My personal garden has been a grand experiment. For the first 15 or so years I dabbled at growing vegetables. At first it was about novelty: How could I stretch the tomato season? Tangy mesclun, nutty Christmas limas, and smoky salsify – what unique tastes could I bring to table? Quinoa, cassava, favas – what exotic plant varieties could I grow?

In the early days, my garden featured lots of California natives, and organic techniques simply meant more birds and butterflies. “Going organic” meant shifting from aisle 3A to aisle 3B of Home Depot. My initial vegetable-growing forays were driven by a yearning for organic food. But garden “solutions” still arrived in brightly colored packaging.

As I became a more serious environmentalist, my focus began to shift. How could I make my gardening system more sustainable with less inputs? That meant less imports from offsite, with more of what used to be “waste” reused onsite.

As our Environmental Change-Makers community group grew in popularity and morphed into the Transition Los Angeles city hub, my community-building volunteer workload increased. I wondered how to grow family-sufficient quantities of food with far less time for gardening.

I learned more about the crises looming within our petroleum-dependent agricultural system, and I became much more serious about growing food. I began to think in terms of yield and set myself to new goals as a gardener: What items could I quit buying because I had raised them at home in sufficient quantity?

In late 2007, a little church in my neighborhood took my “Obtain a Yield” rallying cry seriously. They decided to strip out a 30-year-old unused lawn and

plant a garden to grow vegetables for donation to the local food pantry. Managing the plantings for this garden – the Community Garden at Holy Nativity in the Westchester area of Los Angeles – challenged me with new questions: How does one go about producing a voluminous weekly harvest, every single week of the year?

That question quickly spawned another: How do you maintain soil fertility sufficient to support such production levels?

The answers to these questions have now become critical. Our weekly harvests from the Community Garden feed needy local families at the food bank. With the crumbling economy, food bank demand is escalating dramatically. People now count on the food coming from our harvests. Our garden simply has to produce.

Meanwhile our group is building another garden – the Emerson Avenue Community Garden. This one-acre schoolyard site once hosted an active “ag” program, which drifted into abandonment for more than a decade. We’re rebuilding it on a shoestring budget – in part because we have to, but also to explore an important issue: How can we put additional land into food production without a lot of cash or new “stuff”?

As the economic unraveling progresses over coming months and years, together with the end of cheap oil, this brief era of outsourcing our food production is drawing to a permanent close. Growing food here, locally within the city, will become survival for many people. And most of us don’t know how to produce family-sufficient yields on an ongoing and consistent basis.

It’s time to discover new ways – new ways of working within our local community and the city footprint; new ways of cooperating with the people around us; new ways of living more lightly upon the earth; new ways of thinking about ourselves (humanity) within the context of life forces on this small planet.

I found that I wasn’t the only one asking these questions. People flocked to our garden classes at the Community Garden, each with some aspect of the same question in their minds. Many people arrived as newcomers to vegetable gardening. Some stayed on to hone their skills by volunteering in the Garden. Others revisit periodically to connect with like-minded people and to swap stories about their own explorations and discoveries.

In answering these critical questions, garden books have been little help. Too many vegetable gardening books start at a very basic level – “dabbling in vegetables” – and never get so far as to answer my urgent questions about ongoing production and pushing yield.

Many vegetable gardening books are written in England or on the East Coast where gardeners quit for the winter. Their planting recommendations are completely wrong for our climate. Their pest control recommendations rely on the winter freeze to reset the life cycles of the bad bugs and weeds (meanwhile ours reproduce in happy abundance 12 months of the year). And their crop rotation ideas are completely unusable. Other books, written here in Southern California, still focus heavily on ornamentals. These authors have yet to glimpse the seriousness of the mission before us.

At the Community Gardens and in my home garden, I realize that our city gardens aren’t farms. I know that the “yield” includes something more than just food. Our gardens are simultaneously a place of respite and solace. They’re a place of natural beauty and relief from the angular harshness of city life. Amidst dancing cilantro blossoms and buzzing hoverflies and friendships forged across the fava beans, our gardens are alive.

Ultimately, it has been the school of experience and failure that has taught me, and in that regard I will admit I am still very much a learner. In this book I share what I have learned thus far with hopes it will add to your own journey. I hope it will help inform the growing body of work about sustainable urban food production, and will begin to address this nagging question of how to produce year-round abundant harvests.


How to obtain incredible yields from a small urban square footage, and make it all look beautiful, too!

