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How to grow a garden -- in one painful lesson

Times Staff Writer

I don’t have a green thumb.

When little plants misbehave, their parents threaten to send them to my yard.

But with supermarket prices for produce on the rise, it seemed a good time to try, yet again, to grow a vegetable garden. And I wouldn’t be alone. According to the National Garden Assn., hard times seed more gardens.

“The high point we had was in 1975, 1976, when there was a gas crisis and Gerald Ford had his Whip Inflation Now program,” said Bruce Butterfield, research director for the association, which has been tracking gardening since 1973. “At that point, 49% of households had them.”

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Last year and in 2006, the percentage stood at 22%. This year, Butterfield expects a resurgence. “We have gotten information from Burpee and other seed companies that they’ve been up in sales about 30% this year,” Butterfield said. “And in some cases they’ve sold out.”

Locally, sales at the Armstrong Garden Centers chain are also up 30% this year. But Gary Jones, vice president of marketing, thinks the reasons go beyond the economic.

“It’s also about people wanting to be closer to nature, the taste of homegrown vegetables and the whole food-miles thing -- people want to get their food from local sources,” Jones said.

True, the carbon footprint from backyard to kitchen is zip. But the bottom-line question is: Can money be saved by gardening at home?

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It’s quite doable, garden experts insist.

Although not the way we did it down on the lower 40 (more like an 8-foot-by-4-foot raised bed) in a section of my backyard that was so barren it looked as if it should include a car up on blocks.

My partner in this venture was Susan Ortmeyer, a dog-park buddy who also wanted a garden but lives in a condo. We novices managed to overspend, over-water and come up with a garden that was bountiful -- at first -- but produced blah-tasting vegetables.

Still, it’s quite possible for first-timers to be successful, given the ample instructional and other resources at hand in Southern California.

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And it can be done at a wide range of costs.

Marta Teegen, who owns Homegrown, a Los Angeles-based garden consulting company, will come to your property and install a vegetable garden with your choice of plants. She generally puts in about four 4-by-6-foot raised beds.

The average cost -- $2,000.

At that rate, and because this is Los Angeles, it’s no surprise that several of her clients are celebrities (whom she declined to name) with private chefs.

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“A big part of the design process is to find out what they eat and how they cook,” said Teegen, who also hosts group classes for us mere mortals at a far lower cost.

She designs each garden for the microclimate of its neighborhood and for year-round production.

On the other end of the spectrum, the National Garden Assn. said, the average annual amount spent on an edibles garden in the U.S. is $58.

Of course, Susan and I spent more than that long before putting in our first tomato seedling.

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In our defense, first-timers are going to have an initial outlay for tools and other items.

For example, $83 went for redwood boards to make the raised bed, and that was at a bargain rate because the owner of the lumberyard is a friend who cut and delivered the boards for free.

Speaking of free, we should have made more use of the bountiful no-cost information on putting in an edible garden.

Local info is of paramount importance because the Southern California climate is different from that of most of the country. Many of the general books on edible gardens don’t zoom in on our territory.

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One of the largest local resources is the Cooperative Extension for Los Angeles County, a division of the University of California. The program’s website has so much information for gardeners that sorting through it can be a bit difficult.

There’s month-by-month gardening tips specific to the area and a guide for growing the most popular of garden vegetables -- the tomato.

“People who have never grown anything will want to grow a tomato,” said Yvonne Savio, manager of the community gardens program at the extension. “The tomato is the perfect entry plant, and then they can branch out.”

The extension’s online brochure, “Growing Tomatoes in Your Garden,” recommends digging the soil to at least a foot and then adding about 2 pounds of fertilizer per 100 square feet of planting area.

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Savio said her formula was to dig the garden area about a shovel deep, then add 2 inches of compost and another 2 inches of manure on top. (She recommends the organic non-sludge manure available at nurseries). Then, mix the dirt and amendments all together.

She likes using raised beds when possible. “It’s one of the best ways because you can corral your amendments,” she said.

Savio uses soaker hoses for watering, with a substantial layer of mulch on top of the hoses to preserve water and keep down weeds. After her plants are established she waters only once every two weeks.

