Making Ends Meet : The Guru of Gardening

It's a warm February morning, and George Patton, grower and landscaper, is zooming around his Sun Valley property like a comet. One minute he stuffs bags with fallen leaves; the next, he dashes past mulberry and carob trees to tend the vegetables growing in compost. Patton's deeply tanned head bobs like a furry hazelnut.

He turns his attention to some thriving bibb lettuce seedlings that he shows off to a visitor, then erects a trellis for scarlet runner beans. Finally, Patton seeks shade under a carob tree and munches on some fallen pods.

"Growing, seed saving and drought-tolerant landscaping have been my vocation and my lifestyle for the past 20 years," the L.A. native explains between nibbles. "Southern California has an ideal climate for edible landscaping, and it's easy to grow inexpensive food that can help feed a family in even the smallest back-yard garden."

As California faces its most severe drought in decades, and families try to adjust to lowered incomes brought on by recession, Patton is finding himself increasingly in demand. He's renowned in Southern California gardening circles for originating the KCRW radio show, "Gardening Naturally." He also helped introduce Tahitian squash to the United States and Europe in 1976. (He brought back seeds from Bora Bora, planted 1400 of them in 700 used Styrofoam coffee cups, which he kept on a friend's garage in the Hollywood Hills, and then grew the seedlings out in Lucerne Valley.) From 1979 through 1980, Patton was field supervisor at Metro Farms, which trained new gardeners and landscapers for Mayor Tom Bradley's Community Gardens CETA program. And since 1970, Patton has designed and cultivated diverse edible and drought-tolerant landscapes for more than 40 houses and estates in the hills and valleys of Los Angeles.

Though he's worked with the rich and those who garden mostly for the luxury of yielding, say, a perfect (and expensive) summer tomato, Patton sees home gardens as a partial solution for those trying to feed their families on a tight budget.

"California's agricultural authorities have projected that the drought crisis will raise produce prices," Patton says, "so it makes good economic and nutritional sense for people to start growing food for themselves and their families."

Patton's specialty is what he calls total ecological site planning. He's trained in Permaculture, the Australian drought-tolerant landscaping system, which aims to foster an independent ecosystem, rather than just creating a pretty garden.

"Some people are distressed with this drought and the changes that it will bring to their lives and gardens," Patton says. "But I see it as an opportunity to move away from expensive, water-intensive gardens and toward growing low-cost, drought-tolerant foods such as cylindra beets, Hopi Blue corn, tepary beans, Hopi orange lima beans and desert king watermelons."

In choosing the most economical foods to grow, Patton recommends first ruling out water-gobbling plants such as spinach, standard yellow corns, ordinary lettuce and carrots, and melons, except for the drought-tolerant, desert king watermelon.

"Now is the time," Patton says, "to plant warm-season, drought-tolerant vegetables and herbs--the Hopi corns, the beets, green peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, squash, rosemary, thyme and sage. You know, contrary to popular belief, once their root systems are established, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant don't have to be watered every day. Especially if water-saving mulch is used, they can skip water for a day or two even in hot weather."

Patton, no relation to the World War II general, is a slender, elfin man whose spry body language as he talks make him seem a decade younger than his 48 years. He believes that as people limit water consumption during the drought, "we can still give sufficient water to the garden through the use of water-saving systems." Water-conserving mulches he suggests include newspapers and peat moss.

Other high-yielding, low-cost warm-season vegetables that Patton especially recommends include winter squash, which develops large fruit through the summer and fall and then forms a hard shell, which allows it to keep many months through winter. The tree collard, a perennial collard that lives for as long as 10 years and produces abundant amounts of greens, is another Patton favorite.

"Rosemary, thyme and sage," Patton says, "will thrive in intense heat, and Hopi Pink corn has the deepest taproot known of any corn, which makes it ideal for the desert. Amaranth needs no water at all, and its leaves are similar to spinach and as nutritious as collards." Spinach, Patton says, is "a little too tricky" to grow in Southern California. He recommends growing Swiss chard year-round instead. "Besides being extremely hardy," Patton says, "Swiss chard yields for about two years. It needs less water than spinach or lettuce and yet it's highly productive. And because the leaves can be harvested a few at a time without uprooting the whole plant, the Swiss chard will continue to produce new leaves for many months. In my mind, it's a gardening bargain, and red Swiss chard is one of the most beautiful ornamental edibles."

