Q & A with Master Gardener Birgitt Evans
By Heather Lyn Wood
Birgitt Evans knows a lot about dirt. The keeper of a large backyard garden on Alameda’s East End, she sees the soil from two equally important angles: what it can do for people, and what people should do in return. Evans is certified as an Alameda County master gardener.
The Master Gardener Program, operated by the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Division, has representatives like Evans in each California county. Each trainee completes a 17-week certification course before returning home as an official master gardener and advocate for the University’s Cooperative Extension. The result is a long-term gift to the person’s community: an expert gardener armed with a wealth of research-based information and the ability to mentor others. Volunteers like Evans serve as a bridge between the University system’s collective knowledge and, say, your neighbor who needs help with her lemons.
Evans guides and informs aspiring gardeners by teaching classes and workshops and serving as a resource at local events like the West Alameda Farmers Market and Alameda County Fair. She recently sat down for the first of a series of conversations about gardening in Alameda.
I want to plant a garden, but it’s November. Isn’t it too late?
Well, late November is too late to plant new seeds, but you can buy starts (transplants) from a nursery and transplant them into your garden if you do it right now. You can use greens (lettuce, chard, mustard, kale, spinach), garlic, and roots (carrots, turnips, and radishes). If you want to plant California natives like currant (ribes) or hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea), November is a good time to do so. This is also an excellent time to plant perennials: lavenders and Australian plants like Grevillea, Australian fuchsia (Correa) and Westringia, which bloom in the winter. Finally, you can use this time to look for and order bare root fruit trees that will be delivered to you in January. Plant right away so that your plants can establish growth before it gets cold and dark.
The only things I’ve ever grown are weeds! What if I make a mistake and the plants all die?
You will make a mistake! The first thing to remember as a gardener is that you will fail in some of your efforts. We all do. No matter how good of a gardener you are, things just happen. For example, slugs might eat everything. Don’t give up! Go out there at night with a flashlight and take them off the plants. Or go out and buy some Slug-O. Try, try again until something works.
What are some common ‘rookie gardener’ mistakes and how can I avoid them?
Well, there are a few. (See below where I talk about healthy soil.) One mistake made by inexperienced gardeners has to do with space. People don’t consider the final size of each plant, and they don’t leave enough space between plants. Always think about how big each plant will get when deciding how much space to give it in a bed or other location. Another common mistake is failure to locate plants where they will get adequate sunlight. I plant my summer garden in a different location than my winter garden, because the light falls differently depending on the season. So take note of which area of your garden gets sunlight during the fall and winter, and plant accordingly. Finally, don’t forget to water a plant that you have just transplanted from a pot to the ground. Unless you’re expecting a rainstorm in the next hour, you always have to add extra water to a plant in a new location.
Besides planting, what else can I do in November in my garden?
Many beginner gardeners don’t pay attention to the health of their soil. Fall is an excellent time to make compost, add compost to your soil, and put in a cover crop (plants that will be turned under to enrich the soil). It is also a great time to collect fallen leaves and mulch your planter beds. Having life in your soil is going to give you healthy soil that is more resistant to disease. You have to care for your soil first and build a healthy ecosystem from the ground up. There is a life cycle, and only half of it is the seed growing into a mature plant. The other half is that plant dying and decomposing back into the soil. Gardeners should pay attention to both.
I might not start my garden until the spring. In general, what are some low-maintenance vegetables that a new gardener in Alameda might want to try?
In late March you can plant tomatoes, and in April you can do peppers. There are hundreds of pepper varieties, from sweet bells to chiles, and they all grow well here in rich, fertile soil. April is also a good time for cucumbers and beans. When you’re deciding what to plant, consider what you will do with the food you grow. Plant what you think you will use and think ahead about whether you will cook the vegetables, preserve them or share them with friends and neighbors.
I would like to have an organic garden, and I want to buy seeds that are not genetically modified. Can you recommend any reputable sources?
As a certified master gardener, I do not endorse specific companies over others. However, I can tell you about some sources that I have used in my own personal garden. Most small seed companies are non-GMO at the moment. Johnny’s Seeds offers organic and non-organic seeds in a catalogue and online. They will tell you what plants are easy to grow, where to grow them, whether or not the seeds are organic, and if they are heirloom or hybrid. Other sources are Peaceful Valley Farm, Territorial Seed, Seeds of Change, and Baker Creek Seeds (which is all-organic and has a large store in Petaluma). Finally, the nonprofit Native Seeds/S.E.A.R.C.H. conserves and sells seeds indigenous to the Southwest that have been used by Native Americans for thousands of years.
What are the basic gardening tools that every beginner should have, and where can I get them?
First, buy a good pitchfork. Find one that is the right height for you and good quality. It is worth the money you spend to have a good quality fork that will last. If you order one online or by mail, be sure that you have physically tested it out first. You will also need a gardening rake and a strong shovel. Be sure to get some kind of plant cover to protect your crops from plant-eating critters. And get some stakes or other reinforcements for tomatoes, squash, peas and pole beans. If you have limited space and you need to contain your tomatoes, you can use cement reinforcing wire to make a tomato cage.
This has been really helpful, but I know I will have a lot of questions when I’m actually planting my garden. Where can I go for answers?
You can reach a master gardener through the University of California Cooperative Extension by calling the Master Gardener hotline at (510) 639-1371 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about how to speak with a master gardener in person can be found on the program’s website. The National Gardening Association is a good resource, as is Organic Gardening magazine. Finally, you might want to get a copy of the California Master Gardener Handbook, which is available from the UC Davis Agriculture and Natural Resources Catalogue.
Do you have any last words of wisdom for me before I start my first garden?
Yes. First, be patient. Second, observe your garden. Get to know it. When you really get into those leaves, you can see what’s going on with them and what they need. Finally, maintain a diverse ecosystem. Insects will eat your plants, but predators (birds, ladybugs, even wild turkeys) will eat the insects. This is the way it is supposed to work. Gardening is all about trial and error.