The following is an excerpt from my article in the Spring / Summer 2010 issue of Delish magazine. Delish is a free-to-the-reader online publication for women with an cutting edge format. It is not just a website or blog, it is an online magazine that allows you to flip page by page just as you would a hard copy. The writers and editors live all over the world and in many cases were brought together by the internet. While I’ve never met any of the lovely ladies, I so much enjoyed working with them for this first issue that I wrote two more for the upcoming fall issue. To look through Delish, click on the thumbnail:
Finding Your Inner Farmer: A Guide To Getting Your Own Green Thumb
I adore beautiful plants. My garden is chock-full of them, looking like little gems, all gleaming aubergine and cherry and tangerine at different times of the year. So when I happened by a photo of a beautiful backyard potager boasting ornamental vegetables, fruit trees and herbs all intermixed with gorgeous dahlia blooms, coneflowers and wisteria vines, it was love at first sight. My image of an ordered country vegetable plot tended to by an overall-clad farmer was immediately replaced by one of a chic urbanite showing off her bounty of freshly-picked produce.
With a little research (browsing through local garden centres and seed catalogs), I quickly realized that rainbow chard and beetroot don’t only look good together on the dinner plate. I dug up the perennial beds surrounding my back patio and replaced half of the showy blooms with gorgeous veggie plants like Dragon Tongue beans and Pizza My Heart peppers. That summer, the patio looked just as beautiful as the previous year, required no extra tending to, and as a bonus, gave me a gourmet produce section right in my backyard.
It’s been a few years now since edibles have joined my small urban garden. The whole things is incredibly addicting. While the garden is still filled with flowers and ornamental trees, I’ve found it’s more rewarding to plant a trellis with Purple Peacock pole beans than a flowing vine. Hanging baskets overflow with Tumbling Tom tomatoes and yellow alpine strawberry plants can be seen in many a nook and cranny. I take great pleasure when a neighbour asks, “Is that a cabbage?” with both awe and delight at the interesting, leafy, red globe nestled in the front border of a garden that still looks unabashedly ornamental.
Whether you have a small balcony or a sprawling acreage, you too can tap into your inner farmer without a dedicated vegetable bed. Here are a few projects to get you going:
Don’t be blue if your only outdoor space is a balcony, patio or small deck; it’s the perfect spot to grow your own salad bowl. If you have a spot with eight hours or more a day of sun in the summertime, fill plastic planters (or a large salad bowls) with cherry tomato, basil, parsley, lettuce and pepper plants and keep them well watered during the summer heat. If you get a bit less sun, leafy lettuce and spinach plants will do just fine. They love a little shade as their large leaves soak up the sun very efficiently. In fact, too much sun will make them want to bolt (rapidly set flower) in the heat of summer.
If you live in the city and use every square inch of your garden for flowers, entertaining, and outdoor living, then why not plant blueberry bushes instead of boxwood, or tuck your vegetables right into the flower beds? Radicchio and red cabbage look lovely nestled in a front border. Or try inter-planting onions, leeks, chives and garlic between the blooms. You’ll find that flowering chives’ purple pom poms are right at home in any flower garden—and as a bonus they ward away some of the pests hoping to snack on your treasured ornamentals.
Have a large space but want to ease into edible gardening? Plant a living fruit fence. Many fruit trees can be grown as espaliers, in which the branches are trained into a single-plane pattern along a fence creating beautiful garden dividers that make harvesting easy as pie. Pick out fruit trees that grow well in your area, choosing espaliers if you can find them, or dwarf varieties of your favourite apple, pear, olive or fig (and make sure to buy fruit trees in pairs to ensure proper pollination). Plant each tree at least two feet apart on the sunny side of a fence and prune the tree so that the branches remaining are two-dimensional, reaching left and right. Secure the branches to the fence and water well the first season until established. Yearly pruning will keep your living fence beautiful and productive for many years to come.
What to Grow
The vegetables that I grow are well suited for my Zone 8 garden in Vancouver, Canada. After many successes and failures, I’ve learned to work with the environment, rather than against it. Cold crops in California or heat lovers on the North Coast are just not going to produce fruits for your labor. Save the frustration and follow these tips on how to choose the best edibles to grow wherever you live.
First, pick vegetables, fruits, or herbs that work specifically in your climate. Check local seed companies and garden centers and ask what will grow successfully in your area. Or take a walk around your neighborhood on a sunny Saturday and ask local gardeners for advice. I have yet to meet a gardener who wouldn’t happily answer every one of my questions if I just walked up and asked. Heck, I usually get a full garden tour and a handful of fresh blueberries to take home with me, along with my wealth of information.
Next, pick what you love but can’t readily buy at your grocery store or farmers market, like Cheddar cauliflower, Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherries, or Filius Blue hot peppers. Kids will revel in broccoli if it is purple and it’s a joy to pull a carrot if you don’t know if it will be red, purple, orange, or white!
Finally, be mindful of your gardening conditions when picking your seeds or starter plants. If you have full hot sun with little rainfall, pick drought-tolerant and heat-loving varieties of peppers, eggplants, tomatoes and fennel. If you have some shade in the afternoon you’ll be primed for a summer lettuce and herb bed. If you only have a balcony or small deck, pick up dwarf cultivars or varietals marked especially for good production in containers. You may find these will actually do better in containers, as is the case with Fairy Tale eggplants, who so love having their roots kept warm in a pot that they’ll thank you with an abundance of the best pink and green striped eggplant you’ve ever tasted.
Reaping the Rewards
There is no question that growing your own groceries is good for you. Getting your hands in the dirt, making delish food from a tiny seed and harvesting nutrient-rich produce in your own backyard is healthy for body and soul. Gardening with kids helps the new generation learn where food truly comes from and gets them excited to gobble up every strawberry in sight. Even the finicky eaters can be coaxed into eating their greens when they take part in the planting, watering and harvesting of beans or peas right off the vine. For me, the joy is in the beauty that welcomes you home after a long day, the pop of a cherry tomato fresh off the vine, and the endless reward of dinner made truly from scratch.