Planting season in Southern California is not in summer. Gardeners here will tell you it’s best to dream and plan now and plant in fall, when temperatures are kinder to tender young plants. Still, summer is when kids are out of school and families have more time, so I checked in with Rachel Young, director of horticulture, and Rachel Lewellen, harvest garden coordinator, at Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge for summer garden advice.
First and foremost, they suggest considering your garden an experiment. Gardening isn’t an inborn talent but a skill you learn through practice. “Every time, you’re experimenting to see if it works or not,” says Young. “It’s OK to fail. I still fail.”
Look for a sunny spot. You can grow veggies in the ground (dig in a little compost first) or even in containers on your porch. “At schools sometimes, they’re growing things in rain boots,” says Lewellen. “Anything can become a container if you think about drainage.”
When it’s time to buy seeds or seedlings, avoid the hardware store. “They’re just trying to sell plants. They’re not trying to have you succeed,” says Young, who recommends a local nursery instead. “They’re more likely to sell you something that’s going to grow.”
Take the kids to the nursery and let them choose some plants for themselves. Plants that have larger seeds, such as pumpkins or sunflowers, are easier for little ones to work with, and some seeds even come in pellets of clay so they are really easy to handle. Look for Parisian carrots, which are small and round and can grow in containers. You might also have success transplanting bush bean or late-season tomato plants, and this is a great time to plant Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary. “The Sunset Western Garden Book” is a great reference that tells you exactly what to plant and when to plant it.
Lewellen has a 6-year-old daughter, and recommends letting your child decorate plant containers or make a sign for their garden. “We try to set up a sense of ownership with it, so that she feels compelled to want to be in it. She’s doing the watering. She’s discovering that something’s been eaten,” she says. Watering is a favorite garden activity for most kids, and pulling bugs off of plants by hand is a great form of organic pest control.
Finally, remember that this isn’t really about the veggies. “It really forms memories of nature and being outdoors,” says Young. “That experience is really good for everyone to have, even if you do it with a little container garden.”
“Even if you get a few cherry tomatoes,” Lewellen says, “it feels like you did something.”
Learn about year-round family gardening opportunities at Descanso Gardens at descansogardens.org.