As a gardener I’m a great grocery shopper. I come from a long line of excellent gardeners, yet whether it’s my lack of absolute dedication or the ever-compacting clay soil in my little pocket garden, I have yet to attain the success of my mother or her mother in growing a sustainable harvest even just for myself.

My Nana had a victory garden of at least an acre in East Los Angeles during the Depression and going into the privation of World War II. My mom recalls her using fish bones from the fish monger to fertilize the soil and growing every vegetable you can imagine, as well as berries and tons of flowers. My mom inherited this talent. All the years she had a garden she was like a plant whisperer. They responded to her with magnificent offerings–Meyer lemon trees weighted down with golden fruit, basil plants bursting with clean wide anise-scented leaves, zucchini and tomatoes enough to make Italians weep with delight.

Me? I compost and compost and the soil still seizes up. I get white fly on my Meyer lemon trees that never quite goes away. And some little varmints are stealing my ripe harvest.

And yet. There I am year after year tending to this lovely little space, and despite my shortcomings and that of the soil, I usually get a small if regular crop.

All this is to say if I can do it, so can you.

This isn’t a gardening blog, but many personal chefs and home cooks love to grow their own food. I’m no different. There’s such joy in picking a cucumber or pepper or handful of tiny cherry tomatoes that I grew from seed or seedling. It makes cooking and eating them that much more satisfying. My year-round edible garden includes Mexican tarragon, Greek oregano, English thyme, garlic chives, Italian parsley, Meyer lemons, limes, Thai chilis, sorrel, and a basil bush that produces year round. Then there are the seasonal plantings. In late spring, I planted three types of cherry tomatoes, Japanese eggplant, zucchini, string beans, basil, more chiles, plus some strawberries. Some are in pots; some in the soil. All seem to be thriving so far.

So, given my tendency to growing failure, I thought I’d offer up some suggestions for what does work and, hopefully, give inspiration to the soil challenged.

Let’s start with my annual favorite: Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. I grow these in a large pot on the sun-drenched part of my patio. In the 16 years I’ve lived in my house I think I’ve only had one year of failure. This variety is easy to grow and you may find that the only reason you have nothing to bring into your kitchen is because you’ve munched on all the ripe ones while hand watering. They’re like eating candy. But if you do have enough ripe at one time to make a meal, halve them and serve with fresh ricotta and a drizzle of olive oil on toasted sourdough bread. Or toss with pasta and pesto. Or mix with watermelon chunks, feta, and basil leaves as a salad, drizzled with olive oil and thick balsamic vinegar.

Japanese eggplant: I’ve always grown this successfully in a pot but after working my garden soil decided to try planting it in the ground this summer. And, woo hoo, I’ve got gorgeous fruit coming in. I only have one plant so my harvest will be limited, but when the first little guy is ripe, it’ll probably be sliced lengthwise, pierced in a few places, then layered first with a thick coating of minced garlic and olive oil, followed by a layer of grated parmesan before heading under the broiler for a few minutes. Of course, you can also stir fry or grill these slender eggplants, or even pickle them.

String beans: This was an experiment last year and they did so well, I got another couple of plants this year and, as you can see, they’re popping out! These bush beans are pretty easy to manage and I love the sweet crunch they give when fully ready for picking. If I can keep from just snacking on them, I like to blanch them and include them in a summer salad with sliced radishes and cucumbers, tossed with a light vinaigrette.

Zucchini: This black zucchini variety–like almost any zucchini variety–has a mind of its own and its mind says “Be fruitful and multiply!” I can never decide whether to pick the gorgeous blossoms and stuff them or wait for the fruit. Currently I’m waiting for the first fruit to mature. Once I’ve had my fill, the blossoms will be snatched for stuffing with creamy cheeses before being dunked in a light beer batter and fried–or simply chopped and added to a quesadilla or omelet. I love having choices!

Peppers: No matter how bad things get in the garden, which includes stealing by varmints, peppers are my salvation. The local thieves don’t seem interested in them. I’ve had one Thai chili plant for years and it keeps popping out the hot stuff every summer. Last year I planted a Hungarian pepper plant that produced beautiful round fruit. I never pulled it and once again it’s heavy with green balls that will eventually turn a vibrant red. The same with my bell pepper plant in a big pot on the patio. It just keeps giving and giving so long as I water, feed, and weed it. I also have new serrano and jalapeño plants, both full of fruit, planted in the ground. It’s so cool to make a salsa and just go out the door with a little clipper to harvest what I need.

This morning I did one of my favorite garden chores–I fed the plants with fish emulsion, a byproduct of fish waste. This stinky source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium is fabulous for photosynthesis, flowering, and fruit development. And, with its potent odor, it’s the rare plant food that makes you feel like something’s happening from the moment it hits the soil. When I feed them fish emulsion I feel like I’ve really done something wonderful for all my little garden babies.

You don’t need me to share the plentiful variety of gardening resources out there, whether online or at the bookstore (although I will give a shout out to my high school friend Nan Sterman, who has a terrific KPBS show called A Growing Passion). All I can emphasize is that you should buy organic seeds or seedlings from reputable resources, use lots of compost to both amend your soil and protect it from the heat, and water as needed. I’ve gotten in the habit of keeping a pail in my shower to collect water since in California we’re still technically in a drought. That helps. So does composting. And to keep nasty bugs at bay, use natural pest control–whether it’s planting flowers that attract insects that will eat your critters or spraying with non-toxic, natural pesticides. Soon you’ll also start seeing bees and hummingbirds. That’s when you know you’ve created a magical little ecosystem.

What else? Oh, how about have fun!

Are you a gardener? What’s in your garden this summer?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

And if you are a member and have a special talent to share on this blog, let us know so we can feature you!

Be Sociable, Share!