1. Plant edibles. It sounds really obvious, but Americans tend to plant way too many flowers. Fill your space with food plants and then add a few flowers in the left-over spaces. Learn which food plants are handsome: the glossy evergreen leaf of citrus rivals any ornamental hedge. Pomegranates are breathtaking in nearly every season.

2. Take advantage of our year-round growing season. Don’t limit yourself to summer. Our Southern California cool season includes some of our most productive months! Use the Digitalseed San Diego online calendar to time your vegetable plantings all year. Select fruit tree varieties to harvest sequentially so that you have an ongoing harvest stream.

3. Maximize the square footage of your garden. Put the most area you can to work at growing vegetables. Much more than a small rectangle in the remote back corner of your yard, you can grow food in all the places that you used to call “flower” beds, and between the ornamental shrubs too!

4. Build your soil. That includes using mulch (big chunks, used on top of soil) and compost (decomposed, fine texture, tilled into soil), rotating your vegetables, and constantly planting legumes (peas and beans).

5. Nurture your soil critters. Earthworms are only the visible part of the life spectrum; there are millions of live critters that live in symbiotic relationships in healthy garden soil. Garden chemicals sear them out of existence. Keep them happy with food (give ‘em compost) and moisture (use mulch as a quilt to “tuck them in”). Your soil should feel like a damp wrung-out sponge.

6. Use biointensive spacing. John Jeavons’ classic book How to Grow More Vegetables supplies charts and spacing information for the ultimate optimization of what growing space you do have. Space closely, but not too close to avoid weakening plants and bringing on mildew and disease. Also try dwarf and ultra-dwarf fruit trees, genetic dwarfs or dwarfing rootstocks, to get the most diversity into your small urban yard.

7. Choose “prolific” varieties. Also labeled as “abundant yield” and “vigorous” in the seed catalogs, these vegetable varieties will give you more food per plant than other varieties.

8. Cultivate diversity. Plant a cool-weather variety and a drought-tolerant variety to cope with unexpected weather events. Observe which plants yield best for you, save seed and repeat your success in following years. Join a seed bank and help preserve heirlooms. You’ll get far better flavor than in the supermarket and you’ll help guarantee the survival of a diverse gene pool for the future.

9. Go feral. Rather than “perennial vegetables,” which are notoriously low yield (and often not too palatable) make your garden easy-care by planting vegetable types which are likely to reproduce abundantly and go wild in your location. Then, allow them to complete their full life cycle so that they provide you with abundant offspring!

10. Group similar needs together. Put drought-tolerant black-eyed peas with drought-tolerant Mediterranean herbs. Put high-water lettuces with other high-water plants. Observe microclimates and use them as a tool. If a tall tree gives you a shady spot, use that as the place for summer lettuces and leafy vegetables. If you have bright searing sun, use that spot for heat-loving peppers and drought-tolerant vegetable varieties.

11. Go vertical. Use trellises to train vines upward so that you can plant underneath. Use forest garden layering to grow food in 3 dimensions rather than just on a flat plane.

12. Use containers to supplement your garden space. You can increase the square footage of your growing area by clustering pots together in corners of a patio or along walkways.

13. Pick functional flowers like beneficial insect attractant flowers and edible flowers. Let some vegetables go to seed — their flowers are pretty, they bring in “the good bugs,” plus you’ll have a sustainable source of vegetable seed. Also consider colored heirloom vegetable plants – like red-leafed lettuces, rainbow chard, or purple-podded snowpeas – rather than just ornamental flower plants.

14. Use art and design principles. In your layout, use symmetry and asymmetry. Notice how vegetable leaves and plant structure provide enormous varieties of color, texture, and form. Undulate your pathway lines. Go 3D. Use the open space of patios and living space, and offset it with intensely-filled vegetable beds.

15. Make it a space you want to visit often. And do so! Rather than marathon backbreaking sessions once-in-a-while, give your garden short tender-loving-care sessions on a set, regular schedule.

Get this in single-sheet pdf format


When we broke ground at the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, the site was old grass and junipers. Not the nice kind of grass, but the scratchy stuff that kids won’t even romp on. Photographic records showed that the space had probably been grass and junipers for over 30 years. You can imagine what our garden soil was like at first. It was dull dead nothingness. There was next-to-nothing in the way of soil life.

Most areas of our city are in similar straits. The site at the new Emerson Avenue Community Garden that we’re building has been compacted by trucks. It has had industrial-sized school trash bins dumped on it. Its soil critters haven’t had any T.L.C. for more than a decade.

