Living off the fat o' the land
April 27, 2008 10:57 AM   Subscribe

We've got a tiny patch of dirt in our back yard and want to grow edible stuff. We're not that serious, just mostly goofing off. What could we grow out there using existing foodstuffs? By that, I mean, we want to grow green onions, for example. Can we just grab a few green onions from the fridge, cut off the bottom, and plant those? Are there any other simple-to-grow foodstuffs we should consider? We're in Southern California, but the patch of dirt only gets direct sunlight maybe 1-2 hours a day.
posted by edjusted to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
potatoes - chop them in quarters and plant them.

corn is fun to watch grow but you may waqant to buy the seed.
posted by jseven at 11:08 AM on April 27, 2008

Unless you know what's been poured on that patch of dirt in the way of insecticides and weed killers in the last 5 to 7 years, it might not be such a great idea to eat stuff that grows out of it. Some pesticides, like termite treatments, have long lifecycles (think decades) in undisturbed soil. One way around that, if it's a concern, is to grow in pots on the space.

That said, 1 or 2 hours a day of direct sunlight is plenty for the milder lettuces, but it will be tough to grow much worth eating if the plot is in deep shade the rest of the day. You could try zucchini, squash, and maybe onions. Start onions from sets (small seedlings) you can get at your garden center.
posted by paulsc at 11:15 AM on April 27, 2008

Yay, fellow SoCal edibles gardeners! I was all set to jump in here with some suggestions, until your last line brought me to a screeching halt: "only gets direct sunlight maybe 1-2 hours a day".

That is a big, big problem. With so little sunlight, you're going to be pretty limited as to what you can grow, even with our fabulous climate; everything edible needs sun to grow. I think you may be limited to herbs and the like -- try sage, basil, oregano, cilantro, chives. You can plant from scratch with seeds in a cup of dirt, like you're in kindergarten again (I recommend getting them from Seed Savers -- they're open-pollinated heirloom seeds), or you can pick up little baby plants at your local nursery (I recommend Armstrong's -- find your nearest one here).

Usually, one doesn't plant lettuce this time of year in SoCal,. because it's getting too damn hot and the heat makes the plant "bolt", i.e. send up a flower stalk and get bitter. But you can plant it this fall, though, and it may do okay in your spot, though it will grow more slowly than if it had a decent six hours of sun.

Also this fall, you can take garlic, separate it into cloves (but don't peel them at all if you can help it -- try to leave the husk on) and plant those eight inches apart. You can then harvest the garlic next spring. Again, it may grow more slowly than if you had decent sun back there, though.

Finally, do you have any sunny spots at all for a large pot, like on a balcony or by a doorway? If you remember to keep them watered, many edible things grow very well in containers, cherry tomatoes being the classic example. Oh, and don't forget the upside-down Topsy Turvy tomato planters. I used them last year and am growing in them again this year; they work very very well, and are great if space is an issue.

(Dumb question: can you just get someone to trim the trees in your backyard so it's less shady? I have three sycamores and have to do this every spring, for the health of the trees and for my garden's sun exposure.)
posted by Asparagirl at 11:15 AM on April 27, 2008

Herbs and some salad greens, pole beans maybe. 1-2 hours of direct sun is not enough for most food-producing plants. Not sure about the green onions. Don't even think about tomatoes, which are normally easy in a minimum 4 hours of sun. Others may chime in with better ideas.
posted by artdrectr at 11:17 AM on April 27, 2008

I am also trying to figure what to put in the ground that I can later eat, but the whole dirt quality thing takes me aback a little. Is there any way to figure out if its safe through testing?
posted by mzurer at 11:18 AM on April 27, 2008

Also, why not think about fruit, rather than vegetables? I have two super-dwarf citrus trees in pots and two semi-dwarf nectarine and peach trees in pots, recently added a semi-dwarf tangerine (inherited from husband's grandma's balcony collection) and just added a Dwarf Cavendish banana tree in a large pot yesterday afternoon! (Estimated banana harvest time: late 2010.) Other than a few hours in the late afternoon, all of these pots are in the shade so that the plants won't scorch.

