Ornamental shrubs, trees, lawns, and countless unknown plants fill most landscapes. These plants provide shade, beauty, and erosion protection, but you can't eat them.
As older plants are replaced, or new areas are developed, consider adding edible plants to the landscape. Often more flavorful than grocery store produce, homegrown edibles come in all shapes and sizes, making it easy to match any landscape design. Gardens are not limited to traditional rows of tilled soil. Even if all you have is a balcony or a sunny window, you can grow edible plants!
What do these plants need?
Nutrient rich soil, adequate water, and 6-8 hours of direct sunlight are all that's needed by most plants. Our soil tends to be heavy clay, which holds more water than other soil types, but it can be a tough barrier for young roots. Adding compost and mulching your soil will make it more hospitable and productive. If you have shady areas, mint, blackberries, chives, spinach and parsley can be planted. Before planting, be sure to read and follow the directions for specific planting depth, sun and water needs, and spacing. Mature plant sizes should be kept in mind, too. Some of those tiny seeds turn in to really big plants!
Creative Planting 101: Towers, Containers & Raised Beds
Many edible plants can be grown in containers, towers, or repurposed pallets. While there are many vertical or container gardens for sale, a little creativity can go a long way to adding edibles to a landscape without spending a lot of money. Leaky buckets, broken down wheelbarrows, plastic coffee tubs, even old boots can be used as planting containers! Just make sure there is good drainage.
Raised beds are easy to make and they have the added benefit of being easier to weed and work than traditional garden beds. They also allow the soil to get and stay warm sooner, extending the growing season.
The Stuff of Salads
Lettuce, spinach, radishes, arugula, onions, garlic, fennel, cucumber, tomatoes and peppers can be added to most landscapes. Alternating green Romaine and red leaf lettuces make a lovely border. Repeat planting can provide many months of edible landscape. Cucumbers, squash and melons can be trained up a fence or trellis, providing beautiful greenery and blooms, plus a surprising bounty of food.
Herbs are very easy to grow and most of them require little to no care once they are established. Tender basil is an exception, but its favor more than makes up for the effort. Thyme, lavender, lemon balm, chives, lemon grass, parsley, cilantro, and sage all grow well from seed. Most of these plants are perennial, which means they will last for many years. Instead of traditional house plants, mint and oregano drape beautifully from a hanging planter and they add flavor to many favorite foods. They can be paired with a more upright plant, such as chives, to make the most of the space and provide twice as much food.
Fruits & Nuts
Fruit and nut trees, bramble fruits, and vines add value to property and they produce delicious edibles each year. Dwarf fruit trees can be grown on balconies, in containers. Bramble fruits, such as raspberry or blackberry, can be grown along a fence, providing extra protection along with luscious fruit. Instead of an ornamental trumpet vine over your pergola, why not plant grapes? Just picture those sweet clusters hanging above your head, only an arm's reach away.
You can learn more about edible gardening from your local UC Master Gardeners. Check out the Vegetable Planting Chart for Santa Clara County. Free talks are regularly offered to the public. For more information, check our events page. For gardening questions, ask online or call 408-282-3105 between 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
This article first appeared in the May 13, 2016 issue of the Morgan Hill Times.
Get ready for the 22nd Spring Garden Market, brought to you by the UCCE Master Gardener Program of Santa Clara County. The event is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 16 at History San Jose, 1650 Senter Road, San Jose.
Admission is free, parking is $6.
Again this year we will have a mind-boggling selection of 80 varieties tomatoes and more than 100 types of peppers, which is what we have become known for. There will also be hundreds of herbs, eggplants and ornamentals to choose from. New this year will be decorative succulent arrangements, all potted up and ready to go.
70+ Tomato Varieties
There will be more than 10,000 tomato plants this year, including the always popular Sun Sugar cherry, the classic Cherokee Purple. There also will be paste tomatoes, which are great for sauces and canning.
In order to extend your harvesting season as long as possible, opt for a few of the earliest fruiting -- ripe in 50 to 60 days -- and some of the tomatoes that take 90 to 100 days to ripen.
If you are growing in containers, look for determinate varieties that only grow to about 4 feet high.
90+ Pepper Varieties
If you love making salsa, try Jersey Devil or Opalka. Pair them with some new offerings from our "chili heads," including Sweet Sunset, an early fruiting, very sweet, Italian variety that is great for frying. It is compact, and it's good for containers, too.
Tunisian Baklouti is a hot pepper that is great for couscous and North African dishes. Etiuda is an orange bell from Baker Creek that produces a half-pound fruit.
Holy Moly is a mild pepper that turns chocolate brown when ripe. It is great for mole sauce.
If you love fire-breathing-hot, don't miss out on Bhut Jolokia Ghost and Trinidad Scorpion. For great habanero flavor with a little less heat, try Aji Amarillo, Bulgarian or Martin's Carrot.
