The Loma Prietan - May/June 2009

Gardening Green

Eat Your Garden

story and photo by Arvind Kumar

Chapter members Susan and Marty Zaslaw grow vegetables year-round in 12 raised beds in their San Jose backyard.
Chapter members Susan and Marty Zaslaw grow vegetables year-round in 12 raised beds in their San Jose backyard.

Sierra Club member and Master Gardener Susan Zaslaw offers workshops and classes on vegetable gardening throughout Santa Clara County. In this article, she demystifies vegetable gardening for the rest of us.

Sierra Club member Susan Zaslaw has lived in San Jose for 37 years and has been gardening for even longer. After retiring from a career as a school teacher and psychologist, she became a Master Gardener in 2005, and now offers workshops and classes on vegetable gardening throughout Santa Clara County. I asked her to demystify vegetable gardening for the rest of us.

How many hours a week does a kitchen garden require?

The work comes in spurts. You put in several hours a week when you are planting seeds and transplanting vegetables. If you hand water, time requirements will vary with the size of your garden. Putting in an irrigation system at the beginning of the season takes some time, but will save effort for the rest of the season. Once the garden is established, an hour or two a week should suffice to keep up with the weeds (assuming you are mulching to keep them down) and pick vegetables as they ripen. Add another hour if you are watering by hand.

Winter is not a good time for vegetable gardening. True or false?

In Santa Clara County, late summer and fall is a great time to plant cool-season vegetables like parsley, broccoli, greens, and beets. They actually do better in the winter because too much heat causes them to fall victim to predators and to go to seed, ending their production. Some vegetables, like kale, actually taste better after a light frost. Warmseason vegetables like tomatoes, however, can only be grown in the summer.

Can I grow food and save water at the same time?

Vegetables do require water to mature and taste good. However, you can minimize your use of water by using drip irrigation or drip hoses. Watering late in the day will reduce evaporation and save water. Mulching is another excellent way to reduce evaporation. And growing cool-season vegetables in the fall rather than the summer will save water, as this is our rainy season, and nature will do most of your watering for you. Drip irrigation is ideal for vegetable gardens. Not only does it reduce water usage, but it keeps water off the leaves of your summer plants, which reduces diseases.

For some folks, "compost" has an ick-factor. Any suggestions?

Wear sturdy long gloves. Fully composted vegetable waste has no bad odor — it even smells sweet. And once you see what it can do for your garden, you will become fonder of it. I started worm composting, which I thought was very icky. I wore gloves and avoided handling the worms. But now I love my worms and save only my finest kitchen scraps for them.

People from other parts of the country find California gardening challenging. What are some common mistakes, and how can they be avoided?

The biggest mistake is planting at the wrong time. Our climate is unique and presents both challenges and great rewards for the vegetable gardener. In few other parts of the country can you be harvesting fresh vegetables from your garden in January. It's a good idea to get a gardening book written for Californians. Take advantage of the many classes and services offered by Master Gardeners (see sidebar).

Gardening for food vs. gardening for beauty or property value: your thoughts on this divide?

Any property that can produce its own food has enhanced value. If neighbor pressure is making you hesitate to grow your own food, look into the field of ornamental edibles. There are a number of vegetables, such as asparagus, rhubarb, and artichokes, that look quite attractive in the landscape. Rosalind Creasy's The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping, published by Sierra Club Books, has many ideas for maintaining an attractive edible landscape in our area.

Most people buy their produce from grocery stores or Costco/Walmart/Target. What advice do you have for them?

Buy locally grown produce. This means eating in season. If it's winter, don't plan to fix an eggplant dish, because eggplant in the supermarket will not have been grown locally. The purchase of an occasional out-of-season item may be necessary, but stick to local, in-season ingredients for the bulk of your meal.

Sierra Club life member and California Native Plant Society director Arvind Kumar grows native plants in his Evergreen garden. He can be reached at chhaprahiya@yahoo.com.