You can get the ultra-dwarf citrus plants online from Four Winds Growers; the others came mostly from Armstrong's -- though as of yesterday, they are not carrying peach, nectarine, or apple trees again until this fall, since they've just set their fruit.
posted by Asparagirl at 11:23 AM on April 27, 2008

Response by poster: The backyard doesn't get much sunlight because it's tiny, and we're boxed in by tall houses. Imagine trying to have a garden in an alley. The patch of dirt is about 1 ft x 12 ft or so. No insecticides have ever been used, so no worries there.

Paulsc: is an "onion set" simply the bottom portion of a green onion, like the kind you bought in the store? e.g. we've got a bunch of green onions from the store in the fridge. If we just cut off the bottom bulb part, can we simply try to plant that?

Herbs are a consideration. Zucchini sounds intriguing. We have no problems with fruits, in fact we've got a tiny little lemon tree there already. Unfortunately, because of the lack of sunlight, I think, we've only managed to get a few really tiny lemons out of it.

We're also trying to stick to "stuff we can buy in a grocery store and stick in the ground" vs "stuff we have to buy in a nursery stick in the ground." Yes, I know it's silly, but that's the criteria. So things like chopping up a potato or saving an avocado seed are fine, going out an buying a tree or whatnot are out.

And yeah, we'd love to grow fruits back there. But with the limited space and sunlight, we thought veggies might be better.
posted by edjusted at 11:37 AM on April 27, 2008

mzurer, not that I know of. Raised beds or Earthboxes or even just very big pots are good bets if you suspect your backyard has been dumped in.

Check out the Dervaes family in Pasadena -- they do almost exclusively raised bed gardening, and their 1/10 of an acre backyard garden looks like this! They grew 6,000 pounds of food last year! Organically! A block from the 210 Freeway!
posted by Asparagirl at 11:39 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

"... Yes, I know it's silly, but that's the criteria. ..."

Don't let me rain on your parade, but you're really new to this whole food thing, aren't you? Vegetables you buy in a store are generally washed several times and treated to keep them from sprouting, or rotting in shipping. Most are hybrid cultivars that have desireable taste and appearance, but don't produce viable seed, or seed that is a true offspring. So, sure, go bury your onions, soon. If they rot, you'll still have time to go buy a few sets to plant, that will grow.
posted by paulsc at 11:54 AM on April 27, 2008

we've got a bunch of green onions from the store in the fridge. If we just cut off the bottom bulb part, can we simply try to plant that?

Nope. Sorry.

Onion 'sets' are onion bulbs that have been air-cured and stored so that they're dry (but still viable); therefore, they don't rot when you put them in damp soil. The green onions you bought at the store are immature onions. They're very wet and very soft. You can try rooting them, but your chances of success are about 1%. You'd have better luck buying boiling onions or pearl onions, leaving them in the pantry until they start to sprout, and planting those.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:59 AM on April 27, 2008

I know nothing about gardening, but we actually got apples last year off of a tree my kid planted from a seed from a grocery store apple when we first moved in.

They weren't the best apples, but it surprised the heck out of me. I assumed all the apples were mutant will-not-grow something or anothers.
posted by Gucky at 12:35 PM on April 27, 2008

I agree with paulsc - avoid planting shop bought veg. You're much better off buying seed potatoes and 'chitting' them before planting. Oh and best get your garlic from a seed catalogue, since they have been bred for disease-resistance. They may be slightly more expensive but they are more likely to survive.

Salad leaves and broccoli also grow well in shade.
posted by highrise at 12:36 PM on April 27, 2008

Definitely go with container gardening, even if you have your own patch of dirt, if you're new to gardening. I highly recommend this book: McGee & Stuckey's Bountiful Container, which deals specifically with gardening to generate food. We have a tiny urban back "yard" with no dirt, just concrete, and only partial sun, but over the past few years we've gotten pounds of produce out of a few containers. Tomatoes work well if you're ready to water regularly, and we've had great results with peas, lettuce, arugula, squash, and radishes, among other vegetables. The book should let you know what will work best for your amount of sunlight, and what vegetables you can grow using produce you've bought (some hybrid varieties don't reproduce) vs. purchased seeds or seedlings. The only thing we've gotten to grow well from store-bought produce was butternut squash (scrape the seeds out and don't rinse too much, then plant).
posted by tractorfeed at 1:35 PM on April 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

