102_0907When we think about being green, we often conjure recycling, riding our bike to work, shopping at Whole Foods, or climbing a tree to save a community garden like Daryl Hannah, who has had nothing better do to since her role in 1989’s Steel Magnolias. Okay, I’m being facetious here, but you get the picture. But thanks to the Obama’s, gardening is the rage, and that’s a good thing. There are countless websites that can give great pointers on raising a garden, so I won’t go into too much detail. My favorite happens to be Sunset Magazine. Here are some tips I’d like to share based on my experience:

To answer the question, “When should I start?” the time is NOW! Even though we are well into spring, you will still be in great shape if you plant seedlings before Memorial Day.

Amend your soil—most likely the soil in your yard is in poor shape, and this is the toughest part of starting a garden. But once you do the initial digging, tilling, hoeing, and heaving, you’ll be fine for years. Think of it as your initial investment. I use a mixture of 3 parts potting/vegetable soil, 1 part peat moss, 1 part manure (horse manure’s the best—the cow manure from the big box stores is crappy for many reasons, pardon the pun!)

As for those instructions on how far apart to plant your seeds or seedlings—follow them! Being greedy and trying to cram too much in your garden will not pay off in the long run—your plants will compete for nutrients and not produce as much in the end. The exception is salad greens . . . plant the seeds, and as you thin them, you’ve got sprouts, and as they get bigger, you have leaves! As you pluck the sprouts or leaves, snip the dirty roots off so that they aren’t a pain to rinse. Carrots are okay, too, as you can eat the sprouts and greens as you thin them. I get enough salad for two of us daily.
Mulch, mulch, mulch. It’s cheap, but to really save some money, you should be able to find it for free! Where do you think the stuff you dump in the green recycling bins goes?  Check with your local utility or garbage contractor, and most likely your town has a program similar to LA’s where you can take a class and get a composting bin at a reduced cost.

Compost—it’s another way to save money and keep your soil healthy. If you have critters like raccoons and skunks like we do in LA, you can buy plastic (don’t lecture me) contraptions that’ll store and cure the compost— In LA, there are stations all over the city where you can take as much as you want for free! You can never mulch too much—it keeps the soil warm, retains moisture, and keeps out weeds.
Visit your local nursery. Big box stores are a necessary evil in my view—they are good for stocking up on the stuff you need to supply your garden. But you’ll get better plants and seeds at your local nursery, and it’s worth the extra price. Furthermore, I’ve received terrible advice—usually I get indifference or a shoulder shrug--at the large stores. My experience with nurseries such as Sunset Blvd. Nursery is that they give great advice and tips as to what you should grow in your garden, depending on where you live, how much sun you get, if you’re on a slope, etc
Water only in the morning, unless it’s a very hot day—don’t water after 1pm. Too much moisture in the ground overnight can cause little nasties such as fungus, mildew, etc., that can ruin the soil. But DO mist your plants daily with a water bottle or sprinkler—my  $7 Vigoro attachment does the trick!
Got birds and squirrels? Bird scare tape will scare off our feathered friends, and ShakeAway products will harmlessly keep rodents away, and my favorite tactic is to line rows of small plants with bamboo skewers (see above pictures), sort of like an organic barbed wire fence—a technique I learned in Turkey. I guess no animal is stupid enough to end up as shish-kebob, so it seems to help!
No backyard? Only concrete? Use pots—you should use at least 18 inch pots for squash and tomatoes, otherwise you’ll starve your plants in the long run.
Rotate your crops annually—if you plant tomatoes in an area one year, do squash or something else the next: planting the same vegetable year after year will exhaust the soil, making it more susceptible to pests.Happy gardening!  
My current green project is my new baby: the backyard garden. I’ve always loved gardening. Well, actually the idea of it. My grandmother in Fresno always had fresh mint in her backyard that she’d clip and add to her incredible Armenian dishes. My parents gardened in Cupertino. My contribution was picking the tomatoes when they were ripe: I was perfectly content letting my father do all the labor, but I was more than happy to eat the results. Years later, when I lived in Bencia, I grew tomatoes in pots on my condo’s balcony, much to my downstairs neighbors’ chagrin, who often got doused with water as I oversoaked my Early Girls every morning before driving to Silicon Valley to see my clients (cancelling out my green efforts in the process!).

So now it’s back to gardening. Armenians have farming in their genes, and while the closest thing to a farm Armenians in LA see are the flower beds in Glendale’s new Americana shopping center, I must be faithful to my ethnicity.

There are many reasons to garden: I’ve seen figures suggesting that every US$60-$70 in buying plants can reap $US1000 in vegetables. True, that’s about a week’s worth of salad from Whole Foods, but anyway, that’s probably not far off the mark. Also, think of all the plastic we consume when we buy food at the store, the fuel used in hauling our groceries, not to mention the chemicals used in pesticides. Yes, organic produce is better, but when it comes from New Zealand or Peru, you’re doing the environment no favor. To me, the pleasure of connecting with the land, to watch a seed grow from nothing to your dinner plate, are simple joys that are missing from our lives. We’re so disconnected from our food—I do love Costco, but I can’t bring myself to buy apples that come in plastic containers perfectly contoured around each and every piece of fruit—those containers look great on the façade of a Palm Springs home, but not around your food. And while I’m not a parent, I think one of the greatest lessons one can teach his child is the miracle of cultivating food from the earth. And who wouldn't want those toned arms like Michelle Obama?

I’ll write more on this later, but for now I have tomatoes, eggplant, musk melons, peppers, squash, pumpkins, green beans, lettuce greens, herbs, and fennel. My favorite is some French Sorrell
I scored from Sunset Blvd. Nursery . . . it looks like spinach or some other baby green, but when you bite into it, you get this watery crispy sensation . . . lemony, and then that little tinge of astringency in the back of your throat—it’s awesome—I need to plant more!

About The Author

Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye is the founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com. Based in California, he specializes in social media consulting and strategic communications. A journalist and writer since 2009, his work has appeared on Triple Pundit , The Guardian's Sustainable Business site and has appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. His focus is making the business case for sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Areas of interest include the <a Middle East, sustainable development in The Balkans, Brazil and Korea. He was a new media journalism fellow at the International Reporting Project, for which he covered child survival in India during February 2013. Contact him at leon@greengopost.com. You can also reach out via Twitter (Leon Kaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). Since 2013, he has spent much of his time in Abu Dhabi, UAE, working with Masdar, the emirate's renewable energy company. He lives in Fresno, California.