Resources for your spring garden
By Jillian Steinberger, M.A.
Once upon a time in a land of milk and honey with a gentle Mediterranean climate, a wise garden elder said to his students (one of them was me), “Northern California is God’s country.”
It’s easy to speak hyperbolically about the glories of gardening in our region, especially right now, while we are clearly not out shoveling snow. With so much opportunity, it’s no surprise that we have a bounty of resources—businesses, nonprofit organizations, and volunteer groups—available to aid and abet our hankerings to garden. But since it would take acres of space to detail it all, I offer here a curated list from a resourceful gardening professional. Some of these suggestions are free or cheap, others require a budget, and still others require a contribution of time and heart. To uncover more local gems, check the information resources section below and network with as many friendly gardeners as you can this spring!
Beautiful organic and heirloom vegetable starts are readily available around the East Bay. Nearly every community has a well-stocked garden center, specialty nursery, or farmers’ market with a vendor selling plants. At most of these you’ll find trained horticulturalists who can answer questions. The majority of the sources below are locally owned; many are also family-owned and have been in business for decades.
Tip #1: Many nurseries stock plants on Thursdays, so for best selection, schedule visits for Fridays, before the weekend rush.
Tip #2: Many of our nurseries carry kelp-based fertilizers like Maxsea. Apply these as a soil drench and watch plants grow! Also, look for E.B. Stone Organics-brand soils, amendments, and fertilizers. This acclaimed company is out of Suisun.
Berkeley Horticultural Nursery (est. 1922) has super-fresh organic starts year-round. It’s in a lovely North Berkeley neighborhood with many specialty food shops around the corner on Hopkins Street. Closed Thursdays. www.berkeleyhort.com
Oakland’s Grand Lake Ace Garden Center has a great selection, and their customer service is peerless—they know many patrons by name. 4001 Grand Ave, 510.652.9143, no website
Shoppers praise Albany’s woman-owned Flowerland for its great service, nice organic veggie selection, and fair prices. Plus, they sell High Mowing Organic Seeds. www.flowerlandshop.com
Evergreen Nursery in San Leandro has a good selection of summer veggies, and carries soil and mulch in bulk, including hard-to-find mushroom compost. www.theevergreennursery.com
Regan Nursery in Fremont is famous for roses, but its super selection of bare-root fruit trees is equally impressive. www.regannursery.com
Heading inland you’ll find two fabled nurseries owned and run separately by two people who are married to each other, and who were both raised in nursery families. Tom Courtright (whose father founded East Bay Nursery in Berkeley) now owns and runs Lafayette’s
Orchard Nursery (est. 1946), and Jacqueline Williams Courtright owns and runs the nursery her father founded in 1955, Livermore’s Alden Lane, acclaimed for its beautiful setting. Both have a broad and deep stock of organic veggie starts, including awesome heirloom tomatoes from a down-home lady propagator known only as “Ginger.” Both also have extensive bare-root fruit tree selections through February. www.orchardnursery.com www.aldenlane.com
Gardeners in Pleasant Hill, Martinez, Danville, and Concord have the good fortune of being near the Navlet’s Garden Centers (est. 1885), which also feature Ginger’s tomatoes. www.navletsgardens.com
Annie’s Annuals & Perennials in Richmond is noted for a huge selection (over 2,000 plant varieties) of healthy, rare, heirloom, and unusual plants that they propagate on site. You’re free to roam their 2.5 acres, which is well organized with great signage. Check out the outstanding selection of native wildflowers: Some can be used to boost your garden’s harvest by attracting pollinators. Tip: Outside of hydroponics stores, Annie’s may be the only nursery that sells mycorrhizal fungi. These beneficial organisms are applied directly to roots at planting time, maximizing the plants’ access to water and soil nutrients. Annie’s also sells Bu’s Brew compost tea bags and kelp-based fertilizers. www.anniesannuals.com
