A warm thank-you to Jaydon Galindo-Lovell for curating, editing photos and collaborating on the arrangement of this photo essay.
Hello, all you fresh-vegetable lovers. This message is for you. If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s definitely not too late to grow your own greens. This includes collards, kale and broccoli, known as the Brassica—the mustard family. In fact it might be an excellent time to start them, since when it cools down around here, these veggies thrive and the white moths that obliterate them during the summer months seem to disappear altogether.
To start, get yourself some organic seeds at a plant shop or supermarket. I recommend you start the sprouts on a sunny windowsill and transplant them outside once you have a true leaf or two. You can put them in the ground or in a planter box with some organic fertilizer and organic chicken or steer manure. Don’t worry about the foggy weather; these guys love it. You’ll be eating fresh broccoli in about six-to-eight weeks. You could be ready to serve them by Thanksgiving. Imagine that!
I almost forgot: Brassica includes delicious homegrown cauliflower. It’s the best when it goes straight from garden to table. Come to think of it, it’s the only way I really like cauliflower. It’s gotta be fresh.
Let me know how it goes, please.
As per request, here’s the recipe for the potatoes in my recent post. They were scrumptious, so you can’t go wrong with this recipe. Modify at will. We do.
3-5 Pounds of fresh, clean potatoes, cut into cubes (skin on)
1-2 Medium carrots, cubed (optional)
1-2 Medium-sized onions or 5-6 shallots to taste, sliced (optional)
1-3 Medium-sized green or red peppers, sliced (almost any variety)
Sea or Kosher Salt
Coarse Black pepper
Fresh parsley (optional)
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. On a large backing sheet, generously drizzle olive oil to lightly coat the pan. Place potato cubes on the baking sheet with a flat surface touching the bottom. This will give the potatoes a crispy edge that enhances the dish. Add carrots, too, if you like roasted carrots, which are rather yummy. Add whole, peeled garlic cloves on top. Sprinkle to taste with coarse black pepper and salt. Bake for 35-50 minutes without stirring, or until you can easily stick a fork into a potato.
On the stovetop: In a skillet, caramelize sliced onions and peppers in olive oil. Set aside until the potatoes are done.
Add a small amount of cooked onion and pepper mixture to the bottom of the bowl and top with potatoes. Add the remaining mixture on top and stir minimally. Sprinkle with fresh parsley, and serve!
Everything I learned about grapes, I learned during my visit to Stonebridge Farm in Colorado, where the viticulture is a force of empowerment and a return to the grow-your-own values of self-reliance and sustainability. Even though I know a bit more than I did when I first put my grapevine in pot, I just mostly like eating out of my garden, so I’m also game to learn all I can about how things work. Before I knew what I didn’t know, I put the grapevine on the front walk. The benefits of this are that I can see it as I come and go and give it attention and water as needed. Plus, it gets full sun for most of the day, while still enjoying the relative shelter of the house, which protects it from wind and inclement weather. What a rush it’s been to see the vine reach up toward the sky like an Olympic champion with her arm held up in triumph. This is the kind crazy wonderfulness that I want to live with every day.
Our new grapevine is productive and healthy. She grows quickly, but the shape is wrong at least in my mind. (By the way, most producing plants are female to me, just as all cats are female and all dogs males. That’s just how it is for me. Isn’t it the same for everyone?) I’m thinking about how to prune and train her. We have time to work on these things next year once she’s in the ground.
I found out from Farmer John that because we don’t add hormones, something that is often done to enlarge commercial grapes, they have a thin, delicate skin, which breaks open with the slightest pressure, releasing their sticky-sweet syrup for a finger-licking delight. They’re simply delicious, but there’s no way they’d make it to market. We had only one cluster to sample this year, but the future seems promising. Our plan is to plant the vine in a sunny spot this fall and let the monsoon do its work.
So, the plan is, ahem, rain this fall. (Hope someone out there is listening.)
Grapes are just another of the pleasures of urban farming. Soon I’ll be able to add them to the menu when Hal asks, “What’s for dinner?” I can always say, “There are plenty of greens and grapes in the back.” Today there’s mostly a lot of curly and dinosaur kale and collards, but that’s food. The new lettuce is in, and it’s tender and delicious. Next year we might have grapes to go with our blackberries and the new bed of strawberries we put down. Really, you don’t know what you’ll get until you try.
Here’s a little peek at grapes growing at Stonebridge Farm in Colorado:
Gardening is contagious. When people come over and see our garden, they say things like, “I could probably do this at my house.” It goes on from there. I find myself sharing insights, putting random seeds in soils and working in other people’s gardens. My mother calls me for progress reports. We’re planning an expansion to new areas and thinking about adding a compost bin and chickens. I’m suddenly a locavore, harvesting collard greens minutes before dining. It’s all too easy even though I spend hours in the garden every week.