There are many paths to gardening, all a bit different. Teegen does only raised beds, and she doesn’t dig the soil at all. Rather, she fills the beds with compost rich enough in nutrients that she almost never adds fertilizer.

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When Teegen came to visit our garden, the look on her face was one of a person searching for something nice to say. Finally, she came up with: “It’s crowded, and I like that.”

Teegen uses methods devised by John Jeevons of Willits in Northern California, whose bio-intensive techniques have been taught around the world.

Even without those techniques, which place plants closer together than traditionally recommended, a family’s well-tended 200-square-foot garden can turn out about 200 pounds of produce in a year, the National Garden Assn. said.

The group hasn’t done a detailed comparison of home garden vs. supermarket costs, but Butterfield, the association’s research director, estimated that the produce grown in a 200-square-foot plot in a year could cost about $400 in a market.

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At that rate, the economics of home gardening makes sense. If done right.

Our four tomato plants grew more than 6 feet tall and had an impressive amount of fruit, but Teegen said over-watering had led to mediocre taste.

She uses a stake technique that results in fewer tomatoes but more intense flavor. Also, rather than the drip system I had hooked up to a timer, she favors hand watering. “It makes you get involved in the garden,” she said. “You’re always aware of what’s going on.”

Our cucumbers were wonderful, but few and far between. Teegen said the problem was probably the absence of flowering plants in the otherwise barren backyard to attract bees needed for pollination.

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The one plant that came up beautifully was basil, but it’s hard to mess that up.

With our busy work schedules -- Susan is a church administrator -- and because the results of our garden labor weren’t stellar, we essentially gave up on the plot about halfway through the summer growing season. It looks droopy now, and just about the only remaining task is to feed the plants to the compost bin.

But we’ve already started to plan a fall garden and the one for next summer. There will be two more raised beds, placed in sunnier spots than the original, and a wider variety of plants.

The reasons we’ll try again go beyond the economic or environmental.

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Jones of Armstrong Garden Centers said it right.

“There’s a psychological factor involved,” he said. “We get a good feeling from producing our own vegetables.”

While the garden was flourishing, I drank coffee out there in the quiet of the early morning. I’d get a kick out of any sort of new growth, any sign of emerging baby tomatoes or cucumbers. When Susan came over, our dogs would joyfully chase each other around the raised bed.

It was a bit of sanity in the middle of the city.

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“When you create a garden,” Jones said, “it’s kind of like comfort food.”

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david.colker@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Cultivating costs

As first-timers, we spent too much on our 8-foot-by-4-foot garden. As a result, the vegetables we raised were even more expensive than at Whole Foods. Here’s the rundown:

* Raised bed wood frame: $83

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* Gas mini-tiller (used): $100

* Soil amendment and fertilizer: $139

* Seedlings: $63

* “Natural” pest sprays: $35

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* Various other supplies (estimate): $40

Source: David Colker

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Gardening help

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No need to dig deep for information; it’s readily available online and by phone.

Cooperative extension

* Get month-by-month gardening tips or sign up for a master gardener course in Los Angeles County at https://celosangeles.ucdavis.edu.

* For Orange County information, go to www.uccemg.com.

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* Help line, Los Angeles County: Questions can be left at (323) 260-3238.

* Help Line, Riverside County: (951) 683-6491.

* Help Line, Ventura County: (805) 645-1455.

Classes

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* Marta Teegen: The schedule for Teegen’s classes, which cost from $30 to $60, are on her website at www.homegrownlosangeles.com.

* Lili Singer: Thursday morning series at L.A. Arboretum, Sept. 25-Nov. 13, on starting a garden. Individual classes $20. Series $100. www.arboretum.org

* Steve Gerischer: Classes at Descanso Gardens on starting a garden from seed, Oct. 7, 14. Cost $30. www.descansogardens.org

* John Lyons: Classes on winter vegetable gardens, Descanso Gardens. Oct. 29 and Nov. 5. Cost $40. www.descansogardens.org

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Source: Times research


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