Animal, vegetable, moron

            Liz emailed me awhile back and suggested Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  Sucker that I am for book recommendations, I got a copy, and I am reading it as I breastfeed (and then breastfeed some more.  How big is she trying to get?)  And I am reminded that one of my goals upon moving to Southern California was to start growing a bit of our own food.

            There are a few obstacles.  Our yard is not all that big.  A few spots get a lot of sunlight, but most of it is only sunny for a small portion of the afternoon.  And, most importantly, I don’t know squat about farming.

            Well, that’s not entirely true.  I once grew basil, but I think anyone with an IQ of over 7 is capable of making basil thrive.  And I do know how to tie up and sucker tomatoes.

            That’s all I know about horticulture.

            I guess the first step is starting to compost, right?  See, we don’t like smells or rodents, and our yard is not big enough to put the pile somewhere far from the house.  So, I need to get some sort of composting contraption that will allow the compost to do all the breathing and such that it is supposed to do (but that I don’t understand) and will keep it contained.  We’re willing to shell out for it, if anyone can recommend one for us to buy.

            In addition to knowing nothing about composting, I don’t know when to plant or what to plant or where in the yard to plant.  Is there some sort of book called Composting and gardening in Southern California for Complete and Total Morons?  If so, I would like a copy.  If not, I need some advice.  I think I’ll put in some basil in the spring, but when do I start the seeds?  Then, I want to grow either tomatoes or grapes because we consume them in giant quantities.  What kind of sunlight do they need?  When do I start the seeds?  When do I move them outside (after the last frost?)?  We have a lemon tree in the back – is there anything it is not a good idea to plant next to lemons?

            And, what about keeping away bugs?  All I know is marigolds scare away some bugs.  Any other plants or organic tricks you can suggest?  Books to read?  Websites to visit?  Places that explain it all simply, as though I were a two-year-old.

            See, what Kingsolver did not take into account in her little book is that not all of us grew up on a farm.  I need step-by-step instructions here, people.  Some of us grew up in the suburbs, you know, and we don’t know what the hell we are doing.

18 responses to “Animal, vegetable, moron

  1. I’ve started reading several sustainable-living type blogs but unfortunately they are (so far) all a) British and b) blessed with a great deal more land than I will likely ever have! However, they are fascinating. The three I can think of at the moment are:, and

    I’m pretty sure Stonehead has some good blog links to gardening blogs (under the blogging category in his side bar) so maybe something there will help?

    Good luck – I’ve been thinking about this for several months now (although waiting to see if we’re going to move. again.) so it’s very much front-of-mind for me!

  2. I’m probably going to go against the grain here and suggest you start small by (a) waiting until spring, unless you’re putting in another fruit tree or two, and (b) suggesting you not compost if your yard is really small because it will smell and if you don’t do it right you’ll attract rodents. As in rats. Buy the compost, grow the food. It evens out.

    And I suggest easy things to start with: strawberries (you can do them in special pots), tomatoes and bell peppers (again, big pots)…

  3. TO clarify — of course I won’t plant till spring, but there is a STEEP learning curve here, people. I need to start now…

  4. I think you need to walk around your neighborhood and peer over fences. Find someone who looks like they know what they’re doing, and make friends. I’ve heard good things about the Sunset Western Garden book, but I don’t know if it covers vegetables.

  5. Magpie’s suggestion is fantastic. Neighbors who love to farm are likely to pass on their knowledge. I know all about growing vegetables in East Tennessee soil, but I am clueless now that I live in NC. I found some old-timers who can help me out.

    As far as composting goes, most city waste departments provide compost bins for sale. We bought ours from the city, and it doesn’t stink at all. It also seems to be pretty rodent proof.

    I love that book, by the way…partly for how it takes me back to my Appalachian farmer roots.

  6. my mom has a composting dohickey that is completely sealed and plugs in (seems odd, I know, but she assures me that theelectricity it uses is so minimal compared to the good it does) and creates compost rather quickly, all in a safely sealed container. You can get containers that you have to turn and wait for the heat, etc to do all the work for you, but she loves her new little fancy one.

  7. I laughed at your title, cause that’s me. I’ve been saying for years that I am going to grow some vegetables. We have the room, and the climate. But I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve been wanting to read that book. Maybe I shouldn’t. It will just make me feel inadequate.

  8. Maggie gave you excellent advice. I think the rest of it comes with time and experimentation. In a few years, you’ll be advising all of us. I can’t wait! 🙂

  9. The Sunset gardening guide is pretty good and does cover vegetables. Each issue of Sunset also has a planting guide for each region that is pretty helpful.

