The change I’d like to see in my corner of the world is that more people grow a little of their own food. It doesn’t require a lot of space, many tools, much physical effort or time or money. A found pot, some dirt gathered off Palomar Mountain, and a couple cilantro seeds is how I started out.

Here I’ve gathered the five most useful things that I wish I had known when I started growing vegetables in Southern California. They have come to me through reading and observation, and trial and failure. Maybe they can save you some time, money, headache, and backache on your vegetable-growing adventure.

1. Maximum sun

I wish I had known that if a garden spot gets at least six hours of full, direct, unimpeded sunlight, then you can grow any vegetable well. Under six hours, and you will struggle with some crops no matter how expertly you care for them otherwise.

How did I learn this? For four years, I grew vegetables in a San Diego canyon that received spotty sun. For the last five years, however, I’ve been growing in a yard that gets eight hours of complete, open sun even on the shortest winter day. The leap in health and production among my vegetables was apparent from the first day of growing here.

What should you do about this? Plant your vegetables wherever you have the most abundant sunlight.  And don’t be hard on yourself about disappointing results with certain crops, such as large tomatoes or watermelons, if your best spot has less than six hours of full sun.

More on this topic: See my post, “Where to plant a vegetable garden.”

shady Brookes canyon garden

The shady canyon where I grew vegetables as best I could. Ouch! At least the mustard greens grew well.

2. Right timing

I wish I had known that you can’t plant any vegetable successfully at any time of year. Moreover, each vegetable has a different optimal planting window within which it will grow extremely easily.

How did I learn this? Over the years, I’ve fiddled with planting at different times and recorded dates and results.  

What should you do about this? Follow only the suggested sowing and planting dates of Southern California sources — not seed packets, and not general gardening books or websites.

More on this topic: See my post, “Which vegetables can I plant now in Southern California.” Also, see my post, “Oh, the mistakes I’ve made: Planting vegetables at the wrong time.”

Volunteer squash and tomatoes under orange tree

These are squash and tomato vines (mostly) that grew from seed voluntarily in the early spring under my orange tree. Vegetables know when the time is right to germinate and get growing.

3. Natural soil building

I wish I had known that the best soil can be built by consistently spreading compost or other organic mulch on its surface — that’s all. No need to dig it in, no need to buy and add emulsions of this, meals of that, fertilizer granules of what-what.

How did I learn this? I began gardening as a digger and a fertilizer. Bit by bit I adopted this simpler and more natural approach, and I now get as good or better results from my soil.

What should you do about this? Try it. You’ll never know until you try it.

More on this topic: See my post, “Fertile soil can be child’s play.” Also see my post, “Don’t dig in your garden.”

4. Watering by drip plus overhead

I wish I had known that drip irrigation is the best method for vegetables. It’s advantages are numerous. But it’s not perfect and needs to be supplemented by periodic overhead watering, which keeps some pests in check, in addition to giving plants more wet soil to drink and eat from.

How did I learn this? First, I sprinkled. Then, I dripped. Benefits included a 50% lower water usage, but the plants didn’t all do well until I began to occasionally spray the foliage and wet the soil surface.

What should you do about this? Learn to use drip irrigation on your vegetables, and then every couple weeks or so through the summer, spray or sprinkle.

More on this topic:  (See my post, “The best way to water a vegetable garden in Southern California.”)

compost and mulch on vegetable beds

Compost and wood chips under a tomato plant with a drip line running.

5. Weed intelligently

I wish I had known that a few intelligent practices can almost eliminate the chore of future weeding.

How did I learn this? I used to just plant vegetables and water, and pull weeds. Then I got to know how weeds grow. These days I spend relatively little time dealing with them.

What should you do about this? Highlights: First, dig in your garden as little as possible. Second, mulch the surface. Third, pull weeds when they’re small. For weeds that get big, cut them off at the base and leave the roots in the soil. If the tops have seeds, remove them from the garden.

More on this topic: See my post, “How to outsmart garden weeds.”

Don't pull a weed much bigger than this

Don’t pull a weed much bigger than this.

Of course there are a hundred other lessons to be learned along the way about growing vegetables in Southern California. These five have made the biggest difference to me. With them we can start to garden smart — not expensive or hard — and eat food grown at home that is fresh, clean, and tasty, as it is supposed to be.

You might like to read these other posts:

Should you grow vegetables from seeds or plants?

How long to run drip irrigation on vegetables

The art of transplanting a vegetable seedling

Why I still grow food at home

Growing onions in Southern California

Growing carrots in Southern California

Growing potatoes in Southern California

Gardening with kids

What’s the best time of day to water your plants?

The economics of homegrown broccoli

The best way to support tomato plants

Get your hands dirty: Discover the truth about your irrigation practices

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