Many sites throughout South Orange County and other newer suburban developments had the topsoil mined out and sold when developers built the houses. The “garden soil” at my sister’s house in Thousand Oaks was basically crushed sandstone. In other places, a decade or more of petrochemical sprays has obliterated anything that used to be alive. In most cases, we can presume that we’re starting from scratch with respect to soil life.

How do we bring the soil critters back? Feed them. Water them. We can hasten the process by bringing in critters and spores and eggs. Where do we get those? From homemade compost, which I often call “black gold.”

Why would we, in our right mind, toss our kitchen scraps to the landfill, pile our garden clippings in the green waste bin, send them “away” using massive amounts of oil and greenhouse gas emissions, and then drive to the garden center to buy bagged compost? (Answer: we weren’t in our right minds.) We need those kitchen scraps, we need those garden clippings. These are the ingredients which can produce homemade compost which is far better than what money can buy!

Sure, you can go down to the garden center and buy a bag that says “organic compost” on it. But open it up – what’s the difference? The store-bought stuff is usually lighter colored. It usually has a finer texture (they sieve it). The crux of the matter is: my homemade compost is rich with life. It is chock full of critters and spores and eggs, all just waiting to repopulate our deadened city soils.

Yes, buy the garden center compost if you have to. And you will have to while you’re getting started, because at first you cannot possibly produce enough of the good stuff. For the first year or two at the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, we used perhaps half purchased garden center stuff and half live homemade. Right now as we build the Emerson Avenue Community Garden, all we have is sterile purchased stuff. Even before you break ground on your garden, start your composting system.

Compost is food for the soil life. The soil critters are the decomposers. They help break down your garden and kitchen scraps, from something recognizable to you into molecules which are recognizable to your plants. Their body secretions and the bacteria they carry are all part of a lively underground party. You enjoy a good party – so do your plants.

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Emilia Hazelip, gardening near the fields of France, used straw — about 10 inches of it! A local homestead project once stated on their blog that they use 4 to 6 inches of mulch. Lowenfels and Lewis are far more conservative, specifying 2 to 3 inches, however they are in a cooler, moister climate. Regardless, you need a lot!

At the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, if we’re transplanting seedlings (such as those sprouted in little pots) we will mulch around the baby plants. Most garden resources recommend that you leave a small gap between the mulch and the plant stem to prevent damage by pests. In her “Synergistic Gardening” video, Emilia Hazelip demonstrated how she would pull back a hole in her thick straw covering and transplant into that hole.

If we’re seeding something which grows large, lusty seedlings like beans or peas or sunflowers, we will go ahead and apply light mulch over the newly seeded patch. The emerging seedlings will be strong enough to lift the mulch.

However, when we’re planting tiny seeds, like lettuces, the seedlings can’t come up through big hunks of mulch. It simply won’t work. Thus, if we’re direct-seeding a patch, we must leave it unmulched. This increases the water requirements and increases the T.L.C. requirements (Tender Loving Care). We have to watch the patch carefully to assure it doesn’t dry out.

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“Nature abhors bare soil,” said French Permaculturist Emilia Hazelip. When you take a hike in the mountains, have you ever noticed how the shrubs drop a thick layer of leaves? In their natural state, shrubs make their own mulch.

Peel back a thick layer of garden mulch, particularly in the springtime when everything is still moist. Right at the interface between mulch and soil you’ll notice a very rich layer. You might catch a few soil critters scampering away. You might see some long threads of mysterious white stuff – this is mycorrhizal fungus. There also are unfathomable numbers of organisms you can’t see with the naked eye.

Mulch serves many very important purposes. Here in Southern California, one of the primary ones is holding moisture in the soil by slowing evaporation. Just like for the tiny pet dog, we need to make sure our soil critters have adequate water. If the soil dries out, the mobile soil critters dive deep to survive – to depths where they no longer do your plants any good. The non-mobile ones dry up and go dormant or die.

Mulch provides shelter for our rich population of soil critters. It can help protect them from the UV rays of the sun. It can slow weed germination. It prevents wind erosion and can help slow water erosion.

At the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, our footpaths are covered with mulch. About once a year we ask the local tree trimming service to leave us a load of wood chips. We distribute them everywhere on the site. Paths. Perennial plantings. Bare spaces lying fallow. Mulch doesn’t have to be uniform – the soil critters don’t really care. You can use whatever organic material you have lying around – anything that used to be plants.

Some cities offer free mulch to their citizens. Here in L.A. you can pick it up on a D-I-Y basis at various sites around the city. Some people use this material in abundance. We opted not to use it when I learned that ours is simply the contents of all the local neighbors’ green trash bins, run through chipping equipment. Thus anything that went into our neighbors’ “green waste” barrel (trash, plastic, glass, diseased plants, invasive weeds, dog droppings) is in that “mulch.” While that might be fine for ornamentals and native plants, for food plants I prefer to know exactly what material I am using.

