A decade ago, at the end of June 2013, my pregnant wife and I began moving into our house. We bought this place in Ramona using every penny we had. It seemed to offer almost everything we wanted: plenty of indoor space for us to fill with a family; and an acre of sandy loam dirt for me to grow our food.
Importantly, it had sun. We were moving from a canyon near the San Diego Zoo, where my plantings were under an umbrella of tall ficus, palm, and eucalyptus trees. It was comfortable living, but the shade was so limiting for my plants that one year, in order to access more sunlight, I grew all of our vegetables in pots on our roof.
What have I planted and what have I learned in this yard over the last ten years?
That area shown in the photo above is our front yard where I’ve planted most of our vegetables. Here it is today:
The sun baked that bare dirt during our first few summers until I formed vegetable beds and captured some of its energy with plants.
I decided from the first day that I would only use compost, plus wood chips and some manures, in order to keep the soil fertile. Here is my first potato planting in the new yard in September of 2013:
Has only compost worked? In general, yes. My yields have been as good as those in any other vegetable gardens that I’ve visited, except for some summer crops that have been damaged by root knot nematodes (but I believe that’s a separate issue).
Only five avocados?
In the first week after moving in during July 2013, I planted my most beloved trees. Five avocado varieties I chose: Hass, Reed, Lamb, Fuerte, and Sir-Prize. I calculated that they would be enough to satisfy our avocado needs throughout the year no matter how many kids we added.
Here is what a few of those trees looked like at planting, and then today:
In 2015, I added a Sharwil because I wanted to plant a tree to mark the birth of our second child. In 2016, I added a Pinkerton because, well, I don’t remember. I do know that I planted my Gwen in 2017 to mark the birth of our third child, but my memory of the other twenty or thirty avocado trees I’ve planted since is blurry. I really like avocados, okay? Maybe I need to try them all. Just get off my back!
What I’ve realized with the avocados and elsewhere in this yard is that I’m never done.
There are three spots in this yard that have killed multiple trees, but one spot is the deadliest. I’ve planted a Granny Smith apple, a Sharwil avocado, and a Flavor Grenade pluot in this location. All of them have grown poorly for a year or two and then dried up.
It took seven years for me to recognize that it was due to the location and not the trees or my care. The soil looks fine, is not shallow, but cannot grow anything except weeds and tough annual flowers like borage.
Was something spilled here, something like motor oil? Neighbors have told me that the previous owners buried at least one engine somewhere in the yard. Or was it drenched in herbicide? I found a few old containers of Roundup and Kleenup in the garage when we moved in.
Do you have any dead spots in your yard?
Going with what thrives
The climate of Southern California between the ocean and the mountains is similar enough such that vegetable planting times are mostly the same and mostly the same types of fruit trees can be grown. We can all plant broccoli in September. We can all grow citrus. We can all grow bananas.
But bananas don’t thrive in this Ramona yard. It is a little too hot and dry in the summer and a little too cold in the winter.
In our previous yard close to the ocean, we never once saw frost on the ground. Coffee plants even grew well there. Here in Ramona I’ve killed dozens of coffee plants. Not only did they find the winter too cold, but the plants sometimes died during summer from the intensity of the sun.
But some plants love the extra hot and dry, and the extra cold. Grapes absolutely love this yard. I’ve discovered that it is ridiculously easy to grow grapes here, and pomegranates, and pluots.
I have planted more grapes, more pomegranates, and more pluots because they taste great, and watching them grow so well makes me feel successful even if the success is really due to my yard’s climate and soil — not to anything I have contributed.
I did not expect blueberries to thrive here, but they do. This took a few years of adding sulfur pellets in order to lower the soil’s pH, but today my bushes are taller than my kids and produce more berries than they can eat. This has been a very pleasant surprise.
Moreover, these blueberries are in full sun and do not get fried in summer like the coffee plants.
Evolving needs and goals
Ten years ago, it was just me and my wife. Now we have three kids, and they are eating more every day.
My goal in the beginning was to grow about 80 percent of our fruits and vegetables, which I do accomplish these days. It has been easier to grow the fruits compared to the vegetables. Vegetables require much more work and planning than fruit trees, in my experience. With fruit trees, less effort is required other than patience.
For the last handful of years we have had chickens so I can provide the family with eggs. Chickens have been a great addition to the yard, and it’s likely that we’ll only add more in the future.
I don’t know what else we’ll add in the next ten years, but I do know that having lots of sunlight makes for lots of opportunity.
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