Maybe this all seems normal to someone, but not to me. This is an extraordinary occurrence. I’m a woman who grew up in New York City, believing that food comes from cans in supermarkets. The idea of fruit growing on trees did not take root in me until my late twenties when I walked around Oakland in late summer, eating from the bounty of the neighborhood. The metaphorical light bulb turned on in my consciousness, and I knew then what I had never understood before—that food grows from the earth. You can laugh, and please do, because I did and still am laughing, but this is a reality for too many urban youth, who like me, have not experienced a food culture unmitigated by mass-produced and commercially-driven enterprises, packaged in cellophane and built to last. So it is with this charge that I dutiful show people pictures of things growing in my garden, and when possible, share its bounty. I snap snow peas off the vine, offer one and eat the other warm from the sun because I know from experience that the caterpillars won’t wait either. I bake delicious homegrown vine-ripened blackberry-laden desserts, sauté garden-fresh collards, juice kale for my friends and bring a just-cut cauliflower to a dinner party. We have choices that nourish us.
I want two things now. The first is to share my excitement, knowledge and passion for gardening with others, which is no surprise since I am a teacher. The second is to share this magic with my community. How to do both is slowly becoming clearer, more certain.
Many of my garden experiments are instinctual and daring. Soil quality in our yard varies tremendously from rocky to claylike to dusty. The sun is intense all day in one corner year around, while it shifts seasonally left of center. When something doesn’t look right, I make adjustments. For example, pests attacked most of the beets in the first bed we planted in late summer; they had grown crowded and knotted, nothing like the carefully spaced seedlings I originally put down. I decided to transplant them to a lower bed and to clear out the infestation as much as possible. After uprooting bunches of them, I worked a new dry bed into small sections and unraveled the beetroots that had grown twisted together. Within weeks, the new bed was lush green and burgundy with every indication that the transplants were thriving. I had a new problem owing to a minor change. I hadn’t mulched the new bed as I had done with my initial plantings. Now I have a generous weed problem that keeps me attentive and reflective. No one told me I could do this. I just tried it. I’m like a mad scientist with a shovel and chicken-manure compost. Those beets look about ready to eat. As I water the garden, Mr. Hummingbird supervises the care of the Lilac. He knows that one’s for him.
Lessons learned in the garden are easily shared intergenerationally. When I helped some friends start a vegetable plot in their garden several weeks ago, I made sure to recommend mulch. These are the lessons that can be shared from observation, trial and errors. My little expert preadolescent gardening friends, twin daughters of fellow urban gardeners, recommend that we release ladybugs at night and get them a house to increase retention. I listen carefully to their wisdom and ask questions; after all, they’ve been gardening all their lives. I weed, plant and water with my eight-year-old friend. I know she understands the land better than I do already. One day, if all goes according to plan, she’ll eat avocados from my yard. They’re her favorite.
There are other valuable lessons to learn from gardening. Our distinct San Francisco microclimate is a good teacher. A longer growing season also means cycles that aren’t as clear as a traditional spring-planting and fall-harvesting ones. The latest cold spell took out several lovely perennials, including a blooming fuchsia. I was surprised and saddened by the death. I would have taken action against the frost if I had anticipated its demise. The lantana and the fuchsia had both been thriving, now they have withered and died. Our dark leafy greens can weather it all, but delicate blooms favored by butterflies, bees and hummingbirds need to be protected during periodic cold fronts. Our dry, sunny and cold winter does not nurture the earth, especially when one considers there is no dormant cycle. I’m learning to pay attention to new kinds information. Also, one feels and understands drought intimately when gardening. How does one bed a blooming garden? Compost, mulch and water until the rains come. Pray for rain.
While we continue to expand the garden, breaking and carrying out decades-old concrete, driving questions emerge. Can I really live off my land? Is this a viable option? Will this garden sustain us? Maybe with some chickens and more diversity—we’ll plant carrots and beans this year—we can make it last. We take fewer visits to the market, but produce is cheap. Maybe this year I’ll learn to can and make jam. I’m not going back to the land, because I didn’t come from it, but I’m claiming something even more powerful and magical: growing a life in my home, giving an entirely new connotation to the concept of land ownership. I’m now the steward of my little plot, responsible to a pair of mating hawks, resident humming birds, our local squirrel and some prowling raccoons and cats, among the numerous life forms we witness on any given day. Dead bees break my heart and crawly bugs encourage me. It would be wonderful for this ecosystem to sustain us all for years to come. This is possibly a legacy that redefines local and organic food. I know what’s in it because I know what I put into the ground. I’m not a farmer, am I? I’m too deeply in love with the smell of wet dirt not to be. I now dream of grapevines and fruit trees, ferns and broccoli, strawberries and dahlias. What did I dream of before?