It’s nearly spring, the time of year when many people think of planting a vegetable garden. If this will be your first one, or if you’ve moved into a new house, or if your past vegetable gardens struggled, here are what I consider the two most important factors related to where to plant.
In the sun
The top concern is, by far, sunlight. The more, the better.
Vegetable plants are photosynthesizing machines. Photo means sunlight. Plants literally eat sunlight. Without enough of it, they’re slow, they’re weak, they’re starving, and they can’t produce leaves or fruit for you.
I once lived in a house near Balboa Park in San Diego, nestled in a canyon that was filled with eucalyptus and ficus trees. It was the most pleasant environment; the tree canopy moderated even the hottest days of summer. For my vegetables though, it was torture. They were constantly munched by bugs as they stretched toward the dappled light. During one summer, I got so desperate to give my plants what they wanted that I lugged multiple pots onto my roof and grew a garden up there.
I now live just outside San Diego in Ramona, a place nicknamed “Valley of the Sun”, where commercial solar farms find it profitable to operate. My vegetables grow like lightning. And I feel like a pro. Well, not quite a pro, but I do feel much better about my gardening skills even as I know it has more to do with the sunny location as with anything else.
If a location gets full, direct, 100% sun for half of each day, that’s sufficient. That’s about six hours of full sun that vegetables need at a minimum. Anything less is going to engender less than great results.
Remember, too, that the sun’s angle changes throughout the year such that a spot in full sun in summer might be in full shade in winter because of a building or tree or wall to its south. If you want to grow vegetables like cabbage or garlic that need to grow through the winter in Southern California, then keep this in mind.
What might it take for you to find this half day’s sun in your yard? It might take removing a section of your lawn, as my mom recently did in order to locate her vegetables in more sun. The vegetables are showing their appreciation. Ask yourself if you really need every square foot of your lawn, and be encouraged by knowing that a vegetable garden requires less water than a lawn.
To locate your vegetable garden in the most sun it might also take an adjustment of your sensibilities. You might need to place your vegetable garden in the front yard instead of the back. My current vegetable garden is in my front yard (as seen in the photo above). I planted it there because that’s where the sun is. At first, it felt strange to grow my vegetables in the front yard, but I’ve found that my neighbors particularly enjoy it. As they walk by with their dogs they ask what I’m growing these days, and I have opportunities to share with them whatever is harvestable at the moment.
In your face
The other most important factor in locating a successful vegetable garden is planting it where you’ll run into it, every day, unintentionally. It ought to be in your face, in a place where you look and walk often already as part of your daily routines, not in a remote corner of the yard that is out of sight and that you’ll have to remember to visit.
Even though my vegetable garden is in my front yard and mostly in my face, I continue to find that the beds closest to our front door and in view of our living room window look the best. They have very few weeds, they are always fully planted, and they are always well-watered. Then there are the beds down by the road. They have more weeds, are spottier in their plantings, and if I sow seeds down there I sometimes forget to keep them moist until germination.
Out of sight, out of mind. It’s just the way we humans operate.
A vegetable garden that is in your face also gets harvested more often, key for something like peas which go from slim to plump and pickable in a single day. Yesterday, we ate our daily dose on the porch.
For you and your vegetable garden, a place in your face might mean planting right outside a window that you sit by as you work in your home office or a window that you look out as you wash dishes after every meal. Or it might mean that the vegetable garden is right outside your back door because that’s the door you use every day to access your car to get to and from work. The idea is that you bring your vegetable garden into the path of your routines, if at all possible.
Sure, there are other things to think about when it comes to locating a vegetable garden, such as proximity to a water faucet or being protected from your pet dog. But those other qualities can be altered. You can lay pipe and install a water source, and you can erect a fence to keep your dog out of the garden. The sunlight a location receives, however, is nearly impossible to change. And your routines are your routines — what’s harder to change than those?
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I love hummus, so when I saw a garbanzo bean plant at the nursery last April I bought it. Rookie mistake. Just because you see a plant at the nursery doesn’t mean that now is a good time to buy and plant it.
Different vegetable plants prefer to grow in different seasons, of course. And contrary to the beliefs of people who don’t live here, we do have seasons in Southern California. Sow cauliflower in May and see how well it does.
But it had been a fine spring day, and I had been infected with the fever of that warming season. (Here in March it is that warming season again — beware!) Forgetting to consider when garbanzo bean plants like to grow in Southern California, I bought it and put it in the ground among my other vegetables. Soon it formed bean pods. Excited, I squeezed a pod, but it dented. It was empty. All of the other pods were hollow too. Then in the heat of summer, the plant started to brown and eventually, it died. I forgot about it.
Then a couple months ago I heard someone mention that farmers in California’s Central Valley grow garbanzo beans as a winter crop. Duh, Greg. Beans are not beans. Some grow in summer, like black beans or pinto or green beans, but some grow in winter here, like fava beans. I should have done my homework. Once I did, I learned that actually some other farmers do grow garbanzos in the summer, but this is in places like Morro Bay, where summers are cool and foggy — in other words, where summers are like our winters.
