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Learn to grow your own, organically

  • Marie Narlock
  • GROWING EDIBLES can be rewarding — or frustrating. Crooked carrots, blotchy tomatoes, bitter greens, bugs on your cabbages? Trial and error is one way to learn, but if you are serious about eating from your garden then here is your opportunity to learn from the pros.

    Two of Marin's most respected organic farming experts are offering "Introduction to Home Organic Gardening," a three-class series for backyard gardeners who want to grow their own food organically and sustainably, sponsored by the UC Marin Master Gardeners, Marin Organic and Conservation Corps North Bay.

    Course instructors include Marin Organic's executive director Helge Hellberg and Wendy Johnson, one of the founders of the organic farm and garden program at Green Gulch and Zen Center. Johnson also teaches the organic horticulture class at IVC and wrote the book, "Gardening at the Dragon's Gate."

    "We want to give Marin gardeners personalized tools and know-how to grow their own food in their own gardens, taking into consideration each site's unique conditions and challenges," says Hellberg. "Supporting your local organic food system is a political act, and there's nothing more satisfying — or healthier — than eating right out of the garden."

    Adds Johnson, "We encourage people to bring their gardening stories. We want to know what's worked for backyard gardeners and what hasn't. Class participants are encouraged to bring photos as well as soil or plant samples. We want these to be working, hands-on classes."

    Participants can expect to learn how to grow as little or as much food as their garden and appetite allows, whether that's on a few acres or in a few boxes. The first class focuses on soil health — how to tell if you have it and what to do if you don't.

    The second class is geared toward plants — knowing when and what to plant depending on your site. The final class covers garden health, including irrigation techniques and how to manage pests and diseases naturally. Participants will have the opportunity to spend time on the farm and in the greenhouse.

    What you'll learn:

    Grow your own:
    Many of the foods lining the grocery aisles are bred for toughness, not for taste. In fact, the likely reason those varieties are there is because they travel well. There are oodles of specialty edibles you can grow yourself that are unavailable commercially. This is especially satisfying if you love to cook. Ever lined a cake pan with lime geranium leaves? You won't find them at Safeway, that's for sure.

    The dirt on your dirt:
    The key to healthy plants is healthy soil. Vegetables are demanding, pulling nutrients out of the soil at a quick clip. Your job is to learn the best way to put nutrients back so that the texture and composition of your growing medium is optimized. Sound tricky? It can be. Compost, cover crops, mulch, fertilizers: Which is best? When? How? The answers depend on many factors. Participants learn which strategies make the most sense for their particular situation.

    Go organic:
    Organic is practically a Marin mantra. But did you know that the vast majority of food in the United States is grown using synthetic fertilizers and herbicides? Participants learn the difference between industrial farming and locally grown farming, as well as the many benefits to adopting organic methods.

    Mix and match:
    Do you know why potatoes and tomatoes should not be planted next to each other? And that garlic can help repel aphids if planted near roses? Companion planting is an art and a science, and participants can expect to see examples of each.

    Do it daily:
    There's a reason we live in this gorgeous area, including the ability to pull something out of the earth every day. Learn which crops can be grown year-round in our sublime climate. Participants will receive a planting calendar that is especially tailored to Marin's microclimates.

    Water wisely:
    Do you know the difference between a drip emitter and a microsprayer? Which crops turn their noses up at wet leaves? By growing some of your own food you're already saving water. Learning how to irrigate your garden like a pro takes it up another notch.

    Be seedy:
    The best gardeners collect and save seeds for the next season rather than buying packet after packet at the nursery. Why? Because saving seed is sustainability in action. Heirloom tomatoes, specialty greens, or even your own unique crosses: these are all within your reach if you learn how to propagate. Participants can expect to learn the basics.

    Love your enemies:
    Contrary to popular opinion, all bugs aren't bad. And when it comes to weeds, some are easy to eradicate and others take a hefty or crafty arsenal. Getting to know your foes is the best way to managing them on their own terms, without unnecessary chemicals. Participants learn the  basics of weed identification and Integrated Pest Management.

    Make peace with microclimates:
    Sun matters, especially for growing edibles. Sure, you may want to grow big beefsteak tomatoes, but if your garden is shady you will likely end up frustrated. Instead, choose edibles that work for your site. Participants learn which edibles are suitable for Marin's cooler, foggier locales, as well as our warmer areas.

    Make it pretty:
    Whether it's a teepee of beans rising up like an exclamation point or a clump of bright red rhubarb juxtaposed next to your silvery white dusty miller, including a few edibles in your landscape is fun and beautiful. Participants will come away with a few basic design principles for the vegetable garden — and beyond.


    What: "Introduction to Home Organic Gardening"

    When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 19 and 26 and March 5 

    Where: Indian Valley Organic Farm and Garden on the College of Marin's Indian
    Valley campus in Novato

    Cost: $150; enrollment limited to 35

    Information: ucanr.org/ organicclass