    I’m north of you but up here tomato seeds can be started as early as January, and you can put them in the ground when they are 3-6″ tall (up through late June but I like to plant late April-early June). Starting tomatoes can be a bit tricky. People often use heating pads because tomatoes (and other nightshades–peppers, eggplants) need warm soil to sprout. When you choose tomatoes, decide whether you want determinate or indeterminate. Determinates are typically a little shorter and they tend to ripen around the same time. Indeterminates have a wider ripening window and keep growing the whole season. Cherry tomatoes grow well and produce well pretty much everywhere, and they are fun to pick. Sungold is a wonderful variety. Give them the sunniest spot in the garden! If you don’t want to tie tomatoes up get the biggest/tallest cage you can and you’ll be fine. Pruning tomatoes depends on your specific climate. Up here we get hot summers and lots of sun so pruning really only results in sunburn on the tomatoes.

    Grapes take a much longer time to establish and produce (years), but once they are established they produce pretty regularly. You definitely want to purchase grape rootstock.

    UC extension offices (I’m not sure if UCLA has one but UCB and certainly UCD do) can be great sources of information–you can call them with questions about pests or growth conditions. UCD also has a bunch of pdfs on growing all sorts of vegetables :

  10. I would have such a hard time doing this, mostly because I don’t like dirt. And I’m allergic to air. But also, because of the farmer’s markets in LA, which I so miss. I wish you luck though.

  11. Have you heard about “square foot gardening”? You can be very productive in a small space (4 ft. x 4 ft.). Lay out a boxed raised bed, divided into a grid of 4 rows and 4 columns. Fill with planting mix. Plant each “box” in the grid with vegetables. As the vegetables finish producing, you can replant with a new crop.

    See for more information.

    For composting – you might want to try a worm farm. There are fairly small containers that you can hide away, and they do a pretty good job, instead of the huge compost piles you see in some places.

  12. If you notice in the book its usually labeled by months, so I tried to pay attention to what she planted in what chapter. Also, I think that there are tips and links on her website. Another good suggestion might be to find a community garden and ask their advice. I’m glad you are getting ready to do this – so I can seek you for advice when I try to undertake this when I return to the states.

  13. Pots are good for beginners. Stick a cherry tomato plant in a pot in the sun, water it regularly and hey presto. Or lettuces in window boxes. My only advice would be to start small and on something really easy to grow, otherwise all the fun goes out of it. And good luck! Growing vegetables with children is just delightful.

  14. Okay, I just forwarded this post to my husband, who is an urban farmer. He squeezed a most impressive amount of produce out of our postage-stamp sized garden. And he is in charge of the compost and is always reading and quoting from some NW gardening book. So. I’ll get him to comment!

  15. I have a hard time with tomatos because of our climate, but I think they are hard to grow from seed. If any of your farmer’s markets are still going, you can ask if they sell the plants in the spring. I can tell you that garlic is very easy to grow. Just buy a bulb at the grocery store, separate out the cloves and plunk them in the ground with the pointed part up, a few inches deep. They’re ready to harvest when the green shoots start turning brown. And green garlic (undried) is so fantastic! Lettuce is fairly easy to grow from seed – and you can easily grow that in large pots too. Good luck. I read that book and loved it. It got me hooked on heirloom tomatoes this summer. (Purchased from the farmer’s market because you have to have a green house to get tomatoes to ripen up here.)

  16. Husband of Ally

    Good for you for getting excited about gardening. Here’s a quick and longer than expected list of advice:

    1. Read. Find a book (and/or web site) about gardening in your area. If you live in the Pacific Northwest (west of the Cascades) I can recommend a great book, but I don’t think it will help you much as Seattle weather is much different than LA.
    2. As previously mentioned, your gardening neighbors can be a big help.
    3. Your first crops will likely fail or at least be disappointing. There is nothing wrong with that, and in fact, the best way to learn is to fail a few times. At least you’ll know what not to do next time.
    4. Grow what you want to eat. There is no point in growing peas if you don’t like peas.
    5. Start simple, only try to grow a few things the first time around.
    6. Seeds are cheaper, but require more attention and can easily be wiped out by pests. Buying plants is more expensive, but have a higher probability of success.
    7. If you do go with seeds, the seed packet will have some advice on it (when to plant, spacing, watering, etc). It should be enough to get you started.
    8. Water and fertilizer will make your plants grow. How much of each depends on a lot of things (soil type, temperature, rain, wind, shade, etc). You’ll likely have to experiment a bit.
    9. If your plants are droopy, you should have watered yesterday. Watering in the early morning or evening will be more effective (less evaporation).
    10. There are lots of helpful web sites about compost. For the urban gardener you’ll have to invest in a tidy container. I have one cylinder (3 ft diameter) with lid that so far has kept pests out. I also have two composting cones for kitchen scraps that have not yet had any pest problems.
    11. When your crops fail or are disappointing just be glad that this is your hobby and not your job nor your only means of sustenance!
    12. It’s likely that you can plant some things right away. LA is quite warm in the winter. Sure, tomatoes may not do to well, but lettuce and spinach like cooler weather and will likely do well.

  17. Husband of Ally

    Here’s a helpful web site on compost:

  18. Dude, behold my power! I asked hubby to comment and he DID! (Amazing!)