It seems in gardening, as well as in cooking, it’s usually best to start from scratch. It may seem overwhelming at first, but it usually gives you the greatest rewards. This was the theme of a recent gardening workshop I attended, held by local greenies Heart Beet Gardening. Heart Beet hopes to promote sustainability by teaching people in Los Angeles how to grow their own organic food. In the case of gardening, starting from scratch means giving your soil some love first.
I was interested in this workshop for two reasons. First, food localism. It doesn’t get much better or much more sustainable than growing and eating your own fresh organic veggies and fruits. And second, my parents have been itching to rip up their lawn and have no idea how to get started.
So on a recent gray morning, a small group of us converged on the yard of a lovely local Mar Vista family to put theory into practice. And play with some dirt.
We had an unorthodox introduction in which sweet beet Sara Carnochan asked us to chose a veggie that we would like to become if we had the chance. Our group ran the gamut from carrots to herbs. (I went with a sugar snap pea because I love spring and being green.) And Sara tied up the conversation by stating “Good, now I’ll remember your vegetables…and maybe your names.” There was truth to this, by midday I was reaching for something to dig with and almost uttered, “Excuse me, um, Eggplant, may I borrow your shovel?”
The first step in growing anything edible in L.A. is to get your soil tested for toxicity. There is a local lab that does this, Wallace Laboratories. You send them soil, they tell you what’s in it — and what you need to add or take out. Beyond that, you can test your soil at home to see what it may be lacking (but make sure you test it for anything toxic first). You can use home soil testing kits to find out what your soil needs to thrive. As Sara said, “It’s like being House, but with less doctors and more dirt.”
From there, we learned several different methods for preparing soil, including double-digging and the construction of two raised beds with kits from Mini Farm Box (located in Silverlake). Even the compost was local — both from the backyard composter of our gracious hosts (chock full of happy worms) and from a local equestrian center. Gardening guru Kathleen Redmond explained the importance of using organic products as such; conventional gardening is meant only to feed the plant while organic farming feeds the soil which in turn feeds plant.
Our final project was sheet mulching, or “lasagna gardening.” Sound yummy? Well, if you’re thinking of losing your lawn, it is. The basic premise is to cover your sod with a few layers of paper — cardboard or newspaper (nothing glossy), and then start adding layers of compost, straw or other organic material. Your final layer can be soil. Then, plant some natives or edibles and cover the rest with mulch. But I’m no master gardener, so if you need more advice, sign up for a class with Heart Beet.
By the way, heart beet just says “no” to using dog poo as compost for any edible landscaping, and that goes for the manure of any carnivore. For more info on what to do with the poo, go here.