Back when my Rhodesian Ridgeback Ketzel was a young dog there wasn’t much that she saw or sniffed that didn’t wind up in her mouth. On our way out of the dog park one late fall afternoon she suddenly started vomiting what looked like moth balls—something I have never had in my home. I rushed her to the emergency vet, described what I’d seen land on the ground, and wracked my brain trying to think of what she may have eaten. And then in my mind’s eye I saw it—my beautiful camellia bush that sits in a large pot in a corner on my patio. In November it was dripping with buds—white buds. Ketzel must have scarfed them down during the day before we went to the park. Sure enough, when we got home, I saw the bush had been stripped naked. Fortunately, research showed they weren’t toxic. But it was a pricey conclusion to a long afternoon.

Azaleas–a no no for pets. They’re now on the front porch where the dogs and cat can’t nibble on them.

Many of our members are pet owners and pet owners with gardens face a difficult balancing act. We want an outdoor space that reflects our aesthetic but we want it to be safe for our animals. Often we move in to a stunning mature landscape and bring in a dog or cat, only to discover that the colorful lilies or azaleas or foxgloves that make us smile when they’re blooming are also enticing to our pets—and horribly toxic, perhaps even deadly, when chewed on. Or the space is attacked by pests that we have to eradicate.

Most pet owners are aware of various lists of outdoor plants to avoid. “The ASPCA has a comprehensive list of toxic and non-toxic plants on its website, divided by dogs, cats, and horses,” noted David Ross, the senior manager of Walter Andersen Nursery’s Poway store in San Diego County. For dogs, this includes azaleas, bay laurels, clivia lily, and even geraniums, which can cause vomiting, anorexia, depression, and dermatitis.

But Anita Sly, a registered vet tech in San Diego, knows simply following a plant list is not a cut-and-dried solution. Over the years she’s found that many people don’t even understand the implications of toxicity. Sly pointed out that toxic may not always mean fatal, but it can lead to damage—including neurological damage or liver, heart, or kidney failure. And the source of toxicity can be confounding for a well-intentioned gardener.

“Some plants are entirely toxic but for others it may be the flower or the leaves,” she pointed out. “You also have to remember that some medications are derived from plants, like digitalis or poppies. You wouldn’t just eat medication but we make available in our garden the plants they come from. We also think in terms of a single plant type as being toxic, but not others in that species. So we wouldn’t have oleanders in our garden, but we don’t realize that thevetia peruviana and thevetia thevetioides are in that species and are also poisonous. And there are trees that can cause problems. Macadamia trees aren’t a problem themselves, but the nuts are toxic. So are the seeds that drop from sago palms.”

And, Ross pointed out, like people, any pet can have a bad reaction to a plant, even one that’s not on a toxic list.

“I had a client that had a lot of pencil cactus and the dog, chasing rabbits into the cactus, was having reactions in its eyes,” he recalled. “The client finally had to remove the cactus because they couldn’t stop the bunnies.”

Finally, there’s pest control. Sly said when it comes to insecticides you spray on plants you have to be very careful about reading labels. Pyrethrinis, she said is fine, but permethrins are toxic—more to cats than dogs. Her suggestion? Use diatomaceous earth or boric acid. If you’re dealing with rodents, don’t use loose pellets. They’re anticoagulents and your pet can bleed out if they ingest them.

So, what can you do? Paige Hailey of Urban Plantations, a San Diego landscaping company, suggests some preliminary steps. Spend time in your yard with your pet to see what they go for. What are their habits so you can make informed planting choices?

 

Also address your dog or cat’s specific issues, especially if they come to you as rescues. Trainer Alexandra Gant of Behave LLC in San Diego explained that when dogs are on their own on the streets, they learn to eat anything for survival and that starving can cause food anxiety that doesn’t automatically go away when they’re finally in a good home. So address the root of the problem. And for any dog, address issues like boredom, diet imbalance, and your own reactions.

“Owners, particularly with puppies, can turn plant eating or digging into a game by racing around and shouting at the dog,” she said. “Don’t reward bad behavior; instead be calm when you catch them, quietly take the plant away, and give them something in return, like a toy, that’s safe.”

These experts had additional tips:

  • Bring your mobile computer, i.e. cell phone, with you when shopping for plants and consult the ASPCA list to avoid bringing home anything dangerous. Consult the experts who work at nurseries. Review a proposed plant list with your landscaper and double check it against a toxic plant list.
  • If you want to keep pets away from a plant or tree that you just don’t want to take out, fence it or wall and groom the tree behind the fence. With palms that drop seeds, religiously rake them.
  • For dogs or cats who get into edibles like tomatoes or beans, build raised beds if you have the space. It creates an automatic barrier and also makes it easier to fence off the vegetables if necessary.
  • When fertilizing, keep your animals out of the yard for the rest of the afternoon to let the nutrients off gas and lose some of their deliciousness. Cultivate it well and cover with mulch to mask the smell.
  • If you have a dog who chews on dripline irrigation, enclose the area with chicken wire or deer fences.
  • Encourage cats to hang out in a separate space in the garden by planting catnip or cat grass as an attractant.
  • To keep snakes out of the yard, bury 1/2-inch mesh into the ground and a good foot and a half above the ground and secure it to the regular fence. Sly said you can also vaccinate dogs against rattlesnake venom, but it’s not a cure all.
  • Finally, if you have the space and have an incorrigible dog or you’re an incorrigible gardener, build a dog run that can be the dog’s safe space.

Do you have pets who spend time in the garden? What issues have you had to address?

Not an APPCA member? Now’s the perfect time to join! Go to personalchef.com to learn about all the benefits that come with membership.

And if you are a member and have a special talent to share on this blog, let us know so we can feature you!

Be Sociable, Share!