Also, we've planted garlic cloves (unpeeled) from a head we bought in the local market; although we've never ended up with getting an actual new head of garlic, what shoots up above ground, the "scapes" as they're called, are quite nice to eat.
posted by tractorfeed at 1:52 PM on April 27, 2008

Response by poster: Got it about trying to throw my grocery story leftovers in the dirt. Yep, I *am* kind'a new to this stuff. As a kid, I used to bury corn kernels and got some nice corn plants to grow, except we had to chop 'em down because of all the bugs. That's really about all the gardening experience I have, and my wife has even less.

It sounds like if we want to grow any goodies, we're just gonna have to get more serious about it. Thanks for all the feedback so far. It's very useful!
posted by edjusted at 2:53 PM on April 27, 2008

I'd worry less about the sun and more about getting the soil ready for growing stuff. Every garden I've started down here in so-cal has required some serious breaking up of soil and mixing with some compost.

Regarding stuff from your market, the only things that have worked for me were potatos, tomatoes and peppers. If you're thinking that you want to use your food waste, compost that stuff in your little garden area.

(I would try to grow some stuff from seed too. That's what we do and we always get a good yield.)

Good luck. Eating your own home grown food is the best!
posted by snsranch at 3:20 PM on April 27, 2008

Is there any way to figure out if its safe through testing?

Try contacting your local Master Gardeners group at the extension program at a state school. You can send in a soil sample and they will tell you everything you need to know about the condition of the soil including heavy metals etc.
posted by terrapin at 3:33 PM on April 27, 2008

Some ideas: make a raised bed. You can do root vegetables in that with little problem. You could probably do lettuces and greens and doing herbs would be great -- I'm not sure of the sun/shade requirements of herbs but basil and rosemary seem to be pretty hardy. Then make a little trellis to maximize vertical space and maybe do peas? Squash take up a lot of room but are pretty easy to grow.

We had a tiny space 2'x16', south-facing but shaded by a fence -- it mostly got a little morning and afternoon sun. We built up boxes and put them on top of the fence and grew onions, carrots and, I think, garlic and chives in that. We put broccoli in the spot that got the most sun and we grew butternut squash and had zucchini (huge!) and lettuce. We were ready to vine up some peas but then we moved.

Get on Craigslist and look for plant sales and people selling starters -- you can find stuff cheap. You could try to do stuff from groceries but it won't be as much fun if stuff doesn't grow, you know?
posted by amanda at 4:46 PM on April 27, 2008

I don't know what the hell mudpuppie is talking about re:onions. Of course you can take a green onion stump and stick it in the ground. I've done it a bunch of times. However, a green onion is not a regular bulb onion that hasn't matured. So if you're expecting to get a "real" onion out of a green one you'll be disappointed - you will get a larger and leafier green onion and eventually a giant flower.

But yes, as you've correctly guessed, they are alive when you get them at the supermarket.

If you have gardening friends or neighbors you might be able to get cuttings and grow them that way. It obviously depends on the plant, but there are a number of herbs that can easily be propagated this way. Watch out for mint - it's seriously invasive and should be contained in a pot.
posted by O9scar at 5:14 PM on April 27, 2008

Give it a shot. Go to a garden store, and ask for advice on seeds that tolerate shade. They may not do well, but you'll have fun. In cooler weather, you can grow spinach and lettuces. It's really fun to grow your own salad.
posted by theora55 at 8:26 PM on April 27, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everybody!
posted by edjusted at 10:55 AM on April 28, 2008

Gucky writes "I know nothing about gardening, but we actually got apples last year off of a tree my kid planted from a seed from a grocery store apple when we first moved in.

"They weren't the best apples, but it surprised the heck out of me. I assumed all the apples were mutant will-not-grow something or anothers."

Apples are all bred within an inch of their lives hybrids and clones. Propagation is by cuttings because apples are also complete sluts that don't breed true.
posted by Mitheral at 7:05 PM on May 1, 2008

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