Sweet pepper options include Corno di Toro, Romanian Gogosari and Cuollarici.
More vegetables and herbs
If you haven't tried growing your own eggplant, give it a go. Not only are they easy to grow, they are beautiful plants as well. There will be nine varieties to choose from, including Little Prince, Nadia, Rosa Bianca and Long Purple. They are great in stir fry dishes, hummus and even on pizza.
We will have 17 varieties of basil, including the prized Tulsi (Holy Basil) from India. Other herbs include oregano, thyme, lemongrass and stevia.
And ornamentals and succulents
Although we are known for our incredible edibles, we also offer more than 20 types of ornamental plants and flowers, including amaranth, cosmos, Rudbeckia and about 20 types of zinnia and 13 varieties of sunflowers.
In additional to the succulent pots, there will be dozens of succulents to choose from including aloe, aeonium, agave, echeveria and many more. Sampler packs will be available as well.
Although the plants are what might draw you to the sale, don't miss out on the educational talks. You can learn about drought-tolerant plants, growing tomatoes, embracing your clay soil, composing and gardening with pests.
There will be information booths featuring Martial Cottle Park, UC Davis All-Stars plants, native plants and the master gardener help desk, and garden-based activities for the kids. More than 40 vendors will offer food, arts and crafts, tools, clothing, chicken coops and, of course, plants, plants, plants.
This article first appeared in the April 3 issue of the San Jose Mercury News./h4>/h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>/h4>
by UC Master Gardener Jenny R. Redfern
Do you have the right growing conditions?
All summer vegetables require these basics: good soil texture and nutrients; at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight each day; enough room to grow to full width and height; and consistent soil moisture.
Check your planting area early in the morning, midday, and late in the afternoon. How many hours of direct sunlight does it get? Avoid planting on the north side of fences, or near bushes and trees that will shade the plants.
Start with really good soil. Squeeze a handful of soil from where you intend to plant. Does it crumble easily (good), or does it stay in a wet lump (needs improvement)? Most of our Santa Clara County soils have a high clay content, meaning it drains poorly and retains little air. You may need to dig in a 3- to 4-inch layer of compost to improve texture and drainage. For a new raised bed, invest in good planting soil that includes organic compost and slow-release fertilizer.
Plants need elbow room to develop healthy root systems and branches. Shallow-rooted plants like lettuce, onions, and radishes can grow in 6 to 12 inches of soil, while beans, peppers, squash, and tomatoes can send roots down 1 foot or more. A 6-inch tomato seedling can grow into a 4-feet tall, 2-feet wide plant. Cucumbers and squash like to sprawl. Corn and sunflowers will cast shade on anything to their north. Read the backs of seed packets to learn the size of mature plants. Always plant the tallest at the north end of the garden.
Use this table to figure out how many of each plant will be right for your space and needs.
What do you like to eat?
Basic rule of thumb: no matter how attractive it is, if neither you nor your family will eat it, or you don't have the time or space for canning and freezing, don't plant it! Once you have a realistic idea of how much your garden will hold, choose what you enjoy eating, both fresh off the plant and out of a jar or freezer bag in the winter. Most popular vegetables are annuals, meaning you can plant and harvest is the same season or year, but a few, like asparagus, require two to three years of growth before harvest.
A kitchen garden provides a great opportunity to introduce children to the wonderful flavor of really fresh food. A young carrot straight from the garden or a sun-warmed cherry tomato can make even a picky eater smile.
How will you keep things growing?
Garden vegetables are not drought-tolerant – they need consistent water. Plan to drip irrigate or hand-water the garden one to three times a week, preferably early in the morning. Keep the soil moist just beyond the bottom of the root system, and spread mulch on the soil surface to slow down surface evaporation. The easiest test for soil moisture is to stick your finger or hand gently in the soil next to the plant.
Most California soils are naturally low in nitrogen. When the plants are about 4 inches tall, or have been in the soil for a couple of weeks, feed the soil with a nitrogen fertilizer, such as diluted fish emulsion, according to directions on the container. Each month, add a compost side dressing a few inches from the plant's stem, gently dig it into the soil, and then irrigate. Compost adds nutrients into soil while mulch on top of the soil can control weeds and conserve moisture. The California Garden Web offers reliable advice on organic v. inorganic fertilizers.
Keep an eye on good and bad garden visitors. Lady beetles are welcome guests that help keep aphids, unwanted sap-sucking pests, under control. Consult the University of California Integrated Pest Management site to identify pests and learn how to control them. You also can call or email the UC Master Gardener Program of Santa Clara County Hotline, M-F, 9:30am-12:30pm, 408-282-3105, https://www.mastergardeners.org/ask-a-question for help with your garden problems.