Jeanne Kelley is proof that you don’t have to have acres of land to grow an edible garden. The gardener and author of The Kitchen Garden Cookbook keeps a few vegetable plants and fruit trees in her back yard, but she does most of her gardening at a nearby community garden. Here, she walks us through the space, explaining how she planned it, her favorite plants to grow, and what an average day in the garden looks like for her. Read on to get inspired.
What inspired you to have your own edible garden—and keep chickens and bees?
My husband, Martin, designs and installs gardens professionally—he was transforming vacant lots into abundant mini-farms back when pesto was still considered exotic! My love of gardening grew from having an expert teacher and helper so close at hand. Growing and cooking vegetables together is a great way merge our talents.
I started keeping chickens in Los Angeles about 20 years ago. It was way before any sort of urban homesteading movement. My brother had chickens in his Pasadena home. There were chickens next door to the small house he rented while in college at Berkeley, and he found he missed the birds. It’s fun to watch hens scratch about and of course, you can’t beat the eggs. I had lived in Southern France, and traveled quite a bit in Mexico, both places where a backyard chicken coop is commonplace. Keeping chickens was something that just seemed natural to me.
I grew concerned about bees when articles about colony collapse disorder and declining bee population began appearing in the news. At the same time, I became aware of groups promoting backyard urban beekeeping. When a hive of bees happened to take up residence in a friends chimney, the timing seemed right to try our hand at beekeeping. Beekeeping is fascinating, yet way more challenging than gardening or chicken keeping.
Where is your garden? How big is it?
I have a small raised bed and some fruit and citrus trees planted in my back yard, but for the most part, I do my vegetable gardening in the local community garden that’s at the end of my street. I have two 5 x 10 foot beds for my personal use, and I also maintain 3 additional shadier beds that I keep planted with arugula and lettuce year-round for community use.
How did you plan your garden? How did you decide what to grow?
I live on a hillside with rocky soil, so growing space is at a premium. At the top of our yard, the slope levels off, so here we were able to plant blood orange, lemon, lime, peach, plum and apricot trees. We have old oaks on the property, so the trees have to compete for sunlight, but the orange, lime and plum trees do really well.
In our vegetable beds, we devote the most space to our favorites — tomatoes and zucchini in the summer, peas and favas and greens in the fall for southern California spring.
Describe a day in your garden.
On a regular day, I might just check for soil moisture, do a little watering and weeding and end by harvesting. Otherwise, the chores vary—I might spend an hour or two transplanting seedlings, amending soil or planting. By visiting the garden every day, and doing a little something each visit, I never feel overwhelmed by garden tasks.
What are the most challenging aspects of working in a community garden? What are the benefits?
For me the most challenging aspect of my community garden is attending mandatory meetings! I’d rather be cooking or gardening. The benefits are huge, however. Having a peaceful and pleasant place to garden on the edge of a huge city is sweet, and the exchange of ideas with other gardeners reaps benefits too. It’s also great to do boring chores like weeding and mulch spreading with company.
What is “biointensive gardening”?
Bio-intensive gardening is a combination of biodynamic and French intensive methods. Simply put, this is basically growing plants closely together in raised beds with generously amended soil. The closeness of the plants shades the soil from the drying sun and water is conserved.
How have you had the best luck keeping pests out of your organic garden?
Healthy plants are less apt to be attacked by pests, so water properly and thin seedlings to keep plants robust. Also, by simply keeping things neat and tidy you can ward off pests, as bugs dwell under dead leaves and woodpiles and other debris.
What are the essential tasks in developing a successful garden?
Good soil preparation, even and regular watering, proper drainage and sunshine—that’s about it!
What are your favorite things to grow and eat? What has been the easiest to grow? The hardest?
Arugula and tomatoes. I eat arugula year-round, and gorge on fresh tomatoes in the summer and preserved ones in the summer. Arugula grows like a weed, and I enjoy it in all of its stages—from tender, mild first growth to peppery, wasabi-like gone-to-seed leaves. Tomatoes are “high-yield” plants, so we get a lot of fruit from the relatively small space we have. While maybe not as easy as arugula, growing tomatoes is not difficult, as long as you have sun!
I tried to grow from seed a small, Spanish pepper last year — Pimientos de Padron — with little success. I will try the seeds again this year, or hopefully find a source for mature plants.
What would be your advice to a new gardener that has a limited space?
A small, beginner’s garden should be filled with easy-to-grow, high-yield plants. Salad greens, peas, favas, beets, tomatoes and zucchini all pay off in a big way—especially when the kitchen counters are piled with fresh-picked produce.