Grow your own veggies? Orin Martin offers tips for novice gardeners

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As the coronavirus pandemic fuels interest in home gardening, Orin Martin offers tips and resources for novice gardeners. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)
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Orin Martin is delighted that people are responding to the coronavirus pandemic with a desire to grow their own veggies, and he has lots of knowledge to share—as well as one plea: Be sure to plant some flowers, too.

"I always say, vegetables are food for the body, and flowers are food for the spirit and soul," said Martin, manager of the Alan Chadwick Garden at UCSC.

Timing is good, with temperatures warming up, and local nurseries stocked with seeds and seedlings—and many offering curbside pickup, too.

"In spring, it's almost a biological impulse: People get the urge to garden," said Martin, who recently celebrated his 40th anniversary with the UCSC Farm and Garden. "It's a good thing. You get recreation, exercise, focus, diversion, contemplation, meditation, a little workout. And in this mild climate, we can grow cool- and warm-weather crops almost side by side."

With no further ado, here are Martin's tips for success:

Vegetables

Martin suggests starting with salad mix, and he encourages gardeners to grow what they like: a mix of kale, Asian greens, lettuce—whatever they enjoy. Pre-mixed seed blends are available commercially, or you can "mix your own."

Seeds are small and should be sown directly into the ground, as evenly as possible. "Not haphazard, about 1/4-inch apart," he recommends. "It's better to over-sow than under-sow—within reason! Do your best and forget the rest."

Cover seeds with a thin layer of fine soil, then sprinkle daily. Seedlings emerge in 3-5 days and should be ready to cut in about 21 days. Salad greens should be 3-4" tall before you head outside with scissors in hand to harvest your first crop.

"Just grab a handful and cut it at the base," he said. "Leave enough that the plants will re-sprout and grow back. You can get two, three, or even four cuttings per plot."

And if you sow seed every 7-10 days, you'll have tender baby greens all summer long.

Pro tip: Martin really likes including an endive called Bianca Riccia in salad mix. It's slow and "a little difficult," but worth it, he said.

This is also the perfect time to plant head lettuce, radicchio, Asian and European cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, scallions, potatoes, and winter and summer squash. Martin, who received special dispensation to tend the Chadwick Garden during the coronavirus shutdown, admits he has planted 19 varieties of winter squash. He's not convinced broccoli and cauliflower justify the space they require, given that each plant yields just one head: "I'm not sure that's worth it on the home front." But plant what you like, he reiterates.

Anticipating summer's bounty, Martin highlights eggplant, cucumbers, tomatoes, tomatillos, beans, and basil. Bush beans are popular, but Martin prefers pole beans, which quickly cover a trellis, providing a bonus screen or hedge where desired—"and they're easier to pick!"

There are dozens of basils to choose from, but Genovese is the best of the green basils. Martin gets rhapsodic describing the wonders of lemon basil added to a stir-fry or a clear broth soup. "Look for Mrs. Burns lemon basil," he urged.

Pro tips: "I love all the Italian flat beans—Romano Musica is wonderful—but the great unsung, underappreciated bean is the scarlet runner bean. The flowers attract hummingbirds, and it's a perennial that comes back from a tuber like a dahlia. The beans are great dried, too. Dried, they are exquisitely colored, jet black with a sprinkling of pink—almost too beautiful to throw in the soup tureen."

Root crops

Root crops need to be sown directly into the ground, rather than transplanted as seedlings. Martin recommends radishes, carrots, beets, rutabagas ("If you like 'em"), and turnips—especially a Japanese variety, Hakurei.

When planting, picture the width of the "shoulder" of the crop, and place the seeds a little closer. "So an inch or so for carrots, and three or four inches apart for beets," said Martin.

If seeds are sown too close together, they will need to be thinned, and it's easy to injure seedlings that are left in the ground.

Pro tip: "Always sow a little more for the birds, snails, and slugs," said Martin. To manage snails and slugs, keep the garden tidy by removing debris and mulch. If all else fails, try an organic snail bait like Sluggo. Birds are a seasonal issue, and although many are about to migrate away from the Central Coast, a little bird netting can help protect tender seedlings until they're sturdy enough to survive losing a leaf or two to a sparrow.

Flowers

And then there are flowers. Flowers to feed the soul, grace the table, and attract bees and butterflies to pollinate your veggies.

Martin's list of easy and carefree flowers starts with calendula, cornflower, and forget-me-nots, moves on to sweet William, pincushion flower and statice, and wraps up with the stars of the summer show: aster, cosmos, zinnia, and sunflowers.

Compost

Martin implores every gardener, novice and experts alike, to build a compost pile twice a year. "You just need a good amount of greens and some carbon—a little leaves, or straw, or even wood chips," he said. In spring, even weeds that grew over the winter are fair game--as long as they don't have mature seeds. "Weeds are amazing cyclers of nutrients and biomass," he said.

Building a compost pile can be daunting at first, but like weeding a garden bed, it's satisfying. "You start here, then look back and realize you're done," he said. "It an amazing sense of satisfaction. Then you let it go. You let it rot."

Summer cover crops

And if summer vegetables aren't your thing, Martin offers two tips for cover crops that will keep your soil healthy until you're ready to get back at it: buckwheat and sorghum.

Buckwheat is an amazing "green manure" that grows about knee high, requires no irrigation, and is virtually indestructible plant. "It would grow in sidewalk cracks, that's how tough it is," he said. "It goes from seed to flower in 30-40 days. It really improves the soil."

Sorghum is almost the opposite, shooting up to heights of 8-10 feet in only 5-6 weeks. "It creates almost scary biomass, and you can irrigate—or not," he said.

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Additional resources:

Orin Martin gets seed from numerous outlets, but he recommends Johnny's Selected Seeds as a "one stop, go-to seed company." Other favorites include Renee's Garden Seeds, High Mowing Seeds, Seed Saver's Exchange, Territorial Seed Company, Native Seeds Search, and Seeds of Change.

The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems has prepared a treasure trove of information for home gardeners, including the following handouts:

Soil cultivation and garden-bed preparation

Making quality compost

Snail and slug control

Water conservation tips

In addition, the archives of the Center's News and Notes newsletter are available online, organized by season.