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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March is citrus month. Almost every kind of citrus tastes good in March in Southern California. While some are still ripe, others are already starting to taste sweet. What I mean is, some are wrapping up their seasons now, like navel oranges and blood oranges and Kishu mandarins, while others are in the early part of their seasons, like Valencia oranges and Gold Nugget mandarins.
Here is what we should all do: Go to a farmers market and taste every different kind of local citrus available. Do any knock your socks off? If you can get the variety name from the farmer, then go and buy a tree of that variety from a local nursery.
I did something similar a few years ago with a tour of the Citrus Variety Collection at U.C. Riverside, after which I planted a Cara Cara navel orange, Satsuma, Kishu, Gold Nugget, and Pixie mandarins. By the way, do you have children or grandchildren? You’ve got to give them the gift of a Kishu mandarin, which in my opinion is the best fruit tree for kids.
About vegetables, March is a month of transition. We can still plant some vegetables that like to grow in cool weather (think lettuce), but we can also start planting some vegetables that like to grow in warm weather (think corn).
To be specific about it, plant lettuce and its ilk as soon as possible, but be in no rush to plant corn and friends. I have found success sowing or planting those warm guys only toward the end of March.
With all of those ideas in mind, in March we can:
– Sow or plant some cool-season vegetables: beets, carrots, greens, lettuce, green onions, peas, potatoes
– Sow or plant some warm-season vegetables: tomatoes, squash, corn, beans (some beans, but not all)
– Not sow or plant: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage; sorry, it’s too late to get good production out of those
– Eat (had you planted them): asparagus, peas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, beets, lettuce, parsley, cilantro, spinach, celery, greens, strawberries
– Eat (if you have the trees): avocados (Hass, Fuerte, Pinkerton); citrus (almost all kinds)
– Collect or redirect any rain we get so it sinks into your yard near your plants and isn’t lost into the street
– Change irrigation on fruit trees as necessary (e.g. from drip lines to mini-sprinklers); do it now before the trees start depending on irrigation because the current mild weather and thoroughly moist soil from winter rains allow the tree roots to most easily adjust to new patterns of soil moisture
– Put in plants that are native to your neighborhood, especially in parts of your yard that are difficult to irrigate; I put wild lilac (Ceanothus) and monkey flowers (Diplacus) in a couple of Marches ago, watered them by hand a couple of times their first summer and haven’t watered them since, and they’re beautiful and blooming right now
– Observe your deciduous fruit trees as they bloom and leaf out; notice if they flower mostly on short branches (apples, cherries, apricots) or on long branches (peaches, nectarines), for this can guide your pruning next year — or now, because it’s never too late to prune
– Plant avocado trees, and prune them if necessary; you can grow your own avocados in a surprisingly small yard space
– Avoid spraying anything on citrus trees if the new leaves get damaged by leafminers
– Plant more citrus, of course!
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.
It’s now a good time to start planting new avocado trees, as the danger of any serious arctic air blowing down our way has passed. I just planted the one in the photo above, on February 10, 2017. It’s a Hass from a five-gallon container. How long can I expect to wait for an avocado tree like this to bear fruit? Three to four years. That’s in the year 2020 or 2021.
I get such an expectation from the fact that the last Hass tree I planted was in July 2013, and we are currently eating its first fruit here in 2017. So, four years of waiting and we now have 73 Hass avocados on that tree.
But I planted some other avocado trees in July 2013 as well, and we ate the first fruit from two of them last year. That’s three years from planting to eating the first fruit — although we did only get from them a combined 15 avocados. This year, they have a more respectable 63. Here they are, the early birds, the Reed and Lamb:
Four-year old Reed and Lamb trees today with their second crops of 35 and 28 avocados, respectively.
My trees seem to be average. A couple of people with much more avocado experience than me, Mary Lu Arpaia and Ben Faber, also say that new trees start to bear fruit in three or four years. (This linked page contains a great list of other frequently asked questions about avocados, by the way.)
While trees typically bear in three to four years, you may get fruit earlier or later for a few reasons. On one hand, if you buy a bigger tree — 15-gallon size — you’re likely to get fruit earlier. That’s because the bigger tree will produce more flowers (and therefore potential fruit). Also, if you have an excellent environment for pollination, with many other avocado trees around and many pollinators like honeybees visiting the flowers, you’re likely to get fruit earlier. Avocado trees of the five-gallon size will often set fruit at nurseries each spring for this reason.
On the other hand, your tree might take longer than four years to give you fruit if you prune it hard or if a winter freeze kills many branches or if it is otherwise damaged — for example, by poor irrigation. In July 2013, I also planted a Sir-Prize avocado tree, but the Sir-Prize has yet to give us fruit and I’m pretty sure it’s because I’ve pruned it hard the last couple years in order to shape it. Every spring it has flowered lightly, but only next year will it have the large canopy size to flower heavily and, hopefully, set its first crop.
Another reason an avocado tree might take more than four years to bear fruit is if it is grown from seed and not grafted. In general, seedlings take longer to bear fruit than grafted trees. A seedling in my mom’s backyard took about six years before it produced fruit.
Does waiting the typical three to four years for an avocado tree to bear fruit seem like a short or long time to you? It seemed like forever when I planted those trees back in 2013. But forever has arrived, and it tastes amazing. As it has been said, “Patience is bitter but its fruit is sweet.”
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