Some types of plants release allelopathic compounds which prevent other plants from sprouting up around them. Eucalyptus, walnut, and cedar are renowned for this, thus pure eucalyptus, walnut, or cedar chips aren’t recommended for mulch. (Small portions of eucalyptus, well blended in with other plant chips, in our observation don’t seem to be harmful.) My sister and I have also noticed the allelopathic phenomenon with the bagged redwood bark chips from the garden center. In beds mulched with these, sprouting of vegetable seedlings seemes to be inhibited. As in all things, it is important to have a relationship with your vendor. Ask. Our friendly tree trimmer lets us know when he has a “clean load” of good chips.


In the gardens of my youth, the soil texture was definitely chunky. Chunky then meant sandstone and shale rock pieces – chunks so hard you could not break them with a pick, let alone with the tender root of a seedling. Smooth was what was left over when the chunks of rock were removed and pitched over the cliff! Smooth was fine textured, powdered sandstone.

In those days, my mother was the gardener and I was the observer. Organic methods were not widely publicized. My mother used peat moss (now discouraged for conservation and ecological purposes[i]). She used multiple brand name soil additives that came in colorful bags, adding, adding, adding year after year with hopes to improve the fertility and texture of her soil.

In the garden of the first house I really and truly owned, chunky meant the roots of the monster-sized mature trees that someone had planted far too close together when the development was new. Chunky was what your shovel hit every time you tried to penetrate with a shovel. Smooth was the top surface, where water hydroplaned right off the property into the street gutter. Not an inviting garden space, so container gardening became my forte. Potting soil – now that’s smooth. If you look at it closely there is a slight texture, but on the sliding scale of things it is definitely smooth.

A visit to a conventional farm space when my kids were young was shocking. At 70mph freeway drive-by glance, farm soil appeared to be smooth, as far as the eye can see. Yet when we left the drive-by scene and got up-close and personal, the plough had made huge knobby chunks of the earth. The squash vines were abundantly happy amongst all of those grapefruit-sized clods. Why then, are we city gardeners so preoccupied with smooth?

In my current garden space, smooth and chunky have run the gamut. Smooth described my garden soil when I first arrived – very sandy, with that familiar hydroplaning surface tension. Our first batch of homemade compost was very chunky: moist clods complete with whole avocado and peach pits and intact eggshell halves.

I wasn’t sure that “chunky” was how compost should be, but then my husband and I were compost beginners. After all, the expensive bagged compost from the garden center was smooth and fine textured. A gentle breeze could scatter it from your open palm. Obviously smooth must be the standard for “correct” compost, and my chunky homemade nonsense seemed quite deficient!

I soon realized that a large part of my chunky compost was balls of living worm bodies, tightly nestled and writhing together to devour a choice morsel. Garden center compost had none of these chunks, instead sitting dry and uninhabited and sterile in its brightly colored bag. Now the purchased stuff needed the perky label to persuade me how “organic” it was!

I ventured into the world of mulching, beginning with found materials like fallen leaves (chunky), and sawdust (combination smooth and chunky). In the space of a year or two, the powers-that-be in the garden turned all of that to smooth: a relatively fine textured, moist, delicious, critter-rich dark soil. Another foray into mulch involved the small bark chips sold in bags at the garden center (definitely chunky). I wondered if my soil would ever recover, or whether I would be digging lumps for all eternity.

Then came the “aha” moment, with the delivery of a massive free truckload of chipped tree trimmings for mulch. Now THAT was chunky! Branch chips larger than my hand, among chipped leaves that lay dusty green and delicate. My father (still living at the sandstone and shale address) laughed at me and declared I’d be picking chunks out of my garden for all eternity. Yet even as I distributed the Mulch Mountain into various beds around my property, I noticed a “forest floor” effect taking place. It looked like the ground beneath tall trees where the natural leaf litter falls and twigs are a normal part of the soil texture. Beyond visual, the plants’ vigor and moisture retention were superb. My new garden had a sense of “ahhhhhh…” about it. It smelled right.

The neatly raked and leaf-blower-swept smooth soil surfaces of my neighbors looked stark, peaked and barren by comparison. Even though their soils were smooth to my “definitely chunky,” there was a sense of earthiness to my garden. It felt right. Isn’t that the way nature intended it?

