Grow Your Own Food

When the sunlight begins to feel warm and the first pink blossoms on the plum trees trumpet spring, it's time for a new gardening year to begin. For my family members in New England, this moment is still months away, but for us in the lucky Bay Area, it's already here.

This year more people than ever seem ready to start growing at least some of their own food in their gardens or on their decks and balconies. Never have we at Garden for the Environment had more interest in edible gardening classes.

For gardeners in San Francisco, and especially here on the west (read: foggy) side of town, food gardening doesn't follow the rules in most gardening books or on the backs of seed packets. The weather is rarely cold enough to stop all plants from growing, so we can harvest food from our gardens all year round, even in December and January. On the other hand, it doesn't ever get warm enough for many crops which other regions can grow in the summer time, especially that hallmark of backyard gardening, the tomato.

Leeks enjoying a cold winter morning.

Leeks enjoying a cold winter morning.

If you would like to start growing some edibles in the garden, here are a few simple steps to help you get started.

First, choose one crop which would make a difference in your cooking and in your grocery budget. Do you buy a bunch of green onions, or a bag of salad greens every time you go to the store? Was your New Year's resolution to start eating kale once a week? Do you wish you could chop fresh herbs for your salad dressing instead of shaking dry ones from a bottle?

Cooking greens like kale and chard, salad greens, green onions and garlic, and woody herbs like thyme and rosemary, are among the easiest and most successful crops here on the west side of town. They are also crops that can be grown and used year round. If any of these appeal to you, you are in luck! If you want to choose something else, please check in Pam Peirce's wonderful book Golden Gate Gardening to see if it will grow well in your neighborhood, and at this time of year.

Picking fresh herbs.

Picking fresh herbs.

Once you have chosen a crop to begin with, choose a spot in your garden, or on a deck or patio to begin your culinary project. You need to find a spot that gets plenty of sun, at least six hours of sun during most of the year. If your veggie spot can be close to your entry into the garden so much the better. It's easier to give food crops the attention they need if they are right by the back door, and not a hike away through the garden. Last but not least, you want a spot that is close to your water source, so that watering your plants is fun and easy and doesn't become a chore to be avoided.

If you don't have a yard or garden, don't despair. Most vegetable crops are happy to grow in containers, so get yourself a big pot or half-barrel and get to planting! You still want to think of the same factors when deciding where to put your container(s). Locating your containers where they can get six hours of sunlight, close to your entry, and close to a water source will give your project the best chance of success.

Harvesting radishes from GFE’s half wine barrel container garden.

Harvesting radishes from GFE’s half wine barrel container garden.

You may be wondering why I am not advising you to build raised beds with wire protection from gophers, install a drip irrigation system, start a vigorous home composting program, and plant a dozen crops in rotation. All of these are good ideas, and if you decide that vegetable gardening is for you, you may want to undertake some or all of these projects. But for people making their first foray into food gardening, the most important rule is to keep it simple.

Years ago, I asked Brooke Budner, a long-time friend of the Garden for the Environment, and the co-founder of Little City Gardens what her advice would be to someone just starting out growing food. I have never forgotten her answer, and I often refer to it as "Brooke's Law" when teaching beginning gardening classes. She said, "Start small, observe closely, and keep it joyful."

By starting small, observing closely, and keeping it joyful, food gardening can become a precious, healthful, meditative part of your day, which helps you connect more closely with the cycles of nature and our proper place in a world. The garden is a place where we can remember that our lives depend on natural processes which are sturdy and abundant and free.

If you can, please drop by Garden for the Environment and take a look at our vegetable crops growing. Or you might want to take a class to help you get started. We offer a Grow Your Own Food class (now called The Edible Garden) every month of the year. Maybe you will always remember 2012 as the first year of growing your own food!