Growing your food has its rewards

Matt Fernandez/The Signal Tomatoes come in many different varieties, colors and flavors, and most of them are easy to grow at home.

Food costs add up, especially if you’re trying to maintain a healthy diet. For those trying to eat well and stay on budget, growing your own vegetables can be a fun, rewarding and cost-effective alternative to market prices.

“I’ve sold vegetables and fruit to people who have come back and told me they’re saving around $200 per year because all the crops they need are in their own yard,” said Mike Wronkowski, nursery manager at Green Thumb Nursery. “The biggest piece of advice I give to people who are just starting to grow their own food is to not experiment with anything new when you start but only grow the plants that you like to eat.”

Matt Fernandez/The Signal
If you grow your own herbs, including sweet basil, you can use them to enhance the flavor of your food.

Different crops grow best at different times of the year. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are some of the most popular and relatively low-maintenance plants that can thrive during the heat of spring and summer. Herbs — like basil, mint and cilantro — are annual plants that typically need to be replaced each year, but can grow year round.

“One of the plants I sell the most of are tomatoes, because they produce a lot very fast, and they’re easy to grow,” Wronkowski said. “Beefsteak tomatoes are popular along with early girl tomatoes, which produce veggies really early in the growing season and can even last until winter.”

Plant care

Vegetables should be fed once per month when they are young with high-nitrate fertilizer and watered often and deeply in the soil. To promote pollination, Wronkowski recommends grouping similar plants together in small bunches close together. If space is an issue, some vegetables, like tomatoes, can be grown indoors so long as they get sufficient sunshine, with one plant per 15 gallon pot or raised planter.

Fruit trees require more planning and space allocation. Citrus plants do not require a lot of water and should be kept separate from any plants that grow in very damp soil and receive frequent waterings.

Beware overwatering

Since Santa Clarita’s soil is composed mostly of hard clay, Richard Green, owner of Green Landscape Nursery, recommends buying soil that is sandier in texture to allow for easier root growth. The looser soil will also promote better air flow, better nutrient distribution and proper drainage so plants do not drown if accidentally overwatered. Green also recommends planting in raised, angled mounds to allow water to flow throughout the garden and prevent overwatering.

“One of the biggest mistakes that people make when planting citrus trees is putting them in their front lawn with the grass that gets a lot of water or trying to grow other plants underneath them,” Wronkowski said. “The main thing when growing edibles is knowing the plant’s needs and your location.”

Organic plants are those grown without using chemicals in pesticides or soil. While it is possible to purchase certified organic vegetable plants, it is not possible to purchase organic fruit trees in California due to laws and regulations put in place to combat invasive pests. It is possible to convert fruit trees into organics after purchase by using organic soils and refraining from using chemical pesticides.

Organic soils like bone meal, blood meal or bat guano are much better for plants than the petroleum-based conventional soils, because, while the conventional soil will help the plant grow, there is a chance that the chemicals will burn the roots and cause the plant to die.

“You can never go wrong with organics, because they have a lot of really good nutrients that won’t fry your plants as easily,” Green said. “The best kinds of organic fertilizers are the powders, because they release the nutrients slower than the pellets.”

The best pest deterrent

Alternative options for pest control include dishwashing soap and water, non-chemical sprays and deterrents or natural pest predators like ladybugs and praying mantises. While putting up protective fencing may help to keep dogs and other pets from ruining a garden, smaller and craftier critters like opossums, raccoons, squirrels and rats are easily able to get around fences. To keep these larger pests out, coyote urine is the most effective, natural deterrent for all but the most hungry and desperate animals. For taller plants like citrus trees that tree animals like squirrels can easily jump into, Wronkowski recommends filling a sock of the urine pellets and hanging it from the tree while it still has fruits.

Some of the biggest mistakes that Wronkowski encounters with new gardeners is overfeeding and expecting the crops to grow before the plant is mature enough. High-nitrate soil should be used when the plant is young to promote growth, but as harvest time comes around, then people should “starve” the plant by switching to a lower-nitrate soil to promote the plant to start flowering and bear fruits and vegetables.

Seasonal vegetables grow fairly quickly and should start to produce food within a few weeks of planting. Citrus trees should be mature enough within the first year of planting. However, other fruit trees like nectarines and peaches are not mature enough to distribute their energy and make good fruits until the second or third year.

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