from the October 2008 issue of Verdugo Monthly
A personal vegetable garden is a delicious alternative to the typical suburban lawn
By Ilsa Setziol
About five years ago, I began to suspect my food qualified for more frequent flyer miles than I did. As an environmental reporter, I was already spending a lot of time contemplating the consequences of shipping, trucking and flying goods long distances: communities awash in diesel soot, and vast amounts of carbon dioxide heating up the planet.
So I started looking for food grown locally, paying attention to what was in season. But it was still a gamble: would any of the pricey peaches ripen, or would they all rot before getting tasty?
Then my husband decided to plant tomatoes at our San Gabriel home. They were delicious. We had pizza with sweet cherry and pear tomatoes, fresh salsa and endless pasta sauce. After years of regarding plants as something to whack with hedge trimmers, suddenly my husband was interested in growing them. He wanted corn, peppers, potatoes…watermelon. But all I could see was oceans of water spewing out the hose.
Was it possible to grow fruits and vegetables and still keep my conscience green? Does growing your food at home make sense in a state where our water often travels farther than our food? A good person to query was Peter Gleick. He studies water and climate at The Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based research group. He says “It’s true there’s an expense to our pocketbooks and environment of moving water great distances in California, basically from the Sierra Nevada to the coast and southern California, but I think in the end, the idea of individuals using some of the water…to grow food on personal gardens is a pretty good idea. And what makes it a better idea is if we can remove lawn, and use the water that we’re now using to grow lawn, to grow some our food in our personal gardens.”
Diverting water from the Sierra can damage habitat for fish and other wildlife; it also contributes to global warming because it takes energy to pump water, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Indeed, state officials estimate nearly 20 percent of all power used in California goes to transporting and treating water.
I thought I’d better check with an environmentalist. “If you do it right it, [kitchen gardens do] make sense,” Andy Lipkis, President of TreePeople, told me. “You can work with heavily mulched soil, so you’re not losing a lot of water to transpiration. You can water with drip irrigation, so you cut down on as much as 60 to 80 percent of your water use, because you’re putting drippers right where your roots are.”
I’ve already installed a drip system, but I’m interested in another of Lipkis’ suggestions, using graywater—recycling water that would otherwise zip down the drain of your sink, tub or washer. He says, basically, you can hook a hose up to your washer, and extend it to your yard, or have it fill buckets. If you go this route, you’ll want to get up to speed on local graywater ordinances and garden-friendly detergents. A good place to start is graywater guru Art Ludwig’s website: graywater.net
To get some additional tips on making a kitchen garden greener, I asked horticulturalist Lili Singer to visit my yard. Wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat, she bent over to watch a bee tunnel into a large yellow zucchini flower. “If you take out grass or azalea or some other water-needy thing, and put in a vegetable garden, you may be using the same amount of water, but you’re getting more out of it,” says Singer. Replacing your lawn with a variety of flowering plants will also boost the diversity of birds and bugs in your yard, she adds.
Next to a slender oak, Singer watches goldfinches glean seeds from bloomed-out bachelor buttons. A mourning dove moseys among the California poppies. As she surveys my garden, she says “I’ve noticed in your yard, you’re not a neat freak — in a good way. You haven’t ripped off every seed head, and what that does is allow lots of birds to come in and eat the seeds and the insects that invade the plants.”
Master gardener Marta Teegan, of Homegrown Los Angeles, says another good way to cut back on chemicals and water is a technique called companion planting. One example is grouping tomato, parsley and carrot plants together. “Tomatoes hate wet feet,” she explains, “carrots aerate the soil for them. And the parsley fends off a whole host of pests. Tomatoes shade the carrots and parsley, which can’t take too much sun.” Squash is also a good companion because the tiny spines on its stems and leaves keep bugs at bay.
Both Teegan and horticulturalist Lili Singer recommend feeding your plants with homemade compost. “The plants don’t know the difference between organic and synthetic fertilizer,” said Singer, “but the soil does.” And so does the planet, according to the environmental group Californians Against Waste. The group’s Scott Smithline explains that when you apply synthetic fertilizers, the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide escapes into the air. Nitrogen pollution is also more likely to flow off your yard and into waterways.
Composting your waste fights global warming in other significant ways. When food and yard waste rot in the landfill, they emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The same waste composted produces very little methane, because the scraps are exposed to oxygen. Home composting also cuts down on truck trips to the dump. Horticulturalist Lili Singer says gardeners who compost are meeting the environmental goal of sustainability. ”If you really do the whole thing from start to finish and start with your own seeds and with your own compost that you’ve made from your kitchen waste, and you’re not using fuels, burning up rubber on highway to get to market — if everything you’re doing starts and ends on your property — that is the ideal minimization of the carbon footprint.”
This year my husband and I grew three kinds of tomatoes, too much zucchini, some yellow squash, green beans, watermelon, mandarin oranges, limes, basil, sage, oregano, rosemary, and marjoram. Next year there will be more!