[i] http://www.motherearthnews.com/ask-our-experts/peat-moss-to-improve-soil.aspx


Lately I’ve been growing impatient with impatiens. Petunias, snapdragons, bouganvilla, ficus, bird-of-paradise: our Southern California cities luxuriate in year-round ornamental gardens. Pretty bloomers, yes. But truly, a mix of non-functional tropical plants slurping water in what is really a desert climate, usurping land use where urban space is now so precious.

Lawns and nonfunctional landscapes are a haughty scoff: “I don’t NEED to produce food.” Historically, these ornamental gardens and sweeping lawns originated with the emergence of the middle class and their desire to imitate the estates of the nobility. (Sweeping lawns were maintained around the castles of old for military purposes, so that they could see and kill enemy soldiers.)

“I don’t NEED to produce food” is an ostentatious attitude: I am above it all, it declares. I will be dependent upon someone else for my basic sustenance. I can transcend the basic critter-need of finding nourishment. I can detach myself from the system of life and rely on processed, deadened products from the supermarket that come in colorful printed boxes or wrapped in non-biodegradable polystyrene and saran.

By declaring “I don’t NEED to produce food,” we are perpetuating a dependency on a national food production system which is deeply flawed with respect to soil resources, biodiversity and chemical inputs. A system which is irretrievably dependent upon exhaustible, polluting, greenhouse-gas-emitting petroleum products.

In the 1930s and 1940s nearly 20 million Americans turned to their gardens in support of that war effort. Called “Victory Gardens,” these backyard cultivations produced nearly 40% of the produce that was consumed. Yet those gardens grew more than just vegetables. Those gardens grew resilience, determination, and self-reliance. They were an active way to participate in the solutions to world problems.

We gardeners have learned the intimate satisfaction of burying our fingers in the rich earth as we provide what a plant needs to flourish. We have experienced the thrill of harvesting the first richly scented tomato, softened and warmed by the sun. Those inner feelings of satisfaction and thrill are empowering; we have achieved something. That tomato nourishes not just our belly, it nourishes our spirit.

We have discovered the visual beauty of the purple blossoms of Carouby de Maussane snowpeas, the scarlet-veined bouquets of rainbow chard, and the cheery chatter of multicolored sunflowers, all the while growing food for our bodies. Those of us in condos or apartments have learned that most edibles can be grown in containers. Forward-thinking gardeners are now realizing that the tree they choose to shade their yard from summer’s intensity could be one that yields sweet navel oranges the next winter.

By growing our own, we boost our health through organics. We foster biodiversity by raising heirloom varieties. We reap all the benefits of the local food movement: seasonal, vine-ripened food; reduced dependency on agricultural conglomerates; lowered pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from transport.

In this time of environmental upheaval, glacial melting, wildlife extinctions, forest destruction, furious hurricanes, escalating gas prices, and crumbling economy, we gardeners have found one unifying, rallying cry: We DO need to produce food. Clean food for our bodies, empowerment for our spirits, renewal for the earth. We need this very different sort of victory.

Our spirits need it, because it is tangible evidence that environmental transformation is real and is possible. Our bodies need it, because we can grow healthier at home. Our earth needs it, because in its seeds are restoration, political statement, environmental action, activism, and ultimately, victory.

Try it. Drop yer bloomers and try edibles. Just one small pot on a balcony. One small corner of your yard. Start small. One herb, one vegetable, or perhaps an ultra-dwarf fruit tree. Re-establish the connection. And reap the victory.

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Going organic is much more than just switching from Monsanto-manufactured chemical warfare, to herbal sprays and less-toxic powders. Going organic is an opportunity to rethink. It is a journey of rebuilding with different, yet similar, basic components.

When we build our garden organically, we must leave behind the grow-what-I-wish-and-spray-the-bad-bugs domination mentality. There is a whole ecosystem out there which synthetic-chemical gardening techniques ignore and motor over. Going organic is an opportunity to step into that ecosystem and to embrace it, and to nudge it into being useful for your ends, in other words for growing human food.

By “ecosystem,” I mean that we aren’t just growing veggies, herbs, flowers, and trees. We’re also growing soil, beneficial insects, fresh air, and wildlife. We must consider these in the full picture of our system.

When we see a bug munching our veggies, If we merely reach for a spray – synthetic chemical or less-toxic, it doesn’t matter – we are overlooking many other possibilities. Bill Mollison, co-founder of the Permaculture theory, is often quoted as saying “You don’t have a snail problem, you have a duck deficiency.” Increase your duck population and you will have less slugs. He’s inviting you to shift perspective: perhaps the solution is not annihilation; perhaps your system needs the addition of a missing element.

