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A Kitchen Garden of Your Own


Before you cut down the juniper bushes and rip out the oleanders, remember: First work around them. Start small with a discreet corner of lawn. If it doesn't look quite like kitchen gardens do in the magazines, you will not be the sudden blight on the landscape.

Herbs: Rosalind Creasy recommends beginners start with Mediterranean herbs: rosemary, oregano, fennel; sweet marjoram, chives and savory; winter savory in a dedicated patch. "They're almost bulletproof; as long as you water them," she says. "Cut them back once a year to keep them harvesting."

Cucumber, squash and melons: These require a well-prepared bed with good drainage, and a prodigious appetite. They are a bit rangy, and benefit from trellising (or they will romp down a hillside). Their flowering produces so many fruits that Creasy recommends "birth control" by pinching off zucchini blossoms and tossing them into omelets.

Tomatoes and annuals: It is the fashion to romanticize "heirloom" varieties, and they can produce very delicious fruit. But one reason modern hybrids usurped them was disease resistance. There are varieties of tomatoes suited to planters or window boxes, where the vines can spill over the sides.

Do not plant them near woody shrubs and trees. Their water requirements are different and they may introduce disease, such as wilt. Put them in a bed with other annuals, such as nasturtiums, zinnias, marigolds, fennel, kale, peppers and lettuce. Or try mixing them with artichokes. Do not worry about nonedible flowers, such as poppies, as fill. These attract pollinators and beneficial insects that control whitefly.

Arranging the plants: Put the tall ones (say artichoke, ranging chard or peppers) at the back, then lower lettuces and tumbling nasturtium in the front.

Citrus: No fruit is more Californian than citrus. Late winter, early spring, the trees will be so fragrant they will induce what the poet Lorca once referred to as a "lyrical headache." Meyer lemons, Bearss Limes and Valencia oranges all grow well in Southern California. Keep in mind that these trees can be espaliered against sunny walls. Rather than cut down a flopping lemon tree, Creasy put an arbor under hers.

Other fruit trees: Plums and apricots grow well in Southern Californian heat. It is too warm for most apples and cherries, but there are "low chill" trees, such as Anna apples, now available. Olives do beautifully, but bear fruit every other year. Avocados love it here, but demand water; you need two trees for pollination. Hass and Fuerte are a good pairing; use fallen leaves for mulch.

Exotic fruits and bushes: For pomegranates, Kaffir limes, caper berry bushes, allspice hedges and more, there is Papaya Tree Nursery, 12422 El Oro Way, Granada Hills; (818) 363-3680.

Recommended reading: "The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping," by Rosalind Creasy (Sierra Club, $25), is widely considered the best place to start.

The "Western Garden Book," edited by Kathleen Norris Brenzel (Sunset, $36.95), is the dictionary for California nurseries.

"Where on Earth: A Guide to Specialty Nurseries and Other Resources for California Gardeners," by Nancy Conner and Barbara Stevens (Heyday Books, $14.95), lists all manner of sellers.

Courses: The Arboretum of Los Angeles County offers courses on propagation, kitchen gardens and even trellis-building, 301 N. Baldwin Avenue, Arcadia; (626) 821-3222.

Getting Californians to grow food is a conspiracy, a gentle one, led by the University of California Cooperative Extension Common Ground Garden Program: 2 Coral Circle, Monterey Park; (323) 838-4539.

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