So you want to grow your own food (Part 2)

Your soil is prepped and you have a rough sketch of your water needs, as mentioned in Part 1, but now it’s time for the best part: picking your plants.

Choosing Your Plants

Find Your Zone

I love growing vegetables, even the ones I won’t particularly eat. I often grow extra produce so that I can trade with neighbors or use in my compost pile. Most people start off with tomatoes. Tomatoes are easy to grow and aren’t too tempermental. Best of all, they only need minimum watering. If you live in Southern California, you can actually grow some tomatoes year round if you let them go to seed. Ideally though, they need warm weather to get sweet and ripe.

Depending on your growing zone, you may be able to grow many different kinds of plants. For example, I’m in Sunset Zones 19, 20, 21. I would love to grow apples or pears for eating, but it will be a toss up as to if I’d get fruit at all. Sunset  Zone 22 can grow edible pomes.

You’ll notice that I listed 3 zones above. That’s because my tiny backyard ans 3 different microclimates. In fact, even the temperature will vary 3 -5 degrees depending on location. Some areas are in full sun year round. Others get only 3 – 5 hours of sun during the summer months and are in shade the rest of the year. I highly suggest checking out Sunset’s Western Garden book for Southern California gardeners.

Buying produce

Let’s just get to it. I grow the following:


  • bananas
  • limes
  • lemons
  • avocado

Fruits and vegetables

  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Tomato (2 kind)
  • Japanese eggplant
  • Lettuce (3 kinds)
  • Kale
  • Bok Choy
  • Mustard
  • Mexi-bell
  • Corn
  • Serrano peppers
  • Jalapeno peppers
  • Sugar cane
  • Strawberries
  • Asparagus
  • Grapes (2 kind)


  • Oregano (2 kind)
  • Basil (3 kind)
  • Lemongrass
  • Lavender
  • Parsley
  • Thyme
  • Chives
  • Cilantro
  • Fennel
  • Rosemary (2 kind)

My trees are spread around the 20′ x 50′ backyard. Everything else, save the rosemary, grapes and the strawberries are growing in a 6′ x 10′ area.  Where you see multiples, that means I’m also growing them in my front yard.

Starting the veggie bed

Starting the veggie bed

In the past, I’ve also grown squash, Japanese cucumbers, snow peas and cantaloupe. I’m a firm believer in companion gardening, so I also grow nasturtiums in my garden. Nasties, as they are commonly known, are beneficial in 2 ways, 1) they attract bugs that would normally eat your plants leaves or burrow into the fruit and 2) they are edible, both the leaves and flowers are tasty in salads and marinades. Companion gardening, will not only allow you to save water, but will allow you to avoid using pesticides in your garden.

Make sure you take into consideration the size of the full-size plant when planning your irrigation and spacing. If you are using containers, you’ll have to take note that the pot is deep enough for large roots to expand. You will not want to repot a plant during it’s fruiting time. Keep in mind that using a pot does not limit you to one plant. Your container garden can be beautiful and functional. You can plant a tomato plant in the middle of a pot. Place 4 – 6 onion or garlic bulbs around the outside of the tomato cage, then plant cilantro, oregano or thyme at the edges. With the yellow flowers of the tomatoes, spiky stalks (and eventual white or purpleflowers) of the of your allium plants, and the cascading leaves and tiny white flowers of your herbs, you’ll have is a eye-catching pot that can be turned into marinara.

When it comes to purchasing your plants, you get what you pay for. Remember: There is a reason Home Depot offers you a refund up to a year after your plant dies. You don’t have spend obscene amounts of money on your plants, but I would suggest going directly to a grower or a smaller nursery. The people there are often more knowledgable about what is ideal for your area. Too often, the big box stores sell plants that will die or are invasive in your garden. You want to avoid that at any cost.

