Spring has sprung and we’re all at home, which makes it the perfect time to start your own home garden – in your yard or in containers.
“We have a really great climate for growing vegetables in Southern California,” says Brie Wakeland, a master gardener and garden educator at The Garden School Foundation. The organization teaches gardening and nutritional cooking classes at eight L.A. elementary schools, and Wakeland has great tips for bringing gardening home while schools are closed.
First, scout your location. You want your plants to get plenty of sun. “Most vegetables and fruits need 6-8 hours a day,” Wakeland says. This is true whether you’re putting your plants in the ground or in a container garden on a patio or balcony.
Wherever they’ll be, give your plants enough space to grow. “Read your seed packet or the little information stick that’s in your seedling pot,” says Wakeland. This will tell you how large your plants will eventually get. Squash, for instance, needs about four square feet per plant. “Squashes in general are great for families to grow if you have the space,” she says. “They’re so much fun to grow for children.”
Other great things to plant this time of year include snap and lima beans, beets, carrots, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, herbs, melons, okra, peppers, pumpkins, radishes, sunflowers, Swiss chard, tomatoes and turnips. Wakeland recommends growing root vegetables such as carrots, radishes, beets and turnips from seed, but says it’s easier to start other veggies as seedlings. Most nurseries and garden centers are offering online ordering and curbside pickup for seedlings, seeds and soil.
You can create a container garden using any sort of container that’s large enough for your plants – even recycled ones. Just poke holes in the bottom to allow water to drain through and purchase potting soil to fill them up.
If you’re planting your garden in the ground, kids will have fun doing a mason-jar soil test to see whether you’ll need to fertilize or improve your soil. Find a clear jar with a tight-fitting lid and fill it half way with soil from your garden bed. Fill the jar nearly to the top with water, put the lid on and shake the jar for several minutes to thoroughly mix the soil and water. Let the jar sit undisturbed overnight.
The next day, you’ll see that your soil has separated into its three components: clay, sand and silt. Clay, the smallest particles, will be the top layer of your soil. Clay holds nutrients and water well. Silt, the middle layer, is made up of rock and mineral particles that are a little larger than clay. Sand, at the bottom, contains the largest particles. It allows water – but also nutrients – to drain quickly.
The ideal combination of particles for gardening is 20% clay, 40% silt and 40% sand, and is called loam. If you’re not quite there, you can work in some compost or other soil amendments.
All plants need to be checked on daily to make sure they have enough water. Water each container plant whenever the soil feels dry, until the water runs out the holes in the bottom of the pot. Water plants that are in the ground thoroughly, so that the root system digs deep and the plant is more stable. “Most people tend to under-water,” Wakeland says. “A little light watering isn’t enough.” Plan to soak your garden for at least 30 minutes three times a week – or more often if it is really hot outside.
Outdoors, there might also be pests such as aphids, grasshoppers or caterpillars that will want to share your harvest. Wakeland says some (such as aphids) can be sprayed off with water, while you can pluck others off by hand. Speaking of hands, “allow your child to be as hands-on in the process as possible,” says Wakeland. “Kids love to water, dig and plant. It might not be exactly where you wanted the seeds to go, but that’s OK.”