They taste better and often are better for you. Gardeners and cooks agree: There's nothing like homegrown vegetables.
Spring starts Wednesday, and you've made up your mind. You want to know the satisfaction of harvesting a perfect tomato at peak of ripeness. Or you want to make a salad out of greens pulled minutes earlier from your backyard. Or you crave peppers unknown in supermarkets.
You want to be a backyard farmer, even if it's only a few pots of herbs. But where to begin?
That stumbling block can doom a first garden before a single shovel of dirt is turned or any seed sprouts. Fortunately, experienced gardeners are generous with their advice. They want to share their hard-earned knowledge.
The more backyard farmers, the better – for the environment as well as community health.
"We want everyone to at least try growing their own food," said author and longtime organic farming guru Barbara Damrosch. "It's so wonderful when you do."
Damrosch and her husband, Eliot Coleman, have been growing what they eat since the 1970s. Their Four Season Farm in Maine is famous for its produce and inspiration. Their latest book, "The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook" (Workman, $22.95, 496 pages), makes the connection between garden and kitchen, showing in detail how to grow vegetables, then what to do with them.
"Gardening opens up a whole new spectrum of things you can eat," Damrosch said in a phone interview. "You're expanding your horizons."
For beginners, they offer detailed garden plans, starting with a simple "salad garden" that fits into a 3-by-6-foot space. It includes a cherry tomato held upright in a cage-style trellis, plus beds of mixed leaf lettuce, Asian greens and spicy greens such as arugula. Scallions, radishes and herbs (basil, dill, thyme, tarragon and chives) complete this easy-care layout.
"It's a really simple garden, the size of a dining room table," she said.
"The lettuces and greens are all 'cut and come again.' Trim what you need and they grow back quickly. It can keep going like that for months."
It also follows a basic axiom for beginner's success: Start small.
"Sure, you can plant the whole yard in vegetables, but that's really a lot of work," Damrosch said. "Don't make your first garden too big. You can add to it later."
The golden rule of vegetable success? Location, location, location.
"It's got to have sun," Damrosch said. "People will say to me, 'This part of my garden is shady but has better soil, so that's where I put my garden.' Bad decision. You can improve your soil, but you can't change lack of light."
Sacramento radio host "Farmer Fred" Hoffman echoes that small and sunny sentiment. For him, the best spot for a garden is where it's in constant view.
"Locate the garden in the sunniest area, near a source of water," he said.
"Keep it small for starters; perhaps 100 square feet."
The most common mistake he sees from beginners? A garden out of sight and out of mind.
"The vegetable garden is not within view from inside the house, especially the kitchen window," Hoffman said. "A lot of ripe produce goes unpicked because it is out of sight. If possible, locate the garden where it can be seen from several vantage points inside."
Herbs or a salad garden near the kitchen door make for a convenient harvest right before dinner.
Hoffman also is a big advocate of raised beds. They solve problems before they start.
"Raised beds are useful for growing a garden in areas with heavy soil or poor water drainage," he said. "They also make it easier to keep the garden neat and tidy. (Another benefit:) You will avoid walking on the garden soil, which can cause compaction, impeding air and water flow through the soil. Pest and weed control are easier and it makes gardening more comfortable on your back – less bending."
What size should these beds be? Deeper (but not wider) is better.
"Create raised beds about 14 to 18 inches high, and no more than 4 feet wide, with pathways between the beds," Hoffman suggested. "Leave about 4 feet of space between the beds to more easily maneuver a wheelbarrow."
Bill Maynard, Sacramento's community garden coordinator, has gotten hundreds of gardeners started on the path to success. His advice stresses practicality.
"Plant what you like to eat," Maynard said. "Plant in season; know the time of year to plant certain crops. And remember to water the garden; keep the soil moist, especially when seeds are germinating."
Vegetable transplants continue to be the hottest sellers at nurseries.
Tomato and pepper starts are already showing up at big-box stores. But wait to plant those summer favorites until the weather and ground warm up.
"Everyone wants to plant as soon as the weather changes, or after the 'average' last frost date (March 23 in Sacramento)," Maynard said. "But probably the safest bet would be to wait until after tax day – April 15."
Remember to document your garden's development.
"Take pictures, before and after, and keep a garden diary," Hoffman said.
"You'll appreciate your efforts more, and it will help you remember what worked – and what didn't."