Anecdote Time: Once, I was in Valencia at a job site that just happened to be at a nursery. After I finished, I started walking around looking at the plants. I found a few plants that I liked and asked about upkeep. The first question out of the salesperson’s mouth was “Where do you live? Do you know your zone?” When I told him where I lived, he shook his head. “No. I won’t sell these to you. This plant will take over your garden. This plant will die in a month. Let me show you comparable plants.” My liriope and sedges that I did buy are still doing fine 3 years later.

Another good way to get plants is to get involved with cuttins/seed-swapping. There are many opportunities for cuttings/seed-swaps online, but this can be more trouble than it’s worth when someone has a plant that won’t do well in your zone. Local gardening clubs and Gardens are often the best place to start if there’s no one local to you interested in sharing. If you’re new to gardening, just tell another gardening that you admire their yard or that you’re starting out. They’ll usually be so excited that they’ll give you a brand new garden just from their yard.

Maintaining your garden

This is the part I hate the most. It’s so tedious, but oh-so-necessary.  You need to get in there and make sure there are no weeds or crazy bugs eating up your plants. Nothing is more depressing than to see your almost ripened eggplant destroyed by leafminers or realizing that slugs are munching your greens at night.

Get a decent pair of pruning shears (great for lopping off grasshopper heads), some gloves, grab a drink and walk your garden. If you could see how ridiculous my vegetable garden is right now, you’ll understand the need for doing this. Let’s just say that my fennel is now about 7′ tall, it’s gone to seed and there’s a chance that I may NEVER get rid of it. Um…anyone want some fennel seed? The same goes for my lettuce. Once it bolted, I was eager to see the pretty purple flowers, but not so eager to pull it. I need to get clean that up soon so that I can prep the garden for my fall/winter plants that need to go into the ground.

Well, now you’re ready to get started. I do have seeds if you need them.  This is the part where I’d like to toss a bunch of links up to local places, but that’s rather niche. If you’re in SoCal and want to go plant shopping or would like a quick sketch out of a design for your garden, I’m willing to help. You can see my vegetable garden/urban gardening on Flickr. Good luck on your garden and congrats on taking this first step.

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  • Bravo, girl! You put a COMMA in your title!! Un effn believable. You actually remembered your 6th grade grammar! KICK-SOME-ASS, dude! Few2none people remember anymore. That's sad. We need to slow... down... society. Yes, I assure you, you're gonna croak whether you want to or not. Meet me in the Great Beyond and we'll have a beer, k? Or two. God bless. Take a lookit our URL:
  • i should have asked you before i took my foray into gardening w/ tomatoes. i don't have my OWN backyard, so i borrowed my grandma's. She doesn't eat tomatoes, i don't eat A LOT, and now we have a FOREST of tomatoes. ugh. and even worse, i didn't stake them UP, so they are all over her grass AND yesterday she had a mouse. #FAIL

    so she's going to have her gardener dig up the plants & i'm going to start over w/ 1)something i actually eat and 2) something SMALL. i planted 3 tomato plants not knowing they would grow into a forest of tomatoes.

    HERE i'm talking abt what happened w/ the tomato debacle:

    they cute & all...but they're going to rot. so sad.
  • Zeke Hernandez
    "I hardly know a thing" is what I meant to say.
  • Zeke Hernandez
    I am in awe of your extensive knowledge in gardening of which, to tell you the truth, I know hardy a thing. But this is ultimately fascinating.
  • Awesome introduction! I enjoy hearing of successful urban gardeners, even though I live in the boonies.

    Your fruit trees wouldn't do well on Planet Georgia, where the weather (among other things) tend to extremes, but tomatoes will grow just about anywhere it gets warm & herbs anywhere they get lots of sun. Here, given decent soil & sunlight, perennial herbs can get invasive. I have allium growing wild that I dig up every year (and more comes back the next); the lemon balm and oregano have taken over their planters… but basil is an annual. Lettuce and spinach do OK here, if you plant them mid- to late-August.

    The suggestion of using a local nursery is good. The one here introduced me to Bt, which saved my tomato plants from hornworms last year.

    If you don't mind, I'm going to point this to some friends of mine.
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