In synthetic-chemical gardening, one uses a myriad of sprays and powders. There’s a chemical that can be applied to just about every problem. An organic gardener has many tools she can use, only a few of which are sprays, and very few of which fit the “applied to” verb form. In fact, she often approaches a problem situation from many angles simultaneously. And most of those angles involve shoring up a faltering portion of the overall cycle or system.

Newcomers to organic gardening frantically seek recipes for homemade sprays and powders. Instead, have you looked into beneficial insects, pheromone lures, physical traps, barrier methods? Look up your bugs online and see what might eat them. I often do this by searching Google until I can positively identify my bug, getting its scientific name, and then searching for that name plus the word “predator.” You can buy many beneficial and predator bugs through catalogs like Gardens Alive, Planet Natural and others.

Many plant disabilities can be traced back to soil deficiencies. Have a soil analysis done. If you are new to the organic world, likely your soil is not in tip-top shape. All gardening begins with building healthy soil. More than just feeding your soil this season, what can be done to assure that your soil continues to get what it needs on an ongoing basis? Learn about mulching, sheet composting, use of legumes, mycorrhizae, and water-wise techniques appropriate to your area.

Do not overlook what veterans have to say about plant rotation. Much of the folk wisdom about plant rotation has to do with the fact that plant diseases can become resident in the soil. How many gardeners insist “I always grow my tomatoes there!” The same family of crop grown in the same spot year after year is asking for trouble. Poor soil nutrients can only compound this issue because weakened, undernourished plants are much more susceptible to pests.

Plant selection is also very important. From the outset, select species and varieties that are likely to do well in your specific area. Check the internet. Check locally written garden books. What does this plant like? Sun, shade, drought, marsh, low nutrients, high humus? What time of year do I plant it? Do others in my area grow it successfully?

Pay attention to the plant’s origin (example: forest floor) as this indicates what it has evolved to need. Is there a variety of it that is already adapted to my area (example: drought-resistant varieties of conventional, previously English, veggies). Is there a variety that is resistant to the plant diseases I am encountering (note the abbreviations by each variety of tomato in a given catalog).

Seed saving from your successes can also help, because what did well on YOUR plot last year might be the best adaptation for your plot this year. Expecting to grow a plant in marginal conditions is asking for a high-maintenance gardening project. Far better to select plants that are comfy where and how you plan to grow them.

Going organic is a glowing and beckoning invitation to get to know your individual plot of land; to get up close and personal and also to step back and see it in a broader picture. Hello, Garden-Plot, who are you? Like you’d get to know a significant other, get to know your land. Beyond “what zone am I” there are bigger questions:

  • Am I in a drought area? Look at the past 5-10 years, and at climate change forecasts, don’t merely look at the 100 year history.
  • What is the history of my land? Conventional, and thus depleted, farmland? Topsoil scalped for new housing development?
  • Where are my permanent shade zones? (example: behind the garage wall)
  • What areas of my land won’t drain (or conversely don’t have irrigation)?
  • What critters live here besides me, that I will have to figure out how to cope with?

Organic is far more than leaving behind the toxic chemicals. It includes getting to know your plot of earth and its particular circumstances, and matching this with the needs of the plant you’re proposing to grow. Getting to know your local bugs and who eats whom. Getting to know what critters like to live on your property and figuring out how you can coexist with them. And yes, you may learn to cook up a few little herbal brews that might be sprayed as a band-aid once in a while. But sprays and applied-stuff are far from the mainstay of a vital and bountiful organic garden.

This is a lot to think about, and won’t really help with your corn plants this spring. But it will help you with your overall approach to gardening. Also, it’s something that most of us ease into over time, so you can’t kick yourself for not knowing all from the very beginning. Rather, it is a glimpse of the journey ahead.

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“Can she bake a cherry pie?” chants the American folk song. That didn’t mean opening a can of goo from the supermarket and dumping it into a frozen pie shell. It mean knowing when the cherries were sweet and ripe, harvesting and pitting them, creating the pie shell from scratch (perhaps hand-churning the butter), and knowing what other local and available ingredients to mix in to make it all taste good. The song referred to a real and necessary skill base which our ancestors recognized was essential to survival. A skill base that most of us alive today no longer have.

Most of our ancestors grew food. They preserved food. They knew the seasons of their food, and they knew how to “get by” with limited food supply between harvests or through tough times. Today, food production is a lost art.

