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Vegetables: The New Revolution
How-to grow the food you eat
By Lucy Warren
Photo: Rachel Cobb
While vegetables have always been part of a gardener’s palette, recently there has been a resurgence of interest in these wonderful plants. What’s “new” and “hot” comes from a long agricultural and gardening tradition. After all, once they settled down from hunting and gathering, people in ancient cultures grew vegetables for nutrition and medicinal purposes. Our pioneer forefathers depended on their vegetable plots for their sustenance. Our mothers tried to force us to eat them, as have mothers from time immemorial. Our parents and grandparents joined in a movement akin to the war effort in the 1940s called “Victory Gardens” growing their own vegetables at home to keep our populace fed and to free up precious industrial resources for the war effort. Excess produce was canned and lasted through long winters when fresh vegetables were unavailable.
Since that time we have undergone great changes in industry and technology, our population has become more and more urban. Rapid and relatively inexpensive means of transportation have promoted the industrialization of fruit and vegetable growing. Production has now spread beyond our borders to regions of opposing climates below the equator, making fresh summer fruits and vegetables available in winter.
However, the nutritional and flavor cost of such exotic production has been high. Mass production has fostered varieties that are developed to withstand the rigors of shipping, to be the earliest (and most valuable) in the market, rather than the optimization of taste and succulence. It has led to monocultures and reduction of variety. It has forced smaller growers out of business.
Yet, even as that vast pendulum has swung to big business, an opposing force has been quietly gathering momentum. Health scares from contaminated foods have led to distrust of international production. Interest in growing and eating locally grown vegetables has actually been stimulated by economic forces such as increasing consumer prices resulting from worldwide increases in the price of oil and the collapse of financial institutions and increasing home foreclosures. As people look to ways to cut expenses, growing their own food is more and more attractive and is considered part of the “greening” of our environment.
The Slow Food movement encourages people to go to participating restaurants to enjoy and appreciate the flavors and benefits of more natural local small-scale production. Farmers’ markets have sprung up throughout the country, where local produce—affirmed to be grown organically—is transported only short distances and sold fresh picked from the farm. Community gardens where individuals can grow their own plants, usually a predominance of vegetables, have waiting lists of people interested in participating.
In a survey conducted annually by Garden Writers of America, for the past three years more and more people have indicated that they will be spending money to buy seeds or plants of fruits and vegetables for their gardens, reaching a current level of 39 percent. For the many of us who have enjoyed our own fresh fruits and vegetables for years, our only surprise is that it has taken others so long to catch on.
Southern California is the perfect place to encourage and support this trend. Our year-round growing climate enables people to enjoy a wide variety of vegetables over all seasons. Not only is vegetable gardening easy, fun and relaxing yet invigorating, you also get to eat what you grow. If you haven’t grown vegetables before, for the most part, just think of them as edible annuals—because many of them are. Plant, grow, harvest and get ready for the next season’s crops.
For those who have never grown vegetables before, or who haven’t had much experience this is a brief introduction with a few tips and suggestions that might improve your success as you join this exciting and delicious movement.
There is no size or positioning limit for vegetable gardens. They can be a single container, a portion—or all—of your yard, a community garden or a huge ranch. Neither do vegetables have to be grown in a single “patch” all by themselves. Low mixed flower borders can include beautiful colored lettuces, stunningly colorful winter chard or ornamental cabbages. At the back of a yard or garden, a striking artichoke plant provides both volume and delicious buds.
Start small. Overeager beginners often want to try to grow everything and overplant. Take a slow gardening approach, selecting a few things at a time so you gain experience in determining how much time you are willing to devote to weeding, controlling pests and watering. At least at first, grow only what you really love to eat. Select crops that will produce the maximum amount of food for the space you have available.
Put your garden (even if it is just single container) in a spot that receives at least eight hours of full sunlight each day. Vegetables do not grow well in the shade. Find a place that is relatively level, well drained and close to a source of water.
