Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on Urban Homesteading!

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Urban Homesteading at the SM Library Farmer’s Market Panel

Urban Homesteading: Owning what we eat.  It’s definitely a subject that’s gotten a good amount of focus these days.   Owning can come in the form of being conscious of what we put in our mouths, to eating local and organic, to the Mack Daddy of all actions: taking full responsibility for what we eat but growing it ourselves.    It’s no easy feat reclaiming the food chain, and many of us might get overwhelmed, but as cliché as it might sound (and remember clichés are clichés because they are true) a journey of a thousands miles really just starts with one step.     

And those taking, what at times are be scary but also fun, baby steps were celebrated last Thursday night at the Santa Monica Library’s quarterly Farmer’s Market Panel Series.  This event, entitled Urban Homesteading, focused on individuals paving the way with home gardens, restaurant gardens, and larger organically grown farms.  The event was moderated by chef and owner of Angeli Caffe, and KCRW Good Food host, Evan Kleiman.  The panel included a variety of food personalities: Phil McGrath of McGrath Family Farm in Camarillo, Emily Green, a gardening and horticulture contributor to the Los Angeles Times, and Ray Garcia of Executive Chef and amateur gardener of Fig Restaurant.

“I get approached a lot to help build up home gardens.  And the first thing I say is let’s get the soil alive again.   Let’s grow the soil,” explained Phil McGrath of McGrath Family Farm.   “Grow a cover crop.  Plow it down.   Grow another crop.  Let’ get the soil good.”   “When I started gardening, one important thing I learned was that the vegetables really just hover over the soil,” explained Evan Kleiman.  “It’s so much like cooking.  I would dump compost onto my lawn and introduced worms.  It’s mixing and playing with ingredients to create a recipe for the soil.”  And all of that takes time, something that many of us can’t understand in this instant-on-demand world we now live in.  

“It’s dirty,” noted Green.  “When Tim Dunn shows up with a truck of manure and all you see are flies; at that moment it smells and your neighbors hate you.  It’s good to tell your neighbors the manure is coming so they can close their windows.”  “We have 3 acres of compost, green waste from Los Angeles and Ventura County, and the neighbors are complaining,” elaborated McGrath.   “People don’t like seeing it and the smell of it.  I like the smell of compost.  More and more people are trying to do it right but when done wrong it can catch on fire.   But we’re talking organic farming; commercial farming isn’t like that at all.“  “That’s a given, noted Kleiman.  “We’re in the Santa Monica bubble.”

To bust out yet another cliché, we learn more from our failures than from our successes.  “Organic farming is moody like cooking.   Mother nature is moody,” noted McGrath.   “You’re at the mercy of the elements.  So much of the way we cook presumes anything’s available all that time, that there’s no seasonality.” Growing your own food can be quite a humbling experience.  “If you’re starting a garden you really have to love failure because you’ll experience a whole lot of it.   I hear people say ‘mine died.’ And I say ‘Good!’” continued Emily Green.   “I’m a chef and I consider myself a novice garden,” stated Ray Garcia of Fig Restaurant.  “I wish there were more chefs attempting to grow food.  Before I started growing I would take for granted Phil’s stacks of carrots and beautiful tomatoes.  Trying to plant on Ocean and Wilshire… all I can say it was very humbling.”

“We have partnered with schools in Santa Monica,” continued Garcia.  “It’s a matter of motivating the students.  Just as a chef is inspired to get great ingredients; we’re inspiring them to grow.”  Kleiman inquired if Garcia had a dish in mind when he starts planning the school’s garden.   “I’m more growing to learn how to grow a vegetable and see what works with that soil,” explained Garcia.  “Other than that I leave it up to the kids.  Right now what they are growing at the school are radishes.   We’re very lucky to have not limits.”
“Just like cooking, there’s so many different recipes to grow.  There are 20 different ways to make a stock.    Working with 20 different kids at a high school we’re fortunate to grow food for ourselves.   And I find the lesson for myself is it’s okay to fail,” noted Garcia.  “The kids ask: what’s that or this?   And a lot of the time I don’t know.”  “I have the Blood Orange tree I planted 10 years ago and it just bared fruit for the first time,” noted Kleiman.   “It’s been so long, I feel like I have relationship with this tree.   And the fruit finally came in; and it’s awful!  But in another year it will make good marmalade.”

At Garcia’s restaurant Fig there is a whole section of the garden dedicated to herbs.  “Right outside the hotel I ripped up patches, taking it out piece by piece, and planting edible plants.”  “I do believe the future landscaping, that more and more development is going to be about edible landscaping,” noted McGrath. “No more sod, no more water needing plants.”   Kleiman noted considering our Los Angeles water issues, those who have chosen to forsake their lawn for a garden should get a water credit.   “If you tie in the iconography of the food it all starts to come together and make sense, but not always here.  On Orange Grove Blvd. they’re growing Magnolias,” noted Green.  “The street trees are orange trees in Seville.  What would be the harm if people eat the fruit?”

And with that point that the panel offered multiple suggestions for the multiple Santa Monica gardeners in the audience, “I want to give a couple of secrets,” stated McGrath.  “Feed the soil not the plant.   Whatever the diameter of the seed, plant twice as deep.  And don’t over water!   People come to me and say, ‘my tomatoes grow and are so green, but there’s no fruit.’   And I ask them ‘do you water every day?’ And they say proudly, ‘yes!’”   To which McGrath sighed a heavy sigh. “There’s another thing,” noted Green, “if you’re not growing from seed, which I definitely recommend, than shake all the Perlite.   Shake out all that nursery soil.   If you’re planting in the ground deep waterings are important.  Deep water and mulch, and prefer chicken manure to steer if you’re buying commercial manure.”

In regards to the numerous sunlight deficient backyards and space conscious apartment dwellers in Santa Monica, Emily Green offered the advice for those with balconies.  “I would just build some planters and pots.   If your balcony isn’t sturdy I would do wooden planters versus terra cotta pots.”  “Also morning light is the most important,” recommended McGrath.  “Shade is hard in a lot of people’s backyards.  I would try some edible shade plants like some lettuces.”  “Particularly in the summer when we can’t grow it because it’s too hot,” chimed Green.  “But whatever you grow be wary of using plastic containers.  They hold in water and when they get hit by the sun they boil and the soil gets contaminated.”  “I’ve stopped using plastic pots.  I’ve tried the paper ones, but I’ve learned the terra cotta work better,” noted Kleiman. “Terra Cottas are a miracles

Yes at the root, people primarily start growing because philosophically it’s the right thing to do, but growing food should be pleasurable, for the element of freshness you can’t find at the supermarket.   “Salad in window boxes are amazing,” noted Green.  “Once you taste fresh salad, shaking the stuff from the bag stops working for you.” “It actually becomes a lazy way to get food,” slyly noted Kleiman.  “When I’m home after shopping for the restaurant all day, I don’t want or need to get back into my car.  I can go downstairs and take some arugula, a chili pepper, mint, and a Meyer lemon and create a dish.”  

Kat Thomas is a Santa Monica writer who grows chives, peppermint, rosemary, and just planted some jalapenos yesterday.  You can find out more about her at  

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