Edible Garden Profile: Priscilla Woolworth’s San Fernando Valley Paradise

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Our Edible Garden Profiles showcase the abundance and variety of edible gardens in Southern California. 

Priscilla Woolworth grows an extensive organic garden of foods and flowers, and she writes a Southern California almanac about the not scientifically proven but long-practiced method of using the lunar cycle to guide planting and harvesting.

She shared with us when to plant your potatoes, which flowers attract pretty bugs, and how to get rid of other insects that will eat your crops.

You manage your garden according to the phases of the moon. What does that mean? Gardening by the phases of the moon is something that’s existed for centuries. If you plant seeds closer to the full moon, it’s when the water is at its highest level of the month. Four days after the full moon is a great time to plant seeds – they’ll germinate faster. If you think about the how the tides go up and down, it’s the same with the water in the ground.

When the moon is waxing is when you can transplant, when you can re-pot your pots and do some pruning as well. The waxing phase is when the gravitational pull pulls the water up. It’s a great time to do harvesting and picking. The water content in the vegetables is higher.

Kale (left), growing in a raised bed, and nasturtiums (right), which attract aphids away from other plants.
Kale (left), growing in a raised bed, and nasturtiums (right), which attract aphids away from other plants.

Waning is a good time to plant root vegetables and potatoes because the water is lower in the ground. They’ll be able to get established and grow.

Where did you learn how to garden? When I was little, up in Maine, I learned about flowers. My grandmother loved flowers. She had this big property, and I used to spend a lot of time there because it smelt so good. There were roses and sweet peas growing on fences, rows and rows of peonies growing. And she had an English garden with snapdragons and roses, and rock gardens. I spent a lot of my childhood just roaming through each of those gardens.

And there were vegetables there – I learned where vegetables came from. Growing them myself I learned from trial and error, reading, talking to other gardeners about what works best. I’m self-taught, mostly.

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Give me a bird’s eye view of your property. I have a 16,000 square foot lot. It’s completely flat. The garden is all around, with the house in the middle. The house itself is a Spanish-style house. The Spanish style is very suited to the climate. The back part of the property feels like you’re in the south of France. It’s all citrus trees and lavender, and there’s pergolas covered in wisteria.

The front part is sort of tropical. It was like that when I bought the house. The front part is shady. The back part gets a lot more sun.

Tell me about your flowers. I have lots of roses.  I have lots of sage in the garden, lots of lavender. I have borders full of lavender. I have a area for sunflowers and those are for the bees.

The butterfly bush has purple flowers. It’s semi-drought resistant.  I also have verbena and echium and those are purely there for the wildlife. The flowers that I plant have to either be for cutting – primarily the roses – the rest have to feed the wildlife.

Anise, or milkweed (right), attracts Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, while borage (left) brings bees.
Anise (right) attracts Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, while borage (left) brings bees.

Why did you decide to attract bees to your garden, and how do you do it? The bees are in peril. They’re really having a hard time at the moment, locally and across the county.  I’m doing my part to help nourish the bees with the food they need without any kind of pesticide or chemicalsI’ve got borage in all different spots in the garden and the bees love it. They absolutely love lavender. I planted orange trees and apricot trees and peach trees and sunflowers and sage. Also, focusing on plants that are well adapted to the climate [helps]. A lot of the herbs  – rosemary, thyme – do really well here and the bees love that.

What other insects do you try to bring in? Nasturtiums are pretty. They’re edible, extremely easy to grow, and they attract aphids away from the other plants, so they’re a natural pesticide. Praying mantids are another natural pesticide – they will eat aphids. I buy an egg sac full of baby mantids – it looks like a sponge. When it hatches, I release all the baby mantis.

Asclepias, or milkweed (right) is popular with Monarch butterflies, while orange blossoms (right) are another flower bees love.
Asclepias, or milkweed (right) is popular with Monarch butterflies, while orange blossoms (right) are another flower bees love.

How do you use the edible plants in your garden? There are certain vegetables and herbs you can plant that are so easy. You can go in your garden to pick the kale and the sorrel for your omelet, pick blueberries for your breakfast. I had lunch today and picked apricots from my tree and ate them. They were all nice and warm.

From left to right: A raised vegetable bed, recently harvested of kale and lettuce; blueberries; apricots.
From left to right: A raised vegetable bed, recently harvested of kale and lettuce; blueberries; apricots.

What other edible plants do you grow? I’m harvesting tomatoes and that will continue over the next few months. I also have blackberries, raspberries, red runner beans, sugar snap peas. Grapes, basil, radishes, carrots, peaches, figs, oranges, lemons. I grow rhubarb because it’s hard to find and it’s hard to find it organic.

Priscilla's composter, which she called Valentina

You designed your own composter. Tell me about it.  I designed a wooden outdoor composter, which  I call Valentina. I was inspired by wooden bee houses, by the size and how practical it was. I designed Valentina because I couldn’t find a composter that I liked. I didn’t want one that was made of plastic, and that was basically the only option. I wanted something that could be outdoors, and withstand the weather. I put wheels on it so I could move her around.

So Valentina’s definitely a girl? A composter always seemed so icky. Valentina kind of made it pretty.

Photos courtesy Priscilla Woolworth.