Oh well. Lesson learned, again.
We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for making this timing mistake, right? I forgive myself for forgetting that lesson primarily because of the way grocery stores are stocked. Judging by the appearance of grocery store shelves, there are no seasons. How should I know when garbanzo beans are grown in my area? I only see them in cans, 365 days a year. And how should I know when cauliflower is grown in my area? It’s fresh on the shelves 365 days a year.
Grocery store shelves may carry all fruits and vegetables all of the time, but your garden won’t. Unless it’s warm like summer, tomatoes won’t ripen. Unless it’s cool like winter, broccoli will shoot for the sky and become a yellow mass of flowers that is candy for the bees before you can say, Wait, please!
We usually eat the immature broccoli flowers, but bees are grateful when we let some grow up.
Wait . . . sometime in January, I noticed little plants popping up that weren’t my usual weeds. As they grew, I began to recognize their leaves as those of garbanzo plants. How did that happen? All of the pods had been hollow. The plant had died. Who knows? Nature has forgiven me, too.
That photo at the very top shows foliage of one of the garbanzo bean plants now, pretty happy among spinach and winter grass weeds, growing in their season of cool. If the pods are not hollow this time, I have a dream: I’m going to use the beans to make hummus mixed with avocado and spread it on sourdough toast.
. . .
From now on, let’s grow our vegetables at the right time the first time. When to plant what? Consult these resources:
The best online resource I know of is Vince Lazaneo’s Vegetable Garden Planting Guide. (You may want to see my note here about determining whether you live in the “coastal” or “inland” zone.)
The best offline resource I know of is Sunset’s Western Garden Book.
You might also like to have a look at my “Month by Month” posts where I list vegetables to sow and plant each month in Southern California.
My dream of making hummus has been dashed by my sons, who discovered how good garbanzos taste fresh off the plant. At least the pods weren’t hollow.
You have eaten a part of this plant a million times, and you’ve almost certainly grown it in your vegetable garden, but you may have never let it live long enough to blossom. Poof.
I’ll post the answer in the comments section in a couple days.
Even though I refer to my notes from past seasons for precise planting times, for a glance at which vegetables I can plant at any given time I always go to Vince Lazaneo’s “Vegetable Planting Guide.” Vince is a retired farm advisor for San Diego County with the University of California Cooperative Extension and he supervised my Master Gardener training class. He has been growing vegetables in Southern California for longer than I’ve been alive. His guide is to the point at only four pages, but below is the most important page in case you’re in a rush.
Are you “coastal” or “inland”? Consider yourself coastal if you are less than two miles from the ocean. Consider yourself inland if you are more than two miles from the ocean. If you are right around two miles from the beach, maybe in Oceanside or Costa Mesa or Torrance, then think about your elevation: if it’s over 200 feet, then consider yourself inland.
I try to grow some of our fall decorations each year, and this year, instead of squash, I focused on colorful corn. Doesn’t get much more vibrant than Glass Gem.
A variety from Oklahoma that has a hopeful history, it is available from Baker Creek for about $5 a packet, which sowed a 10′ x 10′ block for me. I grew it with squash underneath and beans climbing the stalks, in a “Three Sisters” configuration.
The only mistake I made in growing this crop was planting it too late such that the ears weren’t dried and in full color until early November. I sowed on July 8. Next time I’ll sow in June so we can enjoy Glass Gem’s beauty from October onward.
When the ears are finished with their decorative work in the next few weeks I’ll feed some of them to the chickens. I’ve already been feeding ears that were badly damaged by earworms to the chickens, and they get so excited for the kernels, although I doubt it has anything to do with being impressed by the colors.
Here’s what I do: Buy a sweet potato at the grocery store, dig a shallow hole somewhere in the yard, and bury the tuber. Then I forget about it. I don’t even remember exactly where I buried it. It doesn’t matter. In the spring it will send up a bunch of little vines and I’ll say, Oh yeah, I buried a sweet potato there.
The other day I bought the sweet potato in the photo above and buried it at the edge of the canopy of my orange tree. I also buried a purple sweet potato near there that I had grown last year so I can grow more next year.
Cass enjoys digging up purple sweet potatoes while wearing my gloves.
What I’ll do next spring is use the little vines that the sweet potatoes shoot up in order to grow additional sweet potato plants through the summer. It’s ridiculously easy. Essentially, you clip off a section of vine about as long as your forearm and stick it in the ground. (Here’s a short video showing how to plant sweet potato “slips.”) Give them water through the summer. Come fall — voila! — you’ll be digging up sweet potatoes that look like the one you buried last fall (now).
So if you want to grow some sweet potatoes next summer, pick up a tuber next time you’re at the grocery store and bury it.