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Danville Express

Living - April 24, 2009

Epicure: A backyard vegetable garden - can you dig it?!?

by Jacqui Love Marshall

Spring is in full bloom so what better time to consider planting a vegetable garden to generate fresh, healthy foods for your family? Whether your space allows for a large patch or you are restricted to a container garden, you can produce a spring-through-fall harvest of homegrown ingredients, free of chemicals and plucked right from the earth.

The Danville microclimate is ideal for backyard food gardens. A simple vegetable garden requires only a few essentials: sun, water, good soil and healthy plants/seeds. The initial prep work for a new garden is the most labor intensive but, ultimately, the ongoing harvest of fresh foods will more than compensate for the garden's care and upkeep. For a first garden, try leaf lettuce, chard, spinach and peas for spring and fall; try tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, eggplant and cucumbers for summer crops.

Site selection

Choose a sunny site - you'll need an area that gets sunshine much of the day, at least six hours of direct sun. Avoid planting close to trees and plants whose roots may invade the garden. Start small, with a few hardy vegetables, expanding as you go. Use plastic borders to minimize weeding. If your yard can accommodate it, consider raised beds. Raised beds warm and drain water faster; the down side is that raised beds usually require more watering.

Planting

Prep by loosening and turning over the soil 6-9 inches down, removing rocks, debris and old roots. Spread a 2-4 inch layer of compost or planting soil over the bed and work it into the existing soil. Finally, enrich the soil with a natural fertilizer, according to the proportions on the package. Before planting, plan out your garden on paper to be sure you leave adequate space between crops: a good rule of thumb is 18-24 inch spacing between most plants. Starting with young plants or seedlings will accelerate your garden's growth but using seeds are just as effective and may be your only option for more unusual foods. If you use seeds, follow the directions on the packet for optimum planting times, spacing requirements and conditions. Some insects are helpful to pollination so apply an organic pesticide only as necessary to prevent leaf damage.

Watering

Moderation is key when watering - too much or too little can kill a plant or invite pests. Don't wait until the soil is completely dry before watering. Use a sprinkler or, even better, a simple drip system for consistent, efficient watering. Weed your garden weekly to prevent weeds from taking hold. If desired, use a bark or wood-chip mulch to reduce weeds.

Container gardening

If space is limited, consider growing plants in containers that are decorative as well as practical. All you need is a sunny, warm place - decks and patios are ideal - and containers large enough for the plants you want to grow.

Most vegetable plants will grow quite large so your containers must be large enough and not too crowded. For vegetables, you'll need to allow approximately 18-24 inches in diameter for each plant. After planting the main plant, you can add smaller vegetable plants such as onions, carrots, lettuces or herbs around the bottom of the plant to fill in a large container. Container plants may also require staking as they grow.

Container gardening requires more diligent watering and feeding than plants in the ground. Prep the soil, then water the soil well before and after planting. Regularly test the soil by putting your finger 2-3 inches deep into the soil and see if the soil is dry. If it is, water well until water runs out the bottom of the pot.

Whether they are in the ground or a container, harvest the vegetables as they ripen; they should pull away easily from vine or stem. Once cool weather (e.g., the first frost) arrives, use protective covers to protect the last crop of foods, harvesting them early and ripening them inside.

Growing your own vegetables offers your family the freshest of ingredients, develops gardening skills, and brings a greater appreciation for the foods we so easily take for granted. Try going all-the-way green, then sit back and enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of your labor. Can you dig it?!?

Jacqui Love Marshall lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at jlovemarshall@yahoo.com.

Your Own Herb Garden

Fresh-picked herbs have more intense fragrances and flavors than store-bought ones. Grow the herbs you use most often for cooking in a container near your kitchen door. Some herbs to consider:

* Basil: There are 20-plus varieties from spicy to sweet. "Genovese" is the top basil for Italian cuisine.

* Chives: A "no fuss, no muss" perennial. Snip chive leaves for use in salads, soups, pasta, chicken and fish.

* Mint: Varieties include candy mint, chocolate mint, orange mint and peppermint. Spearmint is ideal for tea, mint jelly and mint juleps. But careful to contain mint or it will take over.

* Oregano: Peppery-flavored Greek oregano is used in tomato sauces and to season meats and vegetables. Creeping oregano works well in a pathway or rock garden.

* Rosemary: A spicy-piney flavored tender perennial that seasons almost any food.

* Thyme: French thyme has the best flavor for meats and vegetables.

* Edible flowers: They can add color and flavor to a spring salad or garnish for summer platters. Consider nasturtium, snap dragon, petunias, violets, lavender, hibiscus, calendula, English daisy.

Herb Care Tips:

* A sunny, dry site is the best for growing most herbs. Plant in full or afternoon sun, which most herbs need to thrive.

* Plant in well-drained soil that has been enhanced with compost, manure or peat moss. Keep moist but not wet. Most herbs like dry feet.

* Pinch and prune frequently to encourage new, non-spindly growth. Snip off spent flowers to encourage new buds.

* Harvest herbs in the morning after the dew, if you plan to dry them. Fresh herbs can be cut anytime.

Gardening Resources:

Salad mixes: reneesgarden.com

Heirloom tomatoes and other seeds: growbetterveggies.com, rareseeds.com

Seeds from Italy: growitalian.com, seedsofitaly.com

Asian food seeds: kitazawaseed.com

Bay Area edibles (e.g. agave, elderberry, golden currant): middlebrook-gardens.com

Garden design/prep services: mybackyardfarmer.com

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