Victory For Beginners or Cultivate Your Dirt

Today there are beets and watermelon sprouting in the garden.  Basil has broken through in the nursery. The tomato and strawberry transplants look full of promise for future fruit.  And the radishes continue to grow ravishingly in the raised beds!  I am helping things grow!  But I get way ahead of myself…

Two years ago I killed three basil plants while in student housing.  We moved and to see what was growing we let our new small garden go to seed for the season…and the next and another one because I had no idea what I was doing.  Until a short time ago, I had not given gardening a second thought.  That there were trees around, flowers blooming and food growing was lost on me, or rather common place.  I like most people, had no real idea what food looked like in its natural state.  The dirt.  A little over a month ago, I took on the LA Victory Garden for Beginners.  And dirt was only the beginning.  Gardening like most things is about paying attention.  With some basic knowledge, a watchful eye and sense of adventure your green thumb will grow.  Let’s cover knowledge here!

Garden Basics

1. Garden anywhere and everywhere!  Any land can be dug up and dug into to aid in the growth of plants whether in the ground, raised beds, hanging pots or indoors.

2.  Before you do anything, get into your dirt.  This may mean a few hours of tearing it to pieces.  Clearing mine involved a machete, digging with gloved hands and hacking with a digging fork.  Testing it will let you know what the make up of your dirt is, this will determine  how much watering and care your plants need as well as when and what “mistakes” will be forgiven.  Testing can be done by sending off your dirt to a laboratory (or use local), which will tell you all kinds of wondrous chemical properties of your dirt.  Or, kick it old school by filling a mason jar or old applesauce jar 2/3 full of dirt dug from at least 9 inch deep.  Add water till within 1 inch of the top of the jar.  Screw lid on top and shake it like a polariod picture.  Set out in the sun.  Within 24 hours, everything will have settled into distinct layers showing you the exact composition of your dirt!  Organic matter at the top, next clay, silt and sand at the bottom.

3. No dirt is bad!  Once tested you will know exactly how to amend your dirt, adding whats missing to balance it out.  A good rule of thumb to amend any soil is a blend of 60% compost, 40% coir, 10% vermiculite/pearlite and trace organic materials such as coffee grounds.  For Venice natives, coffee grounds can be picked up free and in bulk at Groundworks Coffee.

5.  Los Angeles residents can also benefit from the cities composting service, most community gardens should provide for pick up of city produced compost.  The city also provides composting knowledge and workshops.  Pick up some free city compost, mix generously into your dirt and allow to rest and restore for 4 weeks before planting.  It can be hard to wait this long, but the soil looked more rich and chocolatey every day that went by.

6.  Speaking of composting.  It’s wonderful fun!  Full on composting is better suited to people with space, but vermicomposting, composting with worms is easy, small, clean, faster than regular composting and can be done indoors.   You will need red wiggler worms, these worms are best suited to composting and you can usually find a provider on craigslist in your area.  Bin should be raised with a pan underneath to collect compost tea. Keep bin out of direct sunlight and moisten only a little, think if you’d be comfortable then so will your worms.  Bury all your scraps of food and organic matter in potting soil and place along with worms inside bin.  Cover with lid.  Check on every time you add scarps. In about 10 weeks you will have rich compost, be sure to get the right amount of worms for your waste.  You can also build your own bin! Go Worms!

7.  When selecting seeds, go for heirlooms and look for seed providers that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge.  Many varieties of plants have been lost due to overselection tending towards the big, bright, long shelf life grocery store varieties.  Read the back of the seed packets, they are very helpful!  If in growing southern california bump the growing season on the back of the package forward one month, as we are blessed with a longer season and more leeway.  If you are sowing directly outdoors plant to the “thinning spacing” so you don’t need to move them once sprouted.  If planted in a 6 pack to be moved to the garden later, pack dirt in, place seedlings a top, sprinkle with more dirt, soak and label as shown or I am told you will never hold a garden job.

8.  Transplanting should be done in the afternoon, so plants have the night to recover.  When selecting transplants, select younger ones with bright white roots.  They are better prepared for the shock of transplant, old buggers (6+ inch) don’t like change.  Transfer by putting peace fingers around the stem, overturn into your hand and place in the ground.  Clip 1/3 of the leaves to encourage root production.  When transplanting your own, wait for the first true leaves.  The first leaves that appear will look nothing like the leaves of the plant and are the cotyledons.  The next set that grows will be true leaves.  Also the first root is called the Radical!

9.  You only need a few tools to get a lot done.  Gloves are a must.  A digging fork can be used for almost anything, tilling, lifting, digging, sowing.  A hand trowel for small work and a watering can with an upturned Rose (the spout!)  or a spray attachment for your hose.  Haws is the gold standard for watering cans.  Soft water like rainfall is important to not overwhelm plants as you water.

10.  Other Garden Essentials according to Master Gardener David King.  A chair from which to sit and watch, for the best growth enhancer for the garden is your shadow.  A water-spout, which is the best place to plant mint!  Mint is a sprawler, but by putting it under the water spout you trick it into staying put.  It is also a most marvelous fresh scent to inhale every time watering must be done.

Now armed with these 10 tips, here is where your spirit of adventure comes in.  Some things will fail.  (My chocolate mint and rosemary cuttings look less than healthy.)   But it is important to remember that all things tend towards life, and YOU are the best suited to guide them along.  To give the beautiful chaos a little loving structure.  The best gardening tip I learned in the class was to develop the gardening habit.  Wake up, make a cup of coffee, walk outside and look at the earth.  Breath in, pay attention, get dirty.  The reward?

That simple cut into a beet says it all for me.  With the vegetables slowly sprouting in my FIRST GARDEN I know it is definitely spring in a way I have never known before.  Life is beginning!  Days take on more significance as I run outside at 7:30AM into the sunlight to spy close at the earth for new growth and change.  Even with more exposure, I am in wonder every time something grows a little…it can all look so alien and so incredibly familiar at the same time. I can’t wait till a few months down the road when the majority of what we grow makes it into the kitchen!

LA Victory Garden Initiative is aimed at helping new gardeners start and grow their own gardens.  It is led by Master Gardeners and is part of the University of California Cooperative Extension.  Intermediate Gardening begins soon.  A profound thank you to Master Gardener David King and the Garden Nerd.

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