Yo, permaculturalists and green gardeners! Ploughshares Nursery in Alameda specializes in California native and drought-tolerant plants as well as organically grown veggies, and has an extensive fruit and berry selection. A nonprofit business venture of the Alameda Point Collaborative, the environmentally sustainable nursery is set on a three-acre solar-powered site and trains formerly homeless adults in nursery management skills. They recently won a grant from the Yahoo! Employee Foundation toward the construction of a new 2,500-square-foot retail and education center, which will be built from straw bales and recycled materials. While there, check out the handmade gardening tools by artist and blacksmith Grant Marcoux. www.ploughsharesnursery.com
Located on a lovely back road in Vacaville, Morningsun Herb Farm sells over 500 varieties of culinary, medicinal, and landscaping herbs. Owner Rose Loveall—who grew up on this former walnut orchard—explains the “multifunctional” nature of many of her plants this way: “How great is it when you can grow something like anise hyssop, use it for tea-making and cooking, have it bring native beneficials like hover flies and honeybees into the garden, use it as a cut flower and for fragrance, and have it be low maintenance and basically pest-free?” Yes, ma’am! She sells 30 lavender varieties, 15 true mints, 80 heirloom tomatoes, 30 peppers, 14 basils, and many eggplants, squashes and melons. The demonstration gardens are a great place to learn, and you are invited to bring a picnic. Tip: Cat lovers should ask about Teucrium marum. “Cat thyme” is available nowhere else but here. www.morningsunherbfarm.com
Certified organic, Kassenhoff Growers has been in business for over 16 years producing gorgeous, hardy vegetable starts that are acclimated to our area and flourish in our microclimates. This includes over 90 tomato varieties (which are listed on their website along with a wealth of tomato-growing wisdom). Find them at Oakland’s Saturday Grand Lake and Sunday Temescal farmers’ markets during the spring and fall seasons. www.kassenhoffgrowers.com
The Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL) at the Ecology Center in Berkeley lets you “check out” heirloom seeds for free. After harvest, you bring back the next generation of seeds for others to check out. Besides edible plants, BASIL has seeds for botanical, medicinal, and pollinator-attracting “insectary” plants, such as white sage and mullein. They also share traditional Native American seeds, and seeds from such far-flung places as Ethiopia and India. BASIL’s 13th Annual Seed Swap takes place on Friday, March 30, 2012 from 7 to 9 p.m. This is a potluck supper with hoedown music, homegrown garden seeds, and the company of fantastic local gardeners. Not to be missed! www.ecologycenter.org
In 2011, the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library received kudos from Utne Reader and Mother Earth News for their ground-breaking effort in tying seed-saving to community organizing. They are housed at the Richmond Public Library, where there is a demonstration “seed garden” on the grounds. Check out their listings of events and classes as well as their excellent “how to” information at www.richmondgrows.org
Oakland-based Kitazawa Seed Company, in business since 1917, is the oldest seed purveyor specializing in Asian vegetables in the United States. They offer 250-plus seed varieties that produce dento yasai (traditional Japanese heirloom vegetables) and other popular Asian vegetables. Request a free catalog at www.kitazawaseed.com
MINDFUL HAND TOOLS
Gas-powered mowers, blowers, and weed whackers generate grievous air and noise pollution—worse than trucks. No doubt about it, hand tools are the way to go, and there’s no better place to find inspiration on this matter than Japan, which has an ancient gardening culture.
The life of a Japanese gardener is not unlike that of a Zen monk. Japanese gardeners have been known to hang on to one pair of pruning shears for an entire career! Every time I mislay my clippers, I remember these sages and recommit to always knowing where my clippers are. If you’re making that commitment too, I recommend investing in a high-quality pair. Check out the Japanese-made ARS line. Durable and ergonomic, they cost between $30 and $75. You’ll find them at Berkeley’s Hida Tool, along with other fine hand tools such as hori horis (knife-like digging tools), pole pruners, pruning saws, beautiful hemp twine, and bamboo brooms (which don’t just look cool, they really work). www.hidatool.com
Why buy tools when you could borrow them? Oakland and Berkeley both have tool lending libraries offering thousands of tools as well as workshops for library patrons.
