Dining Out: Raising A Winter Garden

It used to be that the two veggies boxes we ordered were about right for our household of approximately three people (me, Joy, her two kids half of the time). But lately we’ve been drowning in vegetables. They’re filling the fridge, spilling out over the counters and into the “European refrigerator” (our unheated garage). Planning on how to use them—and then executing these plans into endless salads, soups and stir-fries—consumed us. It got to be so much that we cancelled one of the weekly boxes.

What changed? Our garden finally kicked into gear, and it won’t stop.

Now if you’re looking for a gardening expert to tell you exactly what to do, that’s not what you’ll find in this particular column. Instead, this is more of a “Ratatouille” pep talk—as in, anyone can grow their own food.

Our garden (part of which is shown in this photo) would never be featured in a publication that cared about aesthetics. The rows aren’t that neat, the weeds are rarely pulled. The less productive areas have been neglected, while the plants that do produce are harvested in a haphazard manner whenever we want or need something.

Which is precisely the beauty of it: we pick something when we need it, and otherwise get on with our busy lives. Lately it’s been lettuce and arugula. We were getting lots of this stuff from our boxes earlier in the fall, but it’s fallen off. Every couple of days I just go out and pick what we need, using scissors to neatly cut away as many leaves as we need without killing the actual plant (this is actually pretty quick). The garden has kept us in salads and, as strange as it sounds, we also like to put some lettuce in fruit smoothies. It’s been particularly nice to have a dozen arugula plants going. This slightly bitter green somehow became an issue in the 2008 presidential election—some argued that Barack Obama was too liberal for America because he liked it. Uh, try it—it’s really good, so flavorful that you hardly need to season it. You can have it raw in a salad or cook it.

Before that it was greens—mainly mustard greens and Chinese cabbage. These things have grown like crazy, exploding past all efforts to control them. They’ll go with just about anything. Lately we’ve been fond of cooking them up with turmeric and curry powder. I’ve had less success with broccolinni (it bolted immediately, growing tall and tough probably due to not enough sun), kale (the slugs love it, and we’re trying to stay organic), and carrots (lots of carrot greens above the ground, very little carrot below it). We’ve also got rosemary and mint growing, and a few other types of greens that seem to be taking off.

I wish I could tell you I get most of this from seed, but really, our most successful plants were seedlings bought from Capitol Nursery on Freeport. Lately, some of the things I planted from seed have taken off as well—notably some kale and more mustard green. If you measure the $50 I invested in supplies and seedlings, then compare it to the value you get in a $20 CSA box, we’re coming out way ahead.

Of course, at the beginning there were a few hours of work that went into clearing out the space and planting the thing. Then I put in a soaker hose, snaked around the garden and staked to the ground. After that I put down some wood chips to provide ground cover/weed control between plants. I did the heavy lifting, but everyone pitched in for a little while one afternoon.

We were also looking for something to do with all the good dirt we get out of our compost pit. All the considerable amount of veggie scraps our garden generates—plus the immense amount of coffee grounds I personally generate— go into a bin and then out into a pit in the yard. Twice a year, after heavy processing by our local volunteer popular of fat red earthworms, this rich mix goes into the garden. We were already working with rich Sacramento River soil to begin with, so there’s no need for artificial fertilizers.

This was actually my second attempt at a garden in this spot. I planted our first too late last spring, then got a few zucchini and tomatoes out of it before it was scorched in last summer’s heat wave. That’s not a problem this winter—and I’ve almost never had to water, because of all the rain we’ve had. Each round of gardening seems to get easier. And of course, I like to exercise anyway—something a few hours with a shovel provides in spades. And these days, I spent almost no time on the garden, except when it’s time to pick something for dinner.

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