Welcome to Container Culture, TakePart’s new bimonthly gardening column by Taylor Orci. A Los Angeles native with an itch to grow her own food—despite the glaring sunlight that hits the balcony of her Valley apartment—Taylor knows a thing or two about eking a harvest out of a confined, constrained space. Whether you’re planting herbs in a window box, growing tomatoes in a warren of terra cotta pots, or have the luxury of space for a number of raised beds, Container Culture will bring you advice, support and other stories about growing food in a city.
The zucchini had produced a bumper crop of terribleness, and it wouldn’t stop.
At first, the sight of the vegetables in our family’s backyard was quaint, like the motif on a roll of paper towels. I checked the growth of the zucchini every day, feeling increasingly accomplished for the work my mother had done, feeling nostalgic for the days of yore of a farmer that, at the age of 10, I’d never been. When the plants revealed mature zucchini, I scooped them up tenderly in my arms and carried them to the kitchen. I didn’t mind my skin itching from the fine squash hairs—I had watched something grow from nothing, and it felt like magic.
But the blessing quickly became a curse. My view of these vegetables changed. The whiskery vines produced blossom after Kraft-singles-colored blossom. Then, each yellow single petal would shrink and fall off, and in its place would grow a long, bulbous Muppet snout. I shortly abandoned my squash coddling, and the onus fell on my mother to pick them, only to have them deflate on the formica countertop, their potential squandered, but for what I know not. Because as a household, we did not eat much zucchini. There was one New Mexican version of picadillo my mom would make, but even then, I’d pick out the mushy squash and root around in the tomato sauce for the ground-meat chunks.
Why we would decide to plant three squash plants is anyone’s guess. It was a new house for us; maybe this was part of my mom’s nesting ritual. It could have been an impulse buy at the Target garden center. Even if our family had actually liked the vegetable, it was simply too much of it. You’d think the lesson was learned.
But last spring I decided to grow squash, because it’s a thing I know how to grow. Looking at the young seedlings, they seemed harmless enough, like mogwais yet to get wet. Two seemed like a completely sensible number of squash plants to have. That is, until harvest season came, bringing too many squash gremlins along with it. I’m not ashamed. I ripped one up and threw it in a wheelbarrow, putting it out of its misery.
Contrastingly, I did the exact opposite with my beans, as if two plants are really going to yield anything substantial for my house, which eats beans on the reg. Like the super reg. Like I just ate some while writing this, twice.
Planning a garden always requires some mental gymnastics because you never know if you’re going to plant too little or too much of one thing. How many pea plants and how many broccoli plants and how many people are in your house? Add guests, subtract days you’ll be out of town, and divide by...ugh.
So here are some comprehensive tips that will make planning your fall garden less of a mathematical headache:
First off, plant things you’re going to eat. This seems obvious, but for example, chard is beautiful. If I’m going on looks alone, then it’s chard all the way. But I have yet to taste chard in a dish I like. And if this is a vegetable garden of crops I’m planting for the sake of eating, I’ll give that valuable garden space to another crop and save the chard for an ornamental landscaping project for the make-believe Spanish colonial mansion I have in my mind.
Next, check out some sample plans. One inspiring source is Renee’s Garden. Better Homes and Gardens also has a solid database of garden plans to get you started. When planning your garden, think about the plants you’ll be growing that will only produce once, such as beets and cabbage, versus plants that will produce multiple times, such as beans or...squash. If you eat more of the things that only produce once, plant accordingly.
Lastly, to determine how much of this dream will actually fit into your plot of land, check out My Squarefoot Garden for an intro lesson about plotting out crop space and making a cohesive plan.
Gardener and food enthusiast extraordinaire Michael Pollan once said, in reference to having luck in the garden, that there’s no such thing as a green thumb—there’s only good planning. So sit on your hands and fight the urge to scatter your seeds willy-nilly. Good planning and patience will make the fruits of your labor that much sweeter—plus they won’t rot ’cause you planted too much, or underwhelm you because you planted too little.