Step outside, snip and cook it up fresh
ALEX SEROS and Walter Ulloa’s vegetable garden has the design elements of a classical French potager: four rectangular raised beds, divided by gravel pathways, set in a sunny spot not far from the family’s kitchen. But instead of the traditional tidy rows of carrot tops, perfectly spaced lettuce heads and coiffed herbs, the organization here is looser and many vegetables are flowering.
“I let a lot go to seed,” says John Lyons, the organic vegetable gardener who designed and tends the Pacific Palisades plot. “The flowers attract beneficial insects.” He’s hoping for some chalcid wasps. “They eat all sorts of aphids,” he says.
Aside from the charming and intentional imperfection of the plants, there’s something else these four quadrants offer that those in France usually don’t: year-round crops.
“The difference between a California kitchen garden and the average French potager is that it doesn’t have an off-season,” says Lyons, a handsome Irishman who has been installing and tending organic kitchen gardens around Los Angeles for the last three years. “We have a 365-day growing season here. So many people overlook this.”
Winter is, in fact, Lyon’s favorite time. “It’s like spring in most of the Midwest,” he says. “And the temperature is ideal to work in.”
Though geometric designs are classic, a kitchen garden can be any shape or size. It’s rare in an urban environment to have a lot of space to dedicate to growing food, so you “work with what you have,” he says.
Find a sunny spot close to the kitchen, and then do what you can. “You can tuck it into a corner of the yard, or it can contour to the shape of your plot,” he says. “It can be neat and tidy or free-flowing.”
As with the French potager model, Lyons recommends placing the garden close to the kitchen for easy access. In addition to herbs and vegetables, there should be cutting flowers in the beds to provide beauty at the table. Lyons likes to plant dwarf, semi-dwarf or espaliered fruit trees nearby as well.
“Regular trees would overwhelm the space,” he notes. And, he adds, every garden needs a fountain and a bird feeder. “Birds are very, very important for pest control.”
A year-round garden, however, doesn’t mean there isn’t down time for some vegetables. “We can’t really grow lettuces and spinach outside of winter.” But because the Seros-Ulloa family has become accustomed to the taste of homegrown, Lyons is trying out a lettuce variety called ‘Nevada’ in their garden this summer that’s supposed to do well in warm weather. “They say it’s bolt-resistant,” he says. This season, the harvest includes a special Roma tomato called ‘San Marzano Redorta’ and Italian barlotti beans.
In just over a year, Lyons has changed the way the family eats.
“I cook more happily,” says Seros, a screenwriter who admits she’d never pulled a vegetable from the soil before meeting Lyons. And the couple’s 16-year-old son, Bruno Seros-Ulloa, has found that he does, in fact, like carrots and peppers, and that he enjoys cooking with homegrown produce. “When it’s right outside, you just go out. I cook pasta with ‘San Marzanos’ [from the garden] and basil and some parsley. I toss things together,” says Bruno.
Lyons reaches a bare hand into a tub of his homemade compost and scatters it by the handful -- worms and all -- around and over the herbs and vegetables. “John’s compost made my tangerine grow,” Seros says of a tree that had never before produced much fruit. “We grew the artichoke that ate Cleveland. We grew 12 of them.”
Lyons, who grew up on a farm, has been tending his own garden for a decade on half an acre in Chatsworth where he has Irish draft horses and Marans chickens from France. “You can do so many things in an urban environment if you don’t mind people looking at you funny,” he says. After he tore out his front lawn to plant an edible garden, however, one of his neighbors didn’t just look at him funny -- he reported him to the city Department of Health. “He was sure I was doing something illegal.”
He was perfecting his compost, a rich concoction of kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, garden waste, paper, worm castings and horse manure. And a little seaweed. “It has lots of micronutrients,” explains Lyons, who has taught classes on the California kitchen garden at Descanso Gardens and who will be teaching a class there Saturday on composting.
Lyons recommends changing out plants “en masse” twice a year; he plants summer vegetables in April or May (“I’ll add more tomatoes in July so they’ll go right through into winter,” he notes) and winter vegetables in October or November. Every six weeks, he puts in interval crops, like pole beans, haricots verts, green onions, beets and carrots.
“When you alternate full growing seasons,” he says, “you can rotate crops very easily. You put in your tomatoes in the summer, then you put in something else in the winter, and then you can do tomatoes in the same spot the following summer.”
Appreciating all that his adopted home state has to offer, Lyons encourages clients to grow California natives, such as Salvia clevelandii, near their vegetable gardens. “They’re drought tolerant, aesthetically pleasing and often highly scented,” he says. Best of all, “they attract birds and insects like hummingbirds and bees.”
Plus, it’s a distinctive touch you won’t find in France.