Meet my friends Leigh Raiford and Michael Cohen, typical nomadic academics who put down roots in Berkeley six years ago with their children Maya and Maceo. (Maya is in the same class as my son.)
These two transplants passed on their recipe for roasted kale and inspired me to start my own little backyard raised veg bed last summer.
I bet their story will get you excited about planting your own food too, whether or not you’re a budding urban farmer or suburban gardener.
What, a post on growing a row in December? Hey, we live in the balmy Bay Area. We pulled up the last of the tomato plants on Saturday, went to the beach on Sunday (glorious day, no fog, I swear), and picked up sweet strawberries from the farmers’ market today.
We’ve had a typically warm fall, but no need for folks in other parts of the country to turn green with envy; the relentless sunshine (honestly, it can be exhausting ensuring you enjoy the good weather all the time) will likely end soon. Indeed, rain is expected this weekend and that stuff makes us Left Coasters go running for cover.
Regardless, whether you’re keen to put in a winter crop or live somewhere where seed catalogs are the only thing sprouting until spring, these folks have learned a thing or two about growing their own grub and they’re willing to share the wealth.
When the Raiford-Cohen clan first moved out West they rented a home in North Berkeley with a massive backyard garden that was chock full of every kind of produce under the sun. “It wasn’t a vegetable garden, ” says Leigh, who grew up in Harlem, and had never seen the likes of figs, tomatillos, or white raspberries before. “It was a farm.”
The couple had dabbled in gardening at previous university pit stops around the country but once they landed in California they decided to get serious about growing greens.
When they bought a home of their own two years ago in sunny South Berkeley, a large concrete area out back begged to be torn up and turned into an edible oasis. So that’s just what they did. Michael dug out concrete, put up fences, and amended soil. They solicited the help of professional gardening friend Andrea Hurd, who was keen to design a permaculture food forest but hadn’t yet convinced any clients to let her loose in their backyard. Leigh and Michael had no such reservations.
The result? More of an overgrown playground filled with edible finds and less of a traditional vegetable patch of tidy rows. Just my kind of food garden: A recent tour reveals enough pumpkins to carve for Halloween and plenty left over to make soup at Thanksgiving. We pick the last of the green zebra tomatoes; the kids promptly devour them. Snipped sprigs of lemon verbena will find their way into simple syrup for cocktail hour. We spot the first of the purple grapes, enthusiastically sampled.
Last summer the family harvested vegetables from their plot for every meal; fresh fruits for breakfast and veggies for lunch and dinner. Michael makes batches of tomato sauce that he freezes to preserve the surplus summer crop for the winter months, in a nod to urban homesteading. Leigh, who considers herself the primary harvester to Michael’s farmer, says her kids chow down on kale, collards, okra, and other homegrown veggies. (She’s also the family food photographer; the garden harvest images in this post are her own.)
Their advice for budding food gardeners:
Grow what you like to eat. The family tried to grow broccoli without much success; since Leigh’s not a huge fan of this cruciferous veggie, they moved on to other greens.
Stagger plantings & choose different tree types so everything doesn’t ripen at once. They chose two apple varieties that are ready to pick at either end of the season.
Pick up tips on companion planting. For instance, plant thyme next to cabbage, nasturtiums near pumpkins, or marigolds and basil by tomatoes to protect crops from pests.
Plant varieties you can’t easily (and more cheaply) find at the farmers’ market or grocery store. The couple skipped common apple choices like fuji and granny smith in favor of sierra beauty and carolina red june trees of antiquity. Check seed catalogs for heirloom varieties. The Lemon Lady provides a list of free seed catalogs.
Look for resources in your community. Here’s just a sampling of what’s on offer locally: Berkeley residents can pick up free compost courtesy of the city on the last Friday of every month from February-October, buy soil and soil amendments at American Soil, and get advice, plants, and seedlings at the Spiral Gardens Community Food Security Project. San Francisco dwellers can learn about growing food in classes and demos at Garden for the Environment. Low-income residents in West Oakland can get help tending their own backyard vegetable plot by contacting City Slicker Farms. And folks can also sign up for the uber-popular classes in gardening, beekeeping and more at the Institute of Urban Homesteading in Oakland or BioFuel Oasis in Berkeley.
Don’t have anywhere to plant where you live? Click here to read about how one Oakland gardener traded labor for land and fed two families in the process. Find other ways to outsource establishing your own food plot in the East Bay in this recent Diablo magazine story. And if you’re already growing your own, find tips to get more food from your garden this winter or next spring in this Oregonian article.
I learned this summer just how satisfying it is to go out the back door and pick your dinner (or at least some of it). So I’m thinking it’s time to get some dinosaur kale (natch), collards, and fava beans in the ground.
How about you?
Family photo: Sarah Henry