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How to grow a vegetable garden, according to legendary chef Alice Waters

Worried about your food supply during COVID-19? Three experts, including celebrated Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters, share tips for growing your own fruits and vegetables.

How to grow a vegetable garden, according to legendary chef Alice Waters
Alice Waters [Photo: Paul Sakuma/AP/Shutterstock]

Like much of the world, I’ve spent the past few weeks glued to my phone—riddled with anxiety, simultaneously bored and busy, desperately wanting to be useful but paralyzed by the vastness of the COVID-19 crisis.

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Despite stocking up on canned beans and frozen meat, I quickly ran low on vegetables, and every time I darted into a grocery store for scallions, cilantro, or spinach, I wondered if I was signing my death warrant.

[Image: J. H. Burdett/National Garden Bureau/United States Library of Congress]

It didn’t take me long to start mulling a garden, and I’m not alone. The concept of a “victory garden” has returned in full force, after first coming to prominence during World War 1 when people were encouraged to grow their own food to prevent shortages. While supply lines are running smoothly for the most part, that could change if the economic fallout from the coronavirus continues.

“I’m a huge believer in garden therapy right now,” says Alice Waters, chef and founder of the iconic Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, one of the first farm-to-table restaurants. “It’s occupational therapy while we’re isolated and in quarantine, but the bigger picture is absolutely climate change.”

Gardening has positive effects on the climate in a variety of ways: Plants add nutrients to the soil and help prevent soil erosion; trees and shrubs help capture carbon dioxide from the air; and the more you’re growing your own food, the less you’re buying produce that was transported across the country, creating emissions as it went.

Waters’s own garden. [Photo: courtesy Alice Waters]
Waters has a garden in her backyard in Northern California, but she recently started her own victory garden in the parkway in front of her house. She wanted it to be visible to anyone passing by. “The reason that I’m doing this—yes, it’s for my own sense of food security, for beauty, but the most important is about climate. Growing food organically and regeneratively pulls the carbon down and puts it in the ground where it belongs,” she says. “If there’s one thing we could all do that would address climate in a gigantic way, it would be making compost and making a victory garden.”

With Waters’s encouragement and some nuts-and-bolts advice from gardening experts, I wanted to demystify gardening—not just for myself but for anyone else who has refreshed Twitter one too many times and wants to do something else with their hands. The dirt outside is waiting.

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Where to start

It’s natural to want to go big and plant everything. But it’s important to be realistic and start small, and not just because the productivity trap can be debilitating at a time like this.

“Right now we have enough on our plate. Start modestly and in a way that you can manage it,” says Missy Gable, director of the University of California’s Master Gardener Program. “If you’ve never done this before, don’t transform a quarter acre.”

Before doing anything else, she recommends getting really familiar with your outdoor space in order to understand what you’re dealing with—whether that’s an apartment balcony or a plot of soil in your front or backyard. “Get to know the space, and watch to see how light moves around.”

The Rodale Institute Founders’ Campus Garden. [Photo: courtesy Rodale Institute]

Most plants need about six hours of direct sunlight a day, so you want to assess what patch of land (or corner of your balcony) is best suited for that. Then figure out what kind of soil you’re dealing with: Is it dry or rocky? Does it have the consistency of clay? Is there good drainage or does the water often pool? None of these results are “bad” or should dissuade you from planting there, but understanding what you’re starting with will inform what you do next.

Because soil quality and composition varies depending on region and location, Gable recommends looking up your local master gardener extension program. These programs, which exist in all 50 states, offer classes and resources for home gardeners as well as knowledgable volunteers who are plugged in to local climate and soil particulars. Right now, some master gardener programs, like the one at Oregon State University, are also offering virtual classes. (OSU waived its fee for April and already has more than 17,000 participants.)

Regardless of the soil composition, “you’re always going to want to add organic material,” says John Long, the greenhouse manager for the Rodale Institute, an education hub and research facility that’s been advocating for organic farming for decades. He notes that especially with new homes, construction has often stripped the top soil; and if the space has been grass or lawn in the past, the soil could be compacted.

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For beginning gardeners, especially if you’re starting with a small plot, it’s probably best to buy organic compost to add to the soil. (If you have some space and are thinking a little more long term, it’s worth looking into starting your own compost pile, although it takes about a year to yield usable material.)

Long notes that an easy way to get organic material is to save your fall leaves. He creates a small fenced-in area to dump his leaves in at the end of the season, letting them rot until he can add them to his garden: “It’s a safe and easy way to get organic compost in your garden every year.”

And if you don’t feel like figuring out what’s in your soil or would rather have raised beds, you can build them yourself. Materials for a basic bed can run as low as $50, and each one shouldn’t take more than an hour to construct. Once you have the structure in place, add a mix of soil and compost, and you’re ready to go.

What to grow

When you’re deciding what to fill your plot with, Gable recommends starting with fruits and vegetables that you love to eat—things you’re excited about planting and harvesting.

