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THE KITCHEN GARDENER

Sowing in a second spring

In Southern California, the chill of fall can make a gardener's heart quicken: no retiring for winter -- a new growing season has only begun.

October 16, 2002|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Like so many Angelenos, I come from somewhere else, a place where summer is followed by fall. It's taken four years to realize that I've moved to a place where summer is followed by spring.

Or at least it is when it comes to growing vegetables. The first clue was that the lettuces at farmers markets somehow contrived to get lusher, frillier, more tender every autumn. After disappearing from summer glare, dandelions returned to my lawn in September. Then there were the intriguing asides on the back of some seed packets: "Plant again in fall in mild climates."

These were usually the good-for-you foods: kale, spinach, cabbage. But the thing I crave the most as autumn sets in, and cooking turns rich, are fresh, light salad greens. Once I realized that these too were perfect candidates for Southern California's second spring, there was only one thing left to do: tear up a good chunk of lawn out back and put in a salad garden.

It would, I grant you, have been easier to buy the arugula by the bag. The only suitable patch of yard left had the soil condition of an unloved schoolyard: an evil mix of old rubble, hard, dry clay and a tangle of Bermuda grass roots. Even rye grass didn't always catch here.

To sow vegetables from seed, you need the finest, softest, best-drained soil. In fact, the health of any plant isn't the result of fertilizer or even seed type. It's soil condition. Nothing is more important in promoting growth, preventing disease and ensuring that water reaches but doesn't drown the roots of plants. On farm visits, I have been shown lettuce beds of plant breeders that are dug 2 feet deep and lined with gopher wire. By contrast, a shovel driven hard into my "lawn" went in maybe an inch. A pick swung harder, maybe 2 inches.

Breaking up the clay, picking out the rubble and, with increasingly ragged fingers, pulling out the Bermuda root took days. As I transformed myself into a one-woman chain gang, I didn't think of salad. I thought of every bad moment of bad days and swung the pick and swore. Mostly I cursed my refusal to use Roundup or other herbicides.

Then I remembered why I don't and won't. Those products might kill Bermuda grass, but they don't stop at weeds. They also tend to carry over and stunt or kill seedlings and can be particularly damaging to our best-loved garden vegetables. The dandelion is, in fact, a food plant and close relation to many of our favorite salad leaves.

Assaulting the rubble, I never made it 2 feet deep. At 8 inches, I felt like Prince Charles, champion of organics. Hail Noble Horticulturalist! Yo, courtier, pass the beer.

The next step was spading in lots of compost: There was my own, made from kitchen cuttings and grass clippings. Nowhere near enough. Composted redwood shavings from a garden supply place came next, and chicken manure. If you are working with sandy soil, you will need the compost to add organic matter, and help slow drainage rather than start it. The chicken manure will add nitrogen to the soil. I covered the broken-up clay with a mix of roughly 2 inches of compost and one of manure, and chopped it in, an overall ratio of six of soil to one of compost and manure. To know how much to buy, measure your plot, then look for a key on the side of the sack to calculate how much it will cover. Or, to get it free, go to city recycling centers and bring a truck or large sacks.

Once I'd dug in all those fragrant improvers, I felt less like Prince Charles, or Alice Waters, and more like a walking advertisement for Band-Aids, Neosporin and mentholated muscle rubs. But when it came to finally raking over the bed, to feeling the fine soft mix of soil, I couldn't have felt more rejuvenated, more proud, more hopeful. Soon earthworms that had long ago abandoned the lawn would move in. Soon this bed would be covered with dewy heads of lettuce, arugula, radicchio and endive.

I edged the bed with pieces of concrete to discourage encroaching Bermuda grass, and began marking out my salad zones. First in, the arugula, which I interspersed with a new, lovely, pale nasturtium, Vanilla Berry. Both are peppery, the arugula for salad, the nasturtiums to use whole or diced as slightly hot and vivid garnishes.

As a break between the arugula and next planting, I put down a pot with sage, partly for decoration, mainly to discourage the dogs from trampling the bed. In the next stretch of newly tilled earth, broccoli raab -- those strong-flavored trim-line florets the chefs serve with lemon, olive oil, garlic and chile peppers. I love that dish. Another corner, another pot, and a sack of papalo seeds -- a gift from a Mexican gardener who tends a plot in a nearby community garden, and who introduced me to the thrilling herbs papalo and pepicha. Next section: Swiss chard, a vegetable whose stalks remind me of asparagus, and leaves of spinach. Three colors: red, yellow and white. Another pot, followed by a mix of radicchio, endive, mizuna and Batavian lettuce.

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