Vegetables need loose rich soil, plenty of organic material and a full complement of minerals in order to grow well. You will literally reap the benefits of effort you put into preparing the soil and fertilizing and amending it as needed. Be judicious using fertilizers, particularly if you decide to use chemical amendments. Too much can burn your crops and be as bad or worse than too little. Just pay attention to the recommendations on the package. Many people now use compost to amend the soil and organic amendments, but the choice is completely up to you.
Most vegetables are put into one of two groups: vegetables that grow better in our cool season and those that grow better in the warm season. Planting the right seeds or plants at the right time will greatly enhance your success.
Cool season crops include a great diversity and variety in their edible parts from roots (beet, carrot, parsnip, radish, turnip, potato), stem (asparagus), leaf (cabbage, celery, lettuce, onion, spinach), immature flower parts (broccoli, cauliflower, globe artichoke) and fruit (fava beans, peas). When the temperature heats up, the genes of the plant signal that it is time to flower and produce seed, at which point the quality of the vegetable declines as it kicks into reproductive mode. Because the vegetative part of cool season vegetables is eaten, the food value is higher per pound and per square foot than that of warm season crops where the edible part of the plant is usually the fruit.
Some examples of warm season crops include cantaloupe, squash, tomato, watermelon, sweet corn, peppers, snap and lima beans. These crops need higher temperatures in order to grow and produce fruit.
Some crops will grow year-round here, such as carrots, radishes, beets, chard and turnips. Pay attention to the Fruit and Vegetable section of ‘Now is the Time’ (pg.26), where crops are recommended for each season.
Things to Plant in March and April
March is a transition month. Most people can’t wait to begin planting their warm season crops such as artichokes, corn, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and winter squash. It is still usually cool enough to get in a last planting of favorites such as broccoli, head lettuce, cabbage and potatoes. However, hold off until April on the real heat lovers such as eggplant, okra, peppers and melons and sunflowers. In April, you can continue to plant loose leaf lettuce but it’s too late for head lettuce to mature.
Unlike landscape plants, which can be left on their own for periods of time, your vegetables will need consistent care. Particularly when they are beginning to sprout and take hold, they must not completely dry out or they will quickly croak. At the same time, if they are given too much water, the roots will not be able to get enough air and they will rot. The rule of thumb is that the soil should be moist but not wet. If your vegetables go through cycles of being too wet then drying out completely, their growth will be stunted and they will not bear well.
Keep a close eye on the vegetable plants for pests and diseases. A number of insects are attracted to your delicious vegetable plants. Likewise there are numerous plant diseases which can affect their growth and ability to mature. Be on the lookout for eaten leaves, discolorations and misshapen growth. Often if it is an insect you can locate and squash the offender, but be careful that you are not wiping out beneficial insects.
Optimize plant growth by taking out weeds that compete for nutritional resources. In your small, beginning plot, this should relatively easy. As you go out to check on the plants, pull out anything that you didn’t plant yourself. Catching the weeds when they are young, a few at a time, greatly eases your overall gardening chores.
There are many books written on gardening, organic gardening and fruit and vegetable gardening that are very good that work for 95 percent of the country, but we suggest that you try to find and use resources written by and for Southern Californians. Our seasons and weather conditions are different from most of the rest of the country; we can grow different crops easily, such as artichokes and sub-tropical fruit trees. On the other hand, many crops which require freezing weather for production will not thrive here. Pat Welsh’s Southern California Gardening: A Month-by-Month Guide is an excellent resource for both beginning and experienced gardeners. If pests are getting you down or you can’t figure out what they are, go to the University of California website for the best and most up to date information (www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG).
For specific questions, call the UCCE Master Gardener hotline at 858-694-2860.
Reprinted from March/April 2009, Volume 100, Number 2
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Mission: To promote the knowledge and appreciation of horticulture and floriculture in the San Diego region.