SOILS AND SUCH
A project of the Alameda Point Collaborative (APC), Bay Worms sells compost, worm castings, and worms, and also shows folks how to care for their new “pets.” Located in APC’s Community Garden, this nonprofit is illustrating the benefits of organic gardening (with worm poop) and demonstrating the advantages of a closed-loop, self-sufficient, organic food-production model as it diverts waste from landfills, converting it into rich soil amendments (e.g., worm poop). You’ll need to call them to order or make an appointment. www.bayworms.org
Mulch is a great boon to gardeners, but the sad fact is that nearly all mulch sold commercially is a by-product of the unsustainable logging industry. One of the only Bay Area vendors that sells mulch from urban trees is EcoMulch in Martinez, a small family business that makes several attractive mulches that are screened and guaranteed weed-free. The low price of EcoMulch (about $35/cubic yard compared to $65-plus for most others) means you’ll save a bundle on a lawn conversion or sheet-mulching project, even if you have to truck the mulch a distance. Alas, trucking it ups the embedded energy, but this high-integrity product is truly sustainable. www.myecomulch.com
Right next door to EcoMulch in Martinez is Main Street Hydroponics and Nursery. Owner Louis Consono sells top-notch soil amendments, potions, organic fertilizers, and multiple brands of mycorrhizal fungi, and he will tell you with wisdom and insight how to use them. He has fair prices and sometimes gives away free samples. Call ahead to be sure they’re open, and give yourself plenty of time, since Louis can talk about everything from creating alive soil conditions for tomatoes to how best to deal with, ahem, weeds. www.mshydro.com
American Soil and Stone in Richmond has the region’s best bulk selection of soils for growing edibles. Urban farmers and backyard growers swear by the Local Hero Veggie Mix (which is not organic) and Wondergrow Compost (which is certified organic). Tip: The Super Grape Compost (not organic) is made from grape pressings (essentially, composting seeds) and makes a lovely top dressing for ornamental edible containers or garden beds. www.americansoil.com
So your backyard is 100 percent pure concrete block? Oh my, so you don’t even have a porch, let alone a patio? Well, you can still grow. The key to container gardening is growing to scale—your scale—and ensuring good drainage. (Don’t use plastic—it doesn’t breathe.)
I had a client in Oakland with a 2000-square-foot concrete block for a backyard and no budget to knock out the concrete and re-landscape. However, we found a flexible and affordable solution at Potteryland USA, situated in the same complex with Annie’s Annuals. Looking through the tremendous selection there, we found some large ceramic Asian planters that we used to create a colorful “plaza” full of ornamental edibles. It was so fun to install that the concrete almost seemed like a plus. www.potterylandusa.com
For large spaces, galvanized steel horse troughs are durable and attractive, and come in many sizes—even 25 square feet or more. New, these cost a pretty penny—well over $100. However, straw bales cost under $10 each and are modular. You can place them to form a triangle or square, fill up the inside with rich organic soil—and boom, there’s your raised bed. Or take one bale, pull apart a 1-foot-wide by 1-foot-deep space running down the middle, add soil, and plant. This works for potatoes, strawberries, lettuces, and even tomatoes. For both troughs and bales (and baby chickens, too), visit Concord Feed with locations in Concord, Pleasant Hill, and Dublin. www.concordfeed.com
Urban upcyclers know Berkeley’s Urban Ore as the place to find another man’s trash. The selection is always “du jour,” and the garden gems you find might be meant for gardening . . . or not. In particular, clawfoot tubs, old sinks, and old teapots work great as planters, but keep your eyes and your mind open! www.urbanore.com
The Bay-Friendly Gardening Guide is a brilliant manual on smart ways to garden in our region, and it’s available free as a PDF. Following Bay-Friendly guidelines, you can meet your aesthetic needs while helping to keep pollutants like car oil and pesticides from flowing through the storm sewer and out to the bay and ocean. www.stopwaste.org
Diablo Valley College, in Pleasant Hill, is an excellent yet affordable place to study horticulture. They have a distinguished faculty and beautiful new greenhouse facilities for nursery-management students. www.dvc.edu/org/departments/biology/horticulture
The Ecology Center in Berkeley is a fantastic go-to info warehouse: Always up to date, their EcoCalendar is a comprehensive list of environmental and social justice classes, workshops, exhibits, tours, films, and events, including many geared toward gardeners. Their EcoDirectory is a searchable database of businesses and organizations, many related to gardening. (For example, my search on “garden swaps” yielded 22 organizations that exist to help connect people with backyard bounty.) www.ecologycenter.org
Reusing water from your laundry or bathtub is a great way to water fruit trees. Learn how to DIY by taking an affordable workshop with Greywater Action. www.greywateraction.org
Urban Tilth, in West Contra Costa County, is a nonprofit organization that “cultivates agriculture” through their Summer Youth Apprenticeship Program and Garden Technical Assistance Program, which helps groups set up community gardens. They offer lots of good information and resources on their website. www.urbantilth.org
Jillian Steinberger owns and operates The Garden Artisan, an ecological landscaping company that designs, builds, and maintains edible and herb gardens that attract humans and pollinators both. She also works with native and Mediterranean plants creating hedgerows and meadows. Contact Jillian at jillian(at)garden-artisan(dot)com.