Washington Post

Grocery Garden

September 4, 2008

...a family of four could raise a lot of produce in a simple bed measuring 6 by 12 feet, which could accommodate a series of vegetables in spring, summer and fall, including 24 broccoli plants, 84 root vegetables, 12 cabbages, 9 leeks, 66 salad greens, 48 pea vines, 9 bean plants, 3 cucumber vines, 3 pepper plants, 9 tomato plants and 3 squash vines.

Root crops are often neglected and yet can be harvested over weeks or months a little at a time, as a meal dictates. These include carrots, potatoes, beets, leeks, onions and shallots, not to mention those European favorites: parsnips, turnips and rutabagas, all unfairly maligned on this side of the pond.

In a Washington garden, you can begin harvesting greens in late April and still have carrots in December. With a little protection using row covers, you can cut fresh chard, spinach, beet greens and arugula right through the winter.

Rosalind Creasy, a landscape designer and author in California ... Her advice to beginners: Choose varieties that are highly productive or expensive in the grocery store, and grow more herbs, which are so easy that she calls them "edibles with training wheels."

Creasy recommends a garden of no more than 200 square feet to start; in her 100-square-foot bed, she produces an estimated $400 to $500 worth of food, including more than 30 salads from 18 lettuces. She snips the outer leaves and allows more to grow back "until the plant says, 'Enough,' " she said.

She also said it's important to pick not just types of vegetables, but varieties that are proven to have a long and productive season. She recommends a few invulnerable tomato hybrids, for example, Early Girl and Better Boy, and favors Sungold as a foolproof cherry tomato. Among heirloom varieties, she finds Cherokee Purple a better cropper than Brandywine.

Pole beans are more productive than bush beans, but runner beans are even more so. Purple Ruffles basil "doesn't have to be cut back all the time" like sweet basil, she said. "And it's beautiful."

In two months, she has harvested 15 quarts of blackberries from a trained, thornless bramble. She has measured 80 pounds of zucchini from two plants of a variety named Raven. Why, Creasy asks, put in a boring forsythia shrub when "you can have blueberries?"

She integrates a lot of flowers with her edible plants and tries to pick vegetable varieties that are attractive as well as productive.

"I think people can grow a tremendous amount of food in a small area. They just don't know it," said Creasy, whose latest book is called "Recipes From the Garden" (Tuttle, 2008). "And they can be in the front yard and look absolutely beautiful."