In her Los Angeles community garden, author, cook and stylist Jeanne Kelley grows and harvests a plethora of fresh produce that she uses daily to feed her family and develop recipes for her cookbooks. Read on to learn more about what inspired her to start growing her own food, her favorite uses for seasonal ingredients and tips for beginning gardeners.
What inspired you to start growing your own food?
As a child I could easily distinguish the virtues of a backyard plucked tangerine, apricot or plum—the appreciation was always there, but one doesn’t really think about growing a garden until they’ve put down roots—so to speak. It wasn’t until Martin, my husband (who happens to design and build gardens for a living), and I built our home that we were able to realize our dream of gardening. Even before we broke ground on the hillside lot we planted fruit trees, established a location for a chicken coop and were raising chicks in a cardboard box in our apartment. Because our home is on a hillside, we have very little flat space for growing, so when Martin and a few neighbors turned some empty land near our home into a community garden, I was really ready to grow some food.
What would your advice be to first-time gardeners?
Simply put, if first-time gardeners properly amend their soil, plant season and climate appropriate plants, and water thoroughly and regularly, they should be quite successful. Also, it’s important to realize that what grows in one part of the country might not flourish in another.
Geography, sunlight, average daily temperature, soil, even how a garden is situated—all of these factors influence how well fruits and vegetables will grow. To this extent, gardening is hyper local and the best tips can come from neighbors. I encourage first-time gardeners to seek the advice from locals who are managing to grow plants successfully in their same area. Folks who garden love to share and are usually more than willing to divulge just how they coaxed that bumper crop from the ground. The local expert will have the best sense of when and what to plant, how to fend off pests etc. There really is no such thing as a “green thumb,” it just comes down to experience and timing.
What if you don’t have a backyard to garden in? Can you still grow your own food?
Of course! If you have a sunny balcony or patio, you can garden in containers. There are all sorts of innovative container-gardening systems for people short on space, many with time and resource efficient watering systems. And who doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned terracotta pot spilling with basil or cherry tomatoes? The key is sunshine and vigilant watering as pots tend to dry out quickly.
If more space is desired, seek a plot in a community garden. Your local city or county offices can direct you community gardens in your area. If there are no area gardens, follow my husband’s and my neighbors lead and start one.
What are your indispensible garden tools?
A strong back, the perfect shovel, rubber boots and gardening gloves are my gardening must-haves.
Gardening is work; it takes time and physical strength. A vegetable bed cannot be prepped for planting without digging in breaking a sweat. A friend, who teaches tai chi, showed me how to use a shovel in a way that protects the back from strain and for that I’m grateful! I don’t have the upper body strength of a man, so a smaller headed shovel with a long enough handle for my height is a great tool for me—I use it to turn and move soil and compost, plant and to dig up weeds.
I love my rubber boots because I can get muddy and simply hose the dirt off—but I’m not opposed to gardening in sandals when it gets hot—then too I can just hose off the mud.
When I first began to garden, I didn’t want to wear gloves because they felt bulky and limited my dexterity, and my hands suffered. The latest gardening gloves are so comfortable that they feel like a second skin. It’s great to have protected and cleaner hands!
What are your favorite things to grow, or your favorite growing season?
I am fortunate to live in a climate where I can garden year-round. I have a particular fondness for arugula—so I manage to keep it growing with successive plantings during all the seasons. That said, I find nothing as rewarding as plump, juicy tomatoes in the summer. Tomatoes are a real source of joy and pride for most gardeners
How has your background as a classically-trained cook informed your current cooking style?
When I enter my garden I am fortified with knowing how to cook—same as when I look in my pantry. My cooking skills, along with what’s ready to harvest and what’s in the cupboard enable me produce great tasting meals—dishes that I can share with family and friends and in the form of wonderful recipes.
Maintaining a thriving edible garden can take a lot of time. What advice do you have for cooks who don’t have a lot of time, but still want to grow some of their own food?
Make gardening a family activity—you’d be surprised how much help even young children can be in the garden. My own daughters raise chicks, turn compost, water and are excellent harvesters—especially of arugula.
I think it’s important for us all to seek solutions for our busy lives within our community—especially when it comes to healthy, sustainable food. Just as garden boxes of local produce are ever more prevalent, so too are community gardens where plots, chores and bounty can be shared. I’d like to see partnerships formed in neighborhoods where edibles garden thrive and everyone shares the fruit and labor—making excellent and enjoyable use of precious time.