Hey, it’s that time of year — you know, the time to start planting your garden. Little plants are everywhere, beckoning, just begging to be taken home — with you — and planted in a nice sunny spot so they can stretch their roots and get down to the business of growing.
The journey from appealing seedling to flavorful fresh fruit or vegetable is not so long and hard that it should be avoided any longer. I decided to consult with a farmer who specialized in garden plants, particularly tomatoes, to find out how an amateur like me can become a competent, happy gardener.
My first question to Barbara Spencer of Windrose Farm was — what separates a gardener from a farmer. It could be the sheer volume of plants that farmer Barbara and her husband Bill produce on their farm in Paso Robles. The Spencers have built greenhouses to start their plants, and this year they will produce 140,000 of them — mostly tomatoes, but also some vegetables.
Both of the Spencers are very mindful of the end product they are trying to produce. They never forget that this is an item to be eaten, so they treat the soil and the plants with the utmost care and respect. Starting with a special compost, they feed new plants with a foliar application of kelp and fish, then keep feeding their plants every three weeks. The food that feeds us needs to be fed itself — and everything it eats, we eat, too.
Barbara, who attends the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers’ market, is very generous with advice, and has a checklist of questions she asks first-time gardeners. What are you going to do with the tomatoes: make sauce or a BLT? What kind of sun exposure and soil do you have? If you can’t answer the soil question, Barbara invites you to bring her a bag of it so she can let you know. Good gardeners think about their soil a lot.
Bill, who sells at markets further north, adds that to garden or farm organically, as he and Barbara do, is to re-connect with our pre-societal cultural foundations. Our ancestors all started out as gardeners to feed themselves. Bill started out as a rancher, Barbara was a musician. When they met and began farming, Bill feels that he re-joined his cultural history, both physically and spiritually. He is even more grateful for the connection in these trying times. But for practical advice on how to grow these little guys, we return to Barbara.
Let’s talk tomatoes. So, you find an ideal spot for your plant. This can be on your patio or in your yard — front or back. You want a cage for your tomato or it will sprawl all over the place and break its tender vines. You can plan on three successive plantings, just like a farmer, starting in April, again at the end of May, then again in August, to ensure a tomato supply that will last until Christmas. Use good soil and good, organic plant food, and don’t forget to feed your tomatoes. One of Barbara’s best “terrified gardener” success stories is from a Santa Barbara customer who planted everything in five gallon pots on her patio, and what with trellises and all, she created a gorgeous garden. She even became aware of the unique fragrance that the different tomato varieties produced – the stronger the scent, the more delicious the tomato. Speaking of trellises, if you want to expand into a more complete garden, many vegetables can be trellised to save space, including cucumbers, beans and squash.
If you want to move from tomatoes to a real kitchen garden, Barbara can help with that, too. A kitchen garden can be grown entirely in containers – five gallon size is ideal — or in a ten foot by ten foot plot somewhere in your yard. A kitchen garden can also be grown year-round, especially in Southern California. For a nice kitchen garden, Barbara suggests including several varieties of tomatoes, a cucumber, a melon, two summer squash, green beans, two winter squash like kabocha or butternut, and a pumpkin just for fun – or for kids, if you have them. You can also plant lettuces and greens, and some aromatic cooking herbs like oregano, marjoram, tarragon and winter savory. Bigger plants seem to be more resistant to snails, so be vigilant and protect your little ones.The Spencers have over a hundred different tomato varieties throughout the year. Each week, they bring in several different ones based on the season, and you can try as many as you like. Most first time gardeners get way too ambitious at first and take home too many plants. Try to start with no more than four, and remember that you can always add more in a month. Some of the new varieties that Barbara is excited about this year are a Black Cherry, a bi-colored Big Zebra and an Orange Russian 117. You can get tomatoes in every shade from white to dark purple, so plan your tomato salads accordingly. One well-tended tomato plant, climbing happily up a trellis, is a delight to the eye, the nose, and certainly the palate. Right now is the perfect time to begin this journey for yourself.