“For a starting gardener, depending on what your family is most interested in, I always recommend the standards: tomatoes, zucchinis, peppers, carrots, radishes, Swiss chard, eggplants. Those are fun and easy.” (She notes that it’s also important to be aware of what you can’t grow because of your particular climate.)

Thinking about what she most wanted to cook and eat was how Waters got started gardening years ago. “I wanted things planted that I couldn’t get easily at a farmers’ market,” she says. “Lots of vegetables take room. So I decided what I really wanted was to be able to go pick parsley and rosemary and thyme and the herbs that transform cooking for me.”

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[Photo: MichellePatrickPhotography/iStock]

Waters is the queen of sustainable eating and a huge proponent of seasonal cooking. While she says she has a “small garden,” she has mastered the art of using everything that comes out of it. “I love plants where when they’re little you eat the leaves in the salad, when they get bigger and stronger you cook the leaves, then it goes to seed and blossoms and you can put the blossoms in the salads and you can reseed and it comes back up again,” says Waters, citing rocket, frisee, and cilantro as prime examples.

Deciding what to plant has the obvious caveat that it depends on where you live and what time of year you’re starting. If you want to start planting next weekend, look for crops that do well in relatively cool weather. Long recommends lettuce, kale, kohlrabi, spinach, radishes, beets, and other root vegetables.

For summer vegetables like cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, squash, and beans, he says you want the soil temperature to be at least 60 degrees. In many parts of the country, that means you probably have a couple months to go. Here, again, Gable suggests connecting with your local master gardener group to get their recommendations for what crops do well and when to plant them.

[Photo: Damien Creatz/Unsplash]

If you have kids, Gable recommends including some plants that have a shorter yield time, so they can see the results faster. “Radishes are a really nice place to start,” she says. “They mature really quickly, and it’s a fun way for kids to see the fruits of their labor quickly so then they’re invested in the plants that take a little longer like tomatoes.”

Waters is a big believer in getting kids on board as well. She launched The Edible Schoolyard Project 25 years ago to teach children about growing food and help them connect with nature. “I can absolutely confirm that if kids grow it and cook it, they all eat it, no matter what it is,” she says. “And they will always be environmentalists. They fall in love with nature.”

How to plant

Once you have your space picked out and have decided what to grow, you need to decide whether you want to plant seeds or transplants (also called seedlings or starts). For beginners, Gable largely recommends transplants (and underscores several times the importance of reading the labels to determine when and how to plant).

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[Photo: Markus Spiske/Unsplash]

Still, starts tend to be more expensive, and Long notes that root vegetables don’t transplant well, so you’ll likely want to direct sow those. If you have access to a greenhouse, or can create a greenhouse environment with heat and LED lights, Long suggests creating your own starts. (This is slightly more advanced gardening, but still achievable with the help of online tutorials!) This lets you plant vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants when outside temperatures are still too chilly for them in the ground.

If you’re in an apartment or have a small patio, you’ll likely be doing container gardening, which shouldn’t limit your options. “Basically anything can grow in a container,” Long says, as long as you make sure to water regularly and get the right size to give the roots space. Herbs are also natural for container gardening and don’t need as much water (which is a big benefit, as containers tend to dry out faster).

As for how to get your gardening materials, you should be able to find what you need even with the recent run on seeds. Heirloom varieties from smaller seed companies might be harder to come by, but your run-of-the-mill seed packets are likely still available in grocery stores and online outlets. In many states, nurseries are considered essential businesses, so they remain open even under shelter-in-place orders.

How to maintain

Once you’ve got your garden in, it’s not time to sit back and relax. But that’s actually a good thing, as working outside has been shown to have mental and physical benefits that are especially critical at a time like this. “Research shows that when we are out in an outdoor environment, serotonin levels go up and norepinephrine—that’s our fight or flight response—goes down,” Gable says. “Plus, muscle tension goes down, heart rate goes down, blood pressure goes down. And you can have incredible physical activity with gardening, working on fine motor skills and joint health. It’s really important as we’re trying to figure out what our new normal is.”

[Photo: Markus Spiske/Unsplash]
Gable says ideally you’d get out in the garden every day, whether that’s to water, monitor for pests, or just check the plants’ health. Down the line, you’ll want to keep an eye out so you know when they’re ready to harvest. Here, again, Gable says to read the package instructions to know how long it takes the plants to mature; keeping some sort of a gardening journal can be useful to track this.

And then, soon enough, you’ll get to start enjoying the fruits of your labor. Waters said she’s been cooking a lot of dried beans with greens and herbs from her garden. “I go pick a little sprig of rosemary, savory, tops of parsley that aren’t good for chopping up and eating right now, bay leaves. I tie it with a string and put it in with beans and carrots and celery and onions—it makes the most delicious meal.”

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Waters’s victory garden is in its early stages—she just started planting a couple weeks ago—but it’s already having the desired effect: One neighbor left a note under her door saying she was inspired to start a garden of her own.

“It’s hard to believe that there’s anything more hopeful than this,” Waters says. “The fact that we can grow food and address climate and be healthy and happy is astonishing.”

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