After so many months of living under the coronavirus pandemic, it’s easy to understand why so many of us in Southern California are attracted to the idea of walking outdoors and picking fresh, healthy produce out of the garden. The idea of taking advantage of our enviable growing conditions has become especially appealing when the alternative means putting on protective gear to go grocery shopping.
Interestingly, there are several parallels between now and World War I, according to Dr. Rose Hayden-Smith, emeritus, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, and my former boss when I was assistant editor at UCFoodObserver.com.
The historian and author of “Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I” told me, “There is always a resurgence of interest in gardening in times of crisis. It’s not just the iconic wartime victory gardens, but also the Great Depression, the environmental crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and now the pandemic. This moment in particular represents an opportunity to prioritize gardening in home and community settings.”
With that forecast in mind, it’s an ideal time to build yourself a victory garden – no matter how small your outdoor footprint. By starting with a container garden, you can begin quickly and in less space. You can move the pots around if you don’t have ideal growing conditions. And you can better control your soil conditions, which is crucial for healthy food production. Who needs to make things complicated during a global pandemic?
Containers: The sky is the limit, from upcycled free materials to pricey designer pots. But whatever you select, keep these things in mind: Pick containers made from environmentally safe materials; you’re growing food in it. Make certain there are drainage holes. Before filling with potting soil, put a coffee filter over the holes to help keep in soil. Don’t put a layer of rocks in the bottom of the container. This reduces the soil’s ability to drain properly and makes the container heavier and harder to move. Be sure to consider the mature size of your plant so you allow plenty of room for it to grow.
Soil Counts: A good potting soil will establish the right growing conditions to help get your container garden off to the right start. It allows proper drainage, healthy plant growth and root development, as well as absorption of nutrients. I prefer potting soils without fertilizers added. It’s easier to control what’s added and when.
Feed the Soil, and the Soil Will Feed You: That’s what I learned from Phil McGrath of the fourth-generation McGrath Family Farms in Camarillo, which has farmed here since the late 1800s. Feed the soil with an organic fertilizer designed for the food you are growing. Follow the directions. More is not better. It actually makes things worse.
Location, Location, Location: Most vegetables grow best in full sun conditions, which is six hours or more daily. This is particularly true of vegetables like tomatoes, eggplants and squashes. Some plants prefer partial to light shade, such as arugula, beets, chard, dill, parsley and lettuces, especially in hot temperatures.
Pick Plants: You’d be surprised how many different foods you can grow in a container. Strawberries and herbs, like thyme, rosemary and basil, are just a few. Leafy greens are especially easy to start from seeds, such as Asian greens and kale. So are beans, peas and squashes. Many lettuces are cut and come again; so, cut back leaves and they’ll return several times, extending the harvest. Fall and winter are good times to grow salad greens in Southern California, too.
Pole beans and peas take advantage of vertical space. Try “Monte Gusto” for early, productive yellow pole beans next summer. In fall and spring, grow “Sugar Magnolia” violet-podded snap peas with green interiors. Tomatoes do well in large enough summer containers. Have room for only one? Cherry tomatoes like “Sungold” give you a lot of bang for your buck. Avoid vining varieties of zucchini and grow instead compact varieties like “Golden Star” yellow squash near pollinator-friendly flowers.
Water Concerns: Containers often need daily irrigation. Water at the soil level, and avoid wetting leaves to mitigate fungal diseases. Make sure containers have drainage, and don’t let them sit in drainage trays filled with water. Typically, smaller containers need to be irrigated more often than larger ones. Adding a fine wood mulch to bigger containers will reduce the need to water, cool the soil and prevent weeds. But keep mulch on top of the soil and away from plant stems.
Grow Bigger: Eventually, you may become hooked with the taste, convenience and variety of garden-fresh produce and need to expand. That’s the time to consider in-ground victory gardens, such as raised beds or large garden plots.
You might even decide to join a community garden, where you can rent growing space for a small monthly fee. The Los Angeles Community Garden Council can help you find a garden or create your own. Then, power through even the most hard clay soils with powerful tillers and cultivators to build the victory garden of your dreams. I like Troy-Bilt’s because this tough gardening equipment can be operated easily even by me, and that’s saying something.
There’s a sense of pride and purpose in growing your own food and sharing it with the ones you love. It’s nice knowing that even the smallest urban garden can squeeze out a container victory garden with a little effort – especially when we’re blessed with this admirable and world-famous Southern California growing season. So, stay safe and get growing.
Author Credit: Teresa O’Connor is a long-term California resident and a Troy-Bilt® garden expert. She also is the California communications and outreach manager for American Farmland Trust, the nation’s original farmland conservation organization, which works to protect the land and farmers that sustain us. No Farms, No Food.®