Vegetable gardening is in vogue. The impetus to save money because of the poor economy and the green movement have combined forces to suggest that growing your own is the way to go.
This sounds like a good idea, but for many it is a challenge. Our society is no longer agrarian based. Somewhere along the line having a "potager," or kitchen garden, lost its appeal and usefulness. Cement patios, barbecues and perfect green lawns became a sign of wealth and prosperity. Supermarkets provided a wealth of fruit and vegetable choices throughout the year. We became separated from our food origins and disconnected from nature's cycles.
I applaud the movement that encourages us to go back to the land and grow your own.Ê Unfortunately, there often seems to be an underlying assumption that all you need to have to be successful in your garden is the desire to have one. Gardening is assumed to be an innate skill - anyone with a plot of land, a shovel and some seeds can produce food to eat.
Although it does seem simple and primal, we are not born knowing how to garden successfully. I was made aware of this when I recently overheard two women talking about their gardens. One was an experienced gardener, the other was just getting her hands dirty, so to speak. The neophyte described a lengthy list of what she had just planted. She then started asking for gardening tips. "So do lettuce plants regrow after you pick them, or do you just stick one of the leaves back in the dirt to start a new plant?" she asked.
The woman was not stupid; she just lacked gardening basics. The body of knowledge constituting basic gardening skills is no longer taught or passed down in most families. What was once regarded as common knowledge isn't common any more. It needs to be acquired in other ways.
Get started by asking lots of questions, read, participate in a class or workshop, or better yet volunteer as a helper in a local community or school gardening project. This way you will be helping others, learning by doing and getting connected with others who share your love of gardening. It's hoped enough people will take the time to learn and reconnect to these basic skills. They will become the role models and teachers for future generations, and gardening will once again become an integral and natural part of life.
When you begin your own garden start small. Grow only what you know you will eat, which means growing what you like to consume and in the quantities that will fit your lifestyle and schedule.
One of the easiest and most foolproof ways to start is by growing a container salad garden. Choose a large container that appeals to you and fits in with your landscape. If it does not have drainage holes, you will need to drill some with a drill bit. Cover large drain holes with a piece of screening.
It might be a good idea to put your container on a plant stand with wheels. That way if you have not chosen the most appropriate location because of wind, sun or animals, you can move it. This will also keep the pot off the ground, allowing for free drainage; it will also protect your deck from rotting. Your salad garden will require four to five hours of direct sunlight a day.
Fill the container with an organic potting soil mix purchased from a nursery. The soil will be light and fluffy and allow for good drainage. Think about your water source. If possible, save water by using drip irrigation or a soaker hose. If you hand water, try to do so in the early morning.
Buying six packs of plant starts or single 2-inch pots is the easiest way to begin. Try to buy packs of a variety of lettuces (such as green leaf, oak leaf and butter), so that you get to sample not only how each one tastes but also how large and fast each type grows. Experiment with lesser-known greens such as arugula, mizuna or sorrel. Plant a few herbs; they are easy to grow and will amp up your cuisine.
To plant, dig a hole the depth of the six-pack container. Carefully remove the plants by turning their plastic container on its side and pinching or lightly tapping the bottom until the plants fall gently into your hand. Gently loosen the soil around the root ball and place the plant in the hole. Cover with dirt even with the top of the root ball. Water gently to saturate the soil.
You can make a loose leaf lettuce plant last for many salads if you carefully pick the outside leaves leaving the inner leaves to grow and develop. Pick things when you want to eat them. However, it is better to pick your lettuce in the morning before it gets too hot, otherwise you may be disappointed with wilted lettuce. And no, sticking a lettuce leaf back in the ground will not get you another lettuce plant.
Observe your garden, paying attention to what grows well and what doesn't. Try to figure out why. This will lead you to seek out new information, inspire you to plant new varieties of plants and expand your garden in a thoughtful and ultimately successful way.
Experiment, have fun, enjoy and share your reclaimed knowledge.
The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.Ê