Most people alive today have grown up on a food supply produced by industrial-style agribusiness. Factory farms. Massive fields. Massive combines, Global transportation networks. It is a system which is deeply dependent on nonrenewable and now‑depleting fossil fuels. A system which is pillaging irreplaceable topsoils, polluting our waterways, draining nonreplenishing ancient aquifers, generating atrocious waste, perpetuating socio-economic and cultural repression, and drawing enormous financial subsidies from our government in order to continue to do so.

The system is doomed and failing. And we have no backup plan. We have no “Plan B” for our food supply. We need to reclaim the lost art of food production.

Into the middle of this, global warming is throwing a swift left hook. Even as we scramble to recover great-grandma’s lost knowledge and create a backup to the broken industrial system, even as we scurry to discover what might work here in Southern California, global warming-driven weather disruptions are bringing wild weather surprises.

In Winter 2004, funnel clouds touched down in the Ladera Heights part of Los Angeles. In 2006-2007 we experienced extreme drought conditions. The next January we had record-breaking freezes. In December 2010 rain clouds dumped record rainfall. Looking to the future, scientists forecast heavier rains in some places, amplified droughts in others. For large-scale industrial farming operations – the food system we have depended upon – these weather shifts present challenges for which they do not have answers. We desperately need to have backups in place.

And backups – particularly when they involve acquiring new skills, creating new habits, and cultivating widespread social change – take time to set up. We have to get it moving, now.

Organic techniques are a critical element in all this. “Organically farmed soil stores carbon. A lot of carbon. So much, in fact, that if all the cultivated land in the world were farmed organically, it would immediately reduce the climate crisis significantly.”[i]

As you’ll learn in Chapter 2, “organics” is much, much more than just subbing out the chemicals with a few homemade sprays. Organic techniques demand an entirely different outlook upon farming, land, soil life, air, bugs and butterflies, our seed heritage, ecosystems, and humanity’s place within those vast systems.

Organics works. It’s the way humanity has farmed its food since the dawn of the agricultural revolution some 10,000 years ago. Compare that to what we think of as “regular” agriculture which has only been in existence since the beginning of the 20th century. Some might say we have “better living through chemicals” but that’s only because the marketing departments have told us to think so.

And organics is cheaper. (But the chemical companies don’t want you to know this.) When the natural ecosystem is working on your behalf to feed and nourish your plants, there is no need to buy stuff.

Facing a world which will soon be without cheap petroleum and petrochemicals, a world where the economic situation continues to worsen, we’d better rediscover organics. We’d better get back in the habit. We’d better figure out how it was done in the past, and how we can make it work for a very different present with more than 82% of Americans living in cities, and 7 billion people to feed. We need to rediscover a lost art, and we need to modify it for a dramatic new future.

The plot thickens: Here our particular local spot on earth – in Southern California – agriculture is a relative newcomer. Native Americans in this area didn’t “farm” in the European sense. For 5,000 to 8,000 years since coming over the Bering Straight, they obtained much of their food by being careful stewards of the existing terrain. They harvested native oaks in their season, and gathered local plants like chia, Miner’s lettuce, cattails, and manzanita berries. The Spaniards farmed a little, but they had the luxury of vast tracts of land and relatively few mouths to feed.

Humans do not have an agricultural history with the land here in the way that people do in other places. In communities like Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico and St. Helena Island in South Carolina, people have cared for the land and cultivated its fertility, nurturing it into ongoing production in some cases for hundreds of years.[ii] In Europe, some lands have been producing food since the time of the Romans.

Thus here in Southern California, we are not merely rediscovering the art of long-term, ongoing, sustainable food production and soil fertility. In this place – with its unique year-round growing season – we are the pioneers, exploring it for the first time.

Welcome to the journey. We do not have the answers yet. You are part of the discovery process – you and all around you who are engaged in growing food. Share this precious knowledge as you discover it. Share what worked and what didn’t. We need you.

[i] Maria Rodale, Organic Manifesto (p10)

[ii] Nurturing land for 100 yrs

Abundant Harvests - garden info, Designing edible landscapes

a handout written for the Emerson Avenue Community Garden

1) Include food. There are so many reasons we need to be growing food right now in this society (list here http://envirochangemakers.org/FoodSecurity.htm ) and this garden is the place to show people how it is done. Certainly a “working flower” is nice here or there, but these beds are predominantly an opportunity to showcase the beauty food plants can have. Scan a few gorgeous food-garden books to understand how very much is possible.

