Q & A with Alameda County Master Gardener Birgitt Evans
By Heather Lyn Wood
As explained in an earlier article, Alameda gardener Birgitt Evans is certified as an Alameda County Master Gardener through the University of California at Davis Agriculture and Natural Resources Division. Evans guides aspiring gardeners by teaching classes and workshops and serving as an informational resource at events like the West Alameda Farmers Market and Alameda County Fair. Evans has also been growing her own food in Alameda County for almost 30 years and chronicles her adventures on her blog, Birgitts Place. The Island caught up with her this week to discuss spring planting in Alameda, part of an ongoing series featuring Evans as resident garden expert.
I’m ready to plant a garden, but I’m not sure what to plant. Where should I start?
April is the time to plant summer crops in Alameda. I sometimes refer to crops in terms of ‘New World’ and ‘Old World.’ Old World crops are those that were introduced to the Americas by European explorers, like basil, eggplant and cucumbers. Then there are the New World crops – those that were already growing in this hemisphere and were at some point domesticated – the Three Sisters of corn, beans and squash, and also tomatoes and peppers. All of these are summer crops that grow well in Alameda.
Tomatoes, peppers and basil will continue to produce all summer, so you need to find good space for those. For example, corn will grow up and create shade over other plants, so you want to make sure that your tomatoes and peppers are in a place where they won’t be under your corn plants.
Other summer crops, like the Three Sisters and cucumbers, will produce for a few weeks rather than producing all summer. For these, you can get them in now, but plan on planting a succession crop because the original ones will come and go. This means that after one crop is harvested, another is planted in the same space. You can also plant successive crops as your winter crops are coming out. For shorter term producers like corn, beans and squash – those that come up all at once and then stop – you should plant less than you think you need. For instance, for a family of four, I would plant 15 bush bean plants now, and then plant another group in a month. This way, you won’t be drowning in bush beans one week and completely without them the next!
Where in the garden should I locate my plants?
If you use planter beds, run them east to west to maximize sunlight for everything.
What kind of soil should I use?
You want to use a rich, fertile soil. Get some organic compost (decaying organic matter like leaves or manure) and mix two inches of it into the top 10 inches of your planting soil. Then get a good, balanced organic fertilizer. The ingredient information on the back of the bag will tell you the percentage, by dry weight, of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. You want to find a fertilizer that has at least a five/five/five balance – just look for the number ratio printed on the bag.
I have my soil and plants. Now what?
First, loosen the soil and work in the fertilizer. You should plant your seeds or starter plants the recommended distance or slightly closer together. You should have 18 square inches per plant for tomatoes and 12 inches square for peppers. Squash can go anywhere it has room to run, like off the side of the planter bed. Bush beans need to be six inches apart on a grid, and corn must also be planted in grid formation. Corn plants cross-pollinate each other, so they need to face each other in order to do that. If you plant them in a straight row, they won’t have access to each other for pollination. I recommend planting 18 corn plants in a three-by-six block. Again, be sure to locate peppers, eggplants and basil somewhere that the tomatoes and corn won’t overshadow them.
In terms of planting depth, tomato stems can be slightly buried, but be sure not to bury the stems of anything else. If it is a warm day, plant in the evening, and water the plants as soon as they have been planted.
How often should I water my garden?
You should water twice a week until the plants have gotten established, and then watering frequency will be dictated by the weather and temperature. Still, you will want to water at least once per week.
What about slugs and pests?
To prevent slugs and snails from eating your plants, you might consider getting a copper barrier to put around the perimeter of your planter bed. This is just copper tape that has an electromagnetic charge. You can also use Slug-O. Better yet, go out there and pick the slugs off by hand, and give them to friends who have chickens! Weeding is another way to really get to know and commune with your garden. Yank them out by hand before they go to seed.
Where else can I go to find gardening 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 email@example.com. 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.