When it comes to starting a vegetable garden, the question is not if but when.
With the prices of everything, including vegetables, not coming down in the near future, it makes sense to economize wherever possible. And then there are the bonuses that come with growing your own: You can choose varieties with superior taste to those found in the grocery store; experiment with exotic varieties found in seed catalogs; pick garden-to-table vegetables that have a higher nutrient content – by as much as 100% – than store-bought produce due to the breakdown of vitamins and antioxidants that begins the moment picking occurs. You also know your vegetables have never been sprayed with pesticides, whereas store-bought produce, including organic, has been.
It is worth mentioning that many people are under the illusion that organic produce is not sprayed. In fact, it is typically sprayed and often more frequently than non-organic fare, albeit with less toxic chemicals. The reason for the frequent spraying of organic pesticides is that they lose their effectiveness more quickly than those cooked up in a lab. In your own garden, it is best to adopt a no-spray regime so as to attract beneficial insects that prey on insect pests.
“Simplify Vegetable Gardening” (Cool Springs Press, 2024) by Tony O’Neill is a book for both the novice and more experienced vegetable gardener. Although simple instructions for growing 16 vegetable families are provided, the science behind certain garden decisions is also brought to bear.
For example, if you are thinking about starting a vegetable garden, it is wise to first grow a leguminous cover crop where you are planning to plant. Such a crop builds soil tilth or workability because of its meandering, penetrating roots. Where there is good tilth, drainage is excellent and abundant pore space is present in the soil, allowing roots to breathe.
Roots cannot thrive when they are oxygen-deprived, which is what happens in compacted soil. Common white or Dutch clover (Trifolium repens) – that comes up in lawns that are not sufficiently fertilized – is one of the recommended legumes, although there are many clovers to choose from, including the stunning crimson clover ‘Dixie,’ and now is the time to plant their seeds. When days begin to lengthen and temperatures warm, it is a much bigger challenge to coax clover seed to sprout. You can choose from the seeds of 18 different clovers, including Miniclover, which can serve as a lawn substitute, at Outside Pride Seed Source (outsidepride.com).
O’Neill recommends building a polytunnel to expand your selection of vegetables since temperatures are a few degrees higher in the tunnel. The tunnel is constructed from bows of PVC or metal that are anchored to metal posts. The bows are covered in polyethylene – one or two layers thick – made especially for greenhouses. The sides of the tunnel are rolled up in the morning to provide airflow and back down before night. For hot weather, circular windows are cut out of the sides of the tunnel to enhance air circulation and provide a cooler growing environment.
O’Neill highlights vegetative propagation, the original form of cloning, as testimony to the fact that you can have a thriving vegetable garden simply by reproducing crops from leaf cuttings, division and underground structures such as bulbs, tubers, and rhizomes. Among these easily cloned plants are artichokes, mints, ginger, turmeric, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, plantain, and asparagus.
“Growing an Edible Landscape” (Cool Springs Press, 2024), by Gary Pilarchik and Chiara D’Amore, is full of tidbits regarding the edibility of common garden plants. For example, the fiddlenecks or emerging frond heads of certain ferns are edible. Weeds such as dooryard violets (Viola sororia) and purple dead nettles (Lamium purpureum) are also comestible fare. Edible flowers include those found on celosia (Celosia argentea), hollyhock (Alcea rosea), lilac (Syringa vulgaris), daylily (Hemerocallis fulva), primrose (Primula vulgaris), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), and calendula (Calendula officinalis). Still, I would not recommend eating anything that grows if you have not previously eaten it – except under the guidance of someone who has experience dining on the particular plants you thinking of consuming for the first time.
I wrote about the Chinese tallow tree in glowing terms on account of its foliage that glows in gold, orange, and red each year. Linda Genis, who gardens in Santa Ana, expressed reservations about planting it, however. “The Chinese tallow (Triadica sebifera) does have nice winter color,” she wrote, “but it is invasive. It drops lots of seeds which sprout all over. It was briefly used as a street tree in my city, but was dropped from the list. The roots can also lift sidewalks. There was one in front of my house which the city removed after root removal for sidewalk repair killed it.” The seeds, I discovered, are covered with a waxy substance; a person might easily slip on seeds that fell on a sidewalk or other paved surface.
Yet, on the plus side, perhaps the waxy substance in question could be utilized for a practical purpose. In 1772, Benjamin Franklin sent Chinese tallow seeds to an agronomist friend in Georgia and suggested planting them since he thought a profit could be made from such a venture. Franklin knew that the substance that coats the seeds could be used for making soap, candles, and cooking oil. It also turns out that the tree is widely exploited today for honey production in southern states. But bear in mind that this is ironic since all parts of the tree — a member of the Euphorbia family of plants, those with the milky white sap, including poinsettia — are toxic.
California native of the week: Palmer’s crinklemat (Tequilia palmeri) is a name that references the crinkly, wrinkled texture of its ribbed leaves that are only about a centimeter long. This is a demure perennial ground cover that is found in the Coachella Valley and other desert areas of Southern California. The petite chalice-shaped flowers are pale lavender to deep blue in color and bloom from April through June. Stems are covered with white hairs that serve several functions. They deter hungry insects looking for food, protect against infection from pathogens, and reflect solar radiation and thus reduce water loss by keeping the plant cool. Another function of such hairs, bristles, or even thorns on desert plants is to collect dew drops that, sliding down the stems to the earth, provide a measure of moisture for roots.
Do you have an unusual vegetable or special variety of a common vegetable that you grow whose qualities you would like to share with readers of this column? If so, please send information about how you grow it to firstname.lastname@example.org. You are also invited to send questions or comments about any plant or gardening practice, or any garden problem that comes your way.