So you want to grow your own food (Part 1)

Recently, I’ve been asked about how to grow food at home. This is something I get rather excited about, not only because I love gardening, but I love seeing people talk about how they use the food they grow in their meals. Let’s face it, this economy has us all re-evaluating out food choices. When you go to a large grocers and see sad produce at exorbitant prices, it gives you pause.

I hope to be able to get you started on growing your own food, but this is especially geared toward people who live in the city. I grew up in the suburbs. We also had herbs growing in pots and grew a few vegetables, but most of our plants were indoors. When I moved to Hollywood in ’98, we lived in a courtyard apartment. The courtyard was very shaded and cool. Had I wanted to grow lettuce year round, I could have. Behind our apartment was a 6′ strip of concrete that was sunny year round. Trial and error taught me what I could grow and where. All of my produce and herbs were grown in pots and buckets. In 2006, we moved to El Sereno. I took my back yard from looking barren to a complete jungle in just a couple of years. (Side note: Those pots you see in the second photo are the same ones I used to grow veggies in, back in Hollywood.)


Your soil

Believe or not, this is the hardest part. You know you want to grow something…anything, but you start reading, then get overwhelmed. To often, books and gardening blogs start you off by telling you to go to some goverment office to get your soil tested for pH balance and blah, blah, blah. You could do that, you could go to your local gardeners and buy an at home testing kit. But if you have land, the space and are allowed to grow food there, I’d suggest you get some compost and just work that into your soil. For us, our dirt was hard, compacted clay with about 6″ of matted grass, dog crap and rocks. We would work for hours on just a 6′x6′ spot. Until I got my tiller.

The hardest part about working with the soil you have is the detail work. You must make sure that all rocks and grass are removed. Dig down deep, we went 10″ just to be sure.

An easier way to avoid having to do hard work is to build above ground boxes (raised beds) and just fill that with soil. I would love to do that, but the price of wood and fittings and the extra bags of soil needed to fill them are cost prohibitive for me. There are many resources for finding out how to build your beds ideal for your location.

Another ideal way to plant, is to do it in containers. This is especially good for those who live in restrictive HOAs or apartments. Congtainer gardening also works well for those who want to grow their food closer to their kitchens.  There’s no need for spending money on fancy pots. Any container with drainage holes will work. I’ve used cheap buckets and old kid’s toys to grow herbs and vegetables.

The best part about this for Angelenos is that the City has free mulch/compost pick-up locations. If you’re outside of Los Angeles, you may want to check with your local Bureau of Sanitation.

The Water Situation

If you live in the City of LA or care about saving water, you’ll need to pay attention to this part. Note: Los Angeles City residents can only water before 9am and after 4pm on Mondays and Thursdays. Any other watering activity can net you a fine. (LADWP flyer)

Getting water to your plants is obviously important. What you want to focus on is getting the roots wet, not the leaves. Many eating plants can get mildew if their leaves get wet. This means smaller or bland fruit for you. Ideally, you’ll use a drip irrigation system…on a timer.  I use the Rain Bird brand only because it’s readily available at my local hardware supply store and it was affordable and easy to install.

No irrigation

No irrigation

As you can see from the above photo, put in my plants, but there’s no irrigation. I actually watered by hand for about 8 months. This was time-consuming and wasteful. Installing the drip irrigation later was something of a headache since I had to work around plants that were establishing themselves. In face, the plants you see in the foreground were moved to make way for the drip irrigation.

Planning out your watering needs can be simple if you’re covering a small area. My drip irrigation covers 20′ x 50′ with 5 different zones. I have small button drippers that release 100 drops per minute, misters, bubblers and even some sprinkler heads all dependent on the plants needs. All deliver the water to the plants roots, ensuring that no water goes to waste. Since you’re growing vegetables, button drippers and bubblers would be ideal.

Go on to read So You Want to Grow Your Own Food Part 2.

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