2) Pick the right plants. Select vegetable plants which are coming into season now, following a good guide that is written specifically for Southern California. Don’t use East Coast guidelines or the backs of the seed packets — they’re useless for So Calif. A good guide is the Digitalseed planting calendar http://www.digitalseed.com/gardener/schedule/vegetable.html It tells you what you can seed each month of the year. Note that you will need to adjust if you are using purchased plants. Pick good open-pollinated or heirloom seed (non-hybrids), from vendors who have taken the Safe Seed Pledge. At the Community Garden at 83rd & Dunbarton, we group vegetables and herbs that work well together (“companion planting” or “guilds”).

3) Use ergonomics. Rule of thumb says a gardener’s reach is about 2feet. Thus accessways — paths or stepping stones — should be placed so that all areas of a garden are accessible. If you use geometric blocks, typically you use 16square feet (4ft x 4ft) so that a gardener can easily reach in from all sides. If you have deeper sections, place a stone or block as a stepping stone so that the gardener won’t compact the soil throughout the entire garden. Inside your garden plot your path layout is completely up to you, but general rule of thumb says to make these internal pathways 18″ to 24″ wide. You can create a spiral, an undulating path, crisp rectangles, or unusual shapes. Some designers place a wider cul-de-sac at the end of their path so that there is room for the gardener to squat or kneel.

4) Grade to the curve. Since our cityscape is so full of hard angles, I like to bring lots of curves into the garden. Hence the Walking Spiral and the curved beds at the edges of the Mandala garden. Also think about grading. Observe where water flows on the plot you are given. You don’t want all your water running off down the sidewalk or washing away your neighbor’s seedlings. Perhaps you need to use basins and mini-dams to retain water and cause it to infiltrate. Observe and adjust. Rather than the “raised beds” which are praised so highly in East Coast garden books, here in So Calif it is more appropriate to our weather and dryness to be gardening like the Anasazi, in depressions in the earth.

5) Where’s the water? You’ll probably need to water your plot with a hose. So, how will the hose enter the plot? Will it drag across brittle chard? Will it tear out your climbing peas or sunflowers? Plan for the hose, and perhaps use hose guides. Group plants by water needs. Put drought-tolerant Mediterranean herbs like thyme and oregano in your hottest dryest spot. Cluster water-needy lettuces and leafy greens together in a depression in the earth. Place squashes and other fuzzy leafed plants in a portion of the plot where you’ll be able to water beneath them rather than having to topspray them, since they hate to have their leaves wet.

6) Tall guys to the back. In general, you’ll want to plan for height. In the winter, you might need to place taller plants like fava beans to the north of your plot so that they don’t shade your tender greens. By contrast, in the summer, some veggies might appreciate the relief from the beating sun. Thus a line of sunflowers at the south edge might be functional as well as pretty. Keep in mind what you plant around the edges of your plot, so that it does not trail into the walking path or flop across a neighbor’s plot.

7) Play with your food. In the Community Garden at 83rd & Dunbarton, we make pretty patterns in the beds. We’ll alternate red and green lettuce, or use bright lights chard for color accents. We select snow peas that have purple blossoms, black-green lacinato kale, or mahogany red mustard greens. We edge broccoli family with a row of cilantro for insect repellant, for additional food, and for gorgeous aesthetic. Grey-green artichokes are lovely with a single cosmos daisy between them. Bush beans are available in yellow and purple as well as red-flecked pods.

8) Think biointensive. Rows aren’t the only way to go. When you plant in rows, there is a lot of wasted space in your garden layout. John Jeavons and others have perfected intensive plant spacings to maximize the number of plants which you can fit into a given space. With our tight city places, this seems like wise practice. For a demonstration of planting in this offset row technique, you can read Jeavons’ books. Or stop by the Community Garden at 83rd & Dunbarton where hands-on garden training is available any Thursday afternoon from 4:30 till dusk.

9) Garden guidelines. Keep in mind the overall garden guidelines for the Emerson Avenue Community Garden. No furniture. Trellis height maximum –. No trees or thorned plants. Pathways should be garden-provided mulch. No imported soils. See the complete list at ###need link### These are what keep our community working peacefully together.

10) Know your plants. If you aren’t familiar with food plants — their aesthetic, their growing habits, their season — this is the time to learn. Good basic books on specific veggie plants include Rodale’s Vegetables by Patricia Michalak (list at http://legacyla.net/edibleLandscape.htm#selection ) To see vegetable plants growing, check out The Learning Garden at Venice High School, The Ranch at the Huntington Library, and the Community Garden at Holy Nativity (83rd & Dunbarton). Talk with garden veterans to learn which vegetable plants do well in our local area. Then share the gift: share your experiences with other garden newcomers. Welcome to growing a local food supply, the grand adventure of our time!