engages their minds and gets them asking questions so they walk away with a feeling of excitement."
Hands-on education is available as well. "The museum has classes for beginners, for advanced gardeners, for composting, etc.," she says. "Their team, including Carol Bornstein and the head gardener, Richard Hayden, are big supporters of organic edible gardening. Our goal is to inspire and educate in an interactive way."
The benefits of planting and maintaining an edible garden go beyond reducing environmental impact by eating locally, Kolla notes. "Gardening is a science and an art," she says. "It's healthy all around to be connected to how things grow -- good for your mind and good for your body. And food always, always tastes better when you've grown it yourself."