Purple cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage are also on Patton's list of low-cost drought-tolerant ornamental edibles that grow year-round. "I plant snapdragons, violas, sweet peas and stocks among vegetables during the cool season," he says.

Deciding what to grow is, obviously, only the first step in creating a highly productive garden. How you grow the plants is important too.

"Mixing vegetables and herbs among ornamental plants is the natural design practiced by the forces of nature," Patton explains. "As American cooking has undergone a transformation from a rather bland and limited cuisine to a more diverse blend of cultures and colors, so have the relationships of plants in our landscapes also become more dynamic."

Patton uses the word dynamic with some regularity; he does, after all, practice biodynamic agriculture, the system founded by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner.

"Biodynamic farming," Patton says, "involves specially prepared compost and the selection of healthy plants for seed bearing and improving plant genetics. Particular planetary influences also play a big part in biodynamics, as does the caring relationship between the grower and the plant."

Before planting a vital edible landscape, Patton advises, one must have an adequate supply of organic compost. "Good compost contains all the essential nutrients that a plant needs without the addition of chemical fertilizers, which can overstimulate the plant," Patton explains, "and burn out the microlife of the soil."

In the warmer months, Patton grows purple, pink and white cosmos between vegetables, along with marigolds and zinnias.

"An edible landscape," Patton explains, "needs flowers to help attract pollinating insects for flowering plants such as zucchini, crook neck squash, tomatoes, etc." Growing diverse vegetables, flowers and herbs also aids in insect control by establishing a habitat for beneficial insects.

When designing an edible landscape, Patton takes special care to group shade-loving plants such as celery, parsley, lettuce and beets near each other. Likewise, sun worshipers such as peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, Swiss chard, radishes and carrots get planted together in their own special zone.

On the subject of watering, Patton is precise. "Plants like to be watered deeply," he says. "And never water the leaves--this is usually bad for the plant." Although Patton installs drip systems and mini-misters in the gardens he designs, because of water-rationing, Patton recommends mulching with water conservers such as peat moss and newspapers. He says grass clippings, which normally end up in the landfill, can also be recycled into water-saving mulch.

"Gardeners should mulch when they sow a seed bed," Patton says, "or when a seedling has attained the height of approximately two to four inches. To mulch seed beds, put down one-eighth to one-quarter inch of mulch to keep the soil from crusting. Before mulching, dig a small water-catching basin about four to six inches in diameter and half- to one-inch deep around each seedling. This will maximize the plant's water usage. The entire planted area should be thoroughly watered before mulching. And make certain that the proper thickness of mulch is maintained for its highest water-conserving value."

To mulch with recycled grass clippings, Patton says, "Spread the grass out on the lawn and allow it to dry for one day. Then it's ready to be gathered and used. Put the mulch no closer than two inches from the actual seedling; this will protect the plant against chewing insects. To maintain the mulch, check to see that the thickness is always at least one to two inches. A mulch generally needs to be reapplied once in a season. If you mulch in the beginning of March, mulch again in July or August in the peak of summer's heat."

To mulch with newspapers, "which is a great recycling move," Patton observes, "take 10 sheets worth of paper and lay them down so that they overlap a few inches in a shingle pattern. These should be two inches away from the stem of the plants. To keep them from blowing away, wet them thoroughly and place a little earth over them. They will not need to be moistened with water again. Check newspapers periodically to see if earthworms or other creatures have eaten quite a bit. If they have, additional layers may be needed."

For mulching with peat moss, Patton offers the following advice: "Since peat moss retains high amounts of moisture, it only needs to be applied in a thickness of one-half to one inch. If earth appears to be peeking through peat moss, then spot apply more as needed."

Patton points out that many drought-tolerant, heirloom vegetable varieties are not sold in standard store seed racks. "People interested in getting maximum nutritional value and return on their seed investment should avoid hybrid seeds," he says, "and instead buy heirloom seeds or traditional seeds such as Hopi blue or pink corn.

"Heirlooms and traditionals offer strong genetics, drought tolerance and long-term yields," he adds, "whereas hybrid varieties are weaker, crave water and generally put out a burst of growth in a short period of time."

"Edible landscaping," Patton says, while raking and turning over the contents of a compost pile, "is a therapeutic activity, and it can be done with minimal investment. Apart from creating a beautiful environment for living things, you're also feeding yourself. Food can be your medicine both physically and spiritually."

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