If you haven't already, pick up a copy of the Sacramento Bee's Planting Guide, which appeared Jan. 1 in The Bee's special gardening guide. Extra copies are available for $1 each at the front counter at The Bee's main office, 2100 Q St., Sacramento.
Get a copy of the UC Cooperative Extension's eight-page handout, "Vegetable Gardening 101." It offers loads of basic advice on planning, planting and maintaining vegetable gardens. The best part: It's free. Download it from the Sacramento County master gardeners website at http://ucanr.org/sites/sacmg/Growing_Vegetables. Or get a copy by mail by sending a stamped, self-addressed business-size envelope to: Environmental Horticulture Notes No. 96, UC Cooperative Extension, 4145 Branch Center Road, Sacramento, CA 95827.
Sacramento's community gardens still have plots available. To find out more, contact community garden coordinator Bill Maynard at (916) 808-4943 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SUPER EASY PICKS FOR BEGINNERS
These vegetables rank among the easiest for beginning gardeners to grow:
Tomatoes: Cherry varieties have the fewest problems while providing a steady and often abundant harvest. Sweet 100 is always prolific, and Sun Gold (a low-acid yellow cherry) and Sweet Million will make anyone a tomato lover. Grape and yellow pear varieties also are easy to grow.
Among the larger varieties, Better Boy is a consistent performer. It also holds the world record for highest yield from a single plant – more than 300 pounds. So is Early Girl, which – as its name implies – is among the first to be harvested. Although not as prolific as some hybrids, Brandywine and Green Zebra are two heirlooms that gardeners plant year after year for their great flavor. Burpee's Brandy Boy has the flavor of Brandywine but boasts a much higher yield and better disease resistance.
Squash: Zucchini can't be beat for its easy-care harvest. Every garden should have one (and probably just one) hill. Also proven are yellow crooknecks, such as the aptly named Early Prolific, another good choice for beginners.
Leaf lettuce: Much easier to grow than head lettuce, leaf lettuce can tolerate more heat without bolting to seed – an important asset in Sacramento when May weather can nudge triple digits. Leaf lettuce also offers multiple harvests from the same plant; pick the leaves you need and let the plant continue to grow. Red Sails is a pretty and easy variety for the garden.
Radishes: These little root veggies offer rapid rewards, ready to pick in under a month. Early Globe and French Breakfast are tasty and quick. Cherry Belle matures in just 20 days.
Chard: This beautiful leaf vegetable looks handsome in gardens and is pretty enough for flower beds, too. Like leaf lettuce, it can be harvested one leaf at a time, allowing for weeks of production from the same plant.
The traditional white-ribbed Fordhook Giant Swiss and ruby-leafed chards are both easy to keep happy. Bright Lights has colorful stems (red, yellow, pink) and tender spinachlike leaves; it also tolerates heat, lengthening its harvest well into summer.
Kale: Try the Tuscan or black varieties. These kales taste mild and are easier to clean. They grow a lot like chard and prefer cooler weather.
Sweet bell peppers: Bells are less finicky than hot peppers, and home-grown peppers taste sweeter than supermarket counterparts. Bonnie Bell is a proven winner. Gypsy offers red, yellow and orange peppers on the same plant – and needs less early heat to get its harvest started.
Eggplant: Black Beauty is a relatively trouble-free variety and great for beginners. Pick them while small to prolong the harvest and keep plants producing.
Beans: They can grow up (via a trellis or other support) or stay close to the ground (as bush varieties). Pole beans offer a longer harvest; the more you pick, the more they bear. Kentucky Wonder is a proven winner but can get stringy when harvested too big. Blue Lake pole beans are more tender. Lazy Wife, an easy-to-grow heirloom pole bean, offers excellent flavor to "lazy" gardeners. Bush beans (such as the dependable Bush Blue Lake variety) are harvested all at once; stagger planting over several weeks to prolong the harvest.
Cucumbers: The bush varieties are easier for beginners; no trellis necessary. Burpless Bush Hybrid is almost as prolific as zucchini and looks similar in the garden; remember to check under leaves for hidden fruit.
Herbs: Every summer garden should have at least basil and parsley, the culinary workhorses. Spicy Globe basil is trouble-free and fast-growing. Keep trimming it back to encourage more growth. Both curly and Italian flat parsleys offer months of flavorful leaves.
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her in Twitter @debarrington.