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seeds being planted

The Black Thumb Chronicles

The Easy, Efficient Way to Grow Your Own Food

So, why is someone who has legitimately earned the descriptor of “black thumb” writing an article on gardening? After all, I was the one who almost choked her best friend by feeding her prickly weeds under the impression it was my home-grown Swiss chard, who decimated dozens of cactuses in terrariums (it take talent to kill a cactus, by the way), and personally raised the profits of neighborhood nurseries buying replacement plants for those I killed?

By heritage, I should have been a master gardener. I grew up in the Midwest where all you had to do was look at the ground, and a jungle of tomato plants spouted like Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors,” dotted with luscious, scarlet fruit. Of course, I did not appreciate the bounties of America’s breadbasket when I had them. My passions for growing my own food lay dormant until I moved to Arizona (hint: desert with no water) and California (hint: drought and rapidly becoming more arid by the minute). Now, THAT was a challenge. And, unfortunately, the predictions of global warming mean that most of the U.S. will continue to get warmer, challenging growers and gardeners to find some of the solutions I’ve discovered to grow edible plants and fruit.

So with these challenges, and a lack of genetic gardening talent, why bother? Well, growing your own food is very satisfying. It expands your palate because most of what you grow is savory, not sugary. It’s fresher, it has more vitamins and minerals, and it’s cheaper (most of the time) than what you buy in the store. And, it’s giving back to the Earth. Plants and trees create oxygen, they bring shade, they prevent erosion, and even when they die (natural or unnatural deaths), they create more soil.

And finally, it’s part of your safety net. In some countries, farm gardens produce the greater part of a nation’s produce. Like the Victory Gardens of At this stage, my garden is like my child – I watch every blossoming with delight. It’s sooooo gratifying – especially after so many failures.

So, based on these learnings, here’s what I found works for the amateur gardener who wants a practical, efficient way to grow more of their own food.

  1. Start with greens. Amazingly, I never realized that these are in effect perennials. You cut some leaves, they grow back. It’s not like harvesting broccoli or cauliflower or carrots, where you harvest the vegetable and that’s it. Greens keep giving, all year long. A 2 by 4 bed – which can be raised or portable, for bringing inside during the cold weather – will give you a daily source of fresh or cooked greens. Swiss chard (yes I now know what it looks like) and kale are the hardiest, I’ve found. Many lettuces can’t take heat but these two, plus some heat-resistant spinach, do well all year long. In summer, because we have 100 plus degree days, we cover it with a canopy. Greens are the most efficient, easy way to get fresh vegetables, with little effort, all year long.
  2. Next come tomatoes. We planted tomatoes in our little garden one year and in a month we had a tangy-smelling jungle. Unfortunately, the large tomatoes seemed to burst just as they got ripe enough to eat. So, we switched to cherry and Roma tomatoes and have a bumper crop each year. Our six plants gave us an average of a serving or two a day; our last harvest was at Thanksgiving. If your weather is colder, bring them in during the snowy months and they’ll keep producing for you.
  3. To save wear and tear on yourself, think perennial. These are vegetables that grow back year after year. We’ve had success with scarlet runner beans, asparagus, tomatillos, Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) and artichokes. We are still working on chayotes, a squash native to Central America that is more dense than the traditional summer squash and frankly, more flavorful. We have a dozen growing in pots right now that will be transplanted this spring.
  4. Turnips. These hardy vegetables, along with beets which we don’t plant because I don’t like them, give in two ways – the vegetable that grows below the ground, and the greens that grow above ground. Again, those greens just keep on giving.
  5. Moringa trees. Moringa trees grow in Africa and Southeast Asia and are sometimes called “drumstick trees” because of their shape. They are an amazing superfood, often used to bring children back from malnutrition due to their high vitamin and anti-oxidant content. The pods, seeds, leaves and roots are all edible. Currently I have a crop of seeds harvested from the pods of our two trees drying in our bonus room. The pods themselves can be harvested when young and used as a side dish, in soups and stews. Warning: these trees do not like frost and they are too big to grow indoors, unfortunately.
  6. Cactus. If your climate is hot and dry, these spiny plants are indestructible. Slice off a leaf, peel it and remove the stickers, cook it up and you have a prized dish in Mexican cuisine.
  7. Fruit trees. In our Southern California location, we get a bumper crop of lemon, oranges, grapefruit and pomegranates and are adding dragon fruit, loquats, tangerines, kumquats, persimmons and (fingers crossed) avocado. In our second home in Central California, we are cultivating peach, pear, apple, cherry and apricot, but again, hot and dry weather in the summer is challenging. Planting trees so that they get partial shade during the day is important. The beauty of trees, of course, is that once established, they just keep producing provided they are watered, fertilized, protected from birds (if needed), and protected from pests. Olive trees also grow well in our climate with very little maintenance.
  8. Squash and cucumbers. These and other “Mediteranean” vegetables do well here, but must be protected from critters and shaded during the heat of summer. This year we are putting in poles and strings to that the beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers can grow up the strings and stay off the ground – a technique we saw in France.
  9. Nuts. Two established walnut trees give us bushels of nuts each year, and pistachio and  almond trees are in the adolescent stage.
  10. Sprouts. This is of course an in-door crop, that anyone can grow with some seeds, containers and water. The sprouts provide a nutritious fresh green all year long, with minimum effort. (Can you say, “Rinse twice a day?”)

Of course there are TONS of other vegetables and fruits that can be home grown. Currently our garden has cabbage, bok choy, kohlrabi, onions, and parsnips (it is winter). In summer it’s peas, radishes, carrots and more beans. Our berries produce well into November, although not in great quantities. Perennial greens like King Henry and lovage are also on our wish list. Corn is surprising delicate – we have yet to have a success with it, in part due to mysterious invaders who are able to take an ear and gnaw it down to the core like a human. Beans also are surprisingly delicate, although fava beans did extraordinarily well last winter (be patient; they have the gestation period of an elephant). We consider  vegetables not on this list  as experiments rather than staples. In season, if they produce, we’ll enjoy them.

The vegetables on this list are the ones we found work for us with a reasonable amount of water and effort, and the greatest yield. They are our staples. We currently have an average of a serving of greens a day, an average of a fruit a day, and another serving of some kind depending on what’s in season. Imagine if EVERYONE could have a fresh salad a day, homegrown! What a benefit to our health, our economy, and our environment. And that’s just the beginning.

A word about water: stick a bucket each day into your shower to catch excess water. This amount will take care of your greens, your tomatoes, and a few trees and bushes.

If the gardener Santa had a wish, it would be that everyone grew at least one item they could eat. Think about it!

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