The pandemic sparked a wave of beginner gardeners, eager for a new hobby to pass the time. And as the days get longer, the most bountiful season is upon us in Southern California.
But how do you decide what to plant? How do you care for those delicate seedlings? And how do you avoid blowing your entire paycheck at your local nursery? Answering those questions can turn what’s supposed to be a de-stressor into an anxiety-producing experience.
So KCRW made a horticultural 911 call, and help came from Tashanda Giles-Jones. Based in Inglewood, she teaches 6th to 8th grade at Environmental Charter Middle School and leads regenerative gardening classes through Kiss the Ground, an LA nonprofit rooted in the healthy soil movement.
Here are her answers to our listeners’ questions:
How do you know if you have good dirt?
Tashanda Giles-Jones: “Dirt is not soil. Dirt has no life in it. Soil is full of life. In one teaspoon of soil, you can have millions of microbes present. That is the difference. Compost is a really great way to amend [dirt], but I always go with sheet mulching, especially if you have the space for it. [Get] a bunch of cardboard, take all of the stickers or adhesive off of it, because remember, it's going to break down and you don't want toxins in your soil. Cover your dirt with cardboard overlapping. This process helps smother any weed seeds. Drench it so it's nice and soggy. And then the trick is to cover it with mulch. Mulch is what helps suppress that cardboard, and as you leave it there over time, and I've seen it happen in a few months, that cardboard starts to break down, that moisture is trapped under the mulch, and then it starts creating this inviting habitat for some of those microbes and decomposers to come back.”
What are good companion vegetable plants for tomatoes?
“Companion planting is done to cultivate plants that can support each other. Plants that are friendly to tomatoes help deter pests, increase the flavor of tomatoes, and don't hog up much space. Basil, borage, nasturtiums, amaranth, and marigolds help repel insects. Parsley and other herbs can improve the flavor.
Plants that don't do well with tomatoes come from the brassica family, including cabbages, kale, and broccoli, which can stunt your tomato plant's growth. Brassicas are considered cool-season crops anyway, whereas tomatoes are a warm-season crop that grow best in the summer.”
Which jasmine plants do well in full sun and grow quickly on wires/trellis?
“I love jasmine plants, and there are a couple that come to mind that fits your needs. Pink jasmine (jasminum polyanthum) is a fast growing vine that has pinkish white flowers with an amazing smell. It's a climber but does not cling, meaning you will need to create a trellis. Another great one is Royal jasmine (jasminum rex). This is another fast-growing evergreen with small white flowers that smell super sweet. It flowers most of the year and does well in warmer climates like Southern California.
As for types of supports to use, it depends on where you plan to grow the plant. Both of these options can vine along a fence or wall. You may need to provide hooks for them to latch onto while training the vine. I've used bamboo sticks to build a ladder trellis for vining plants and that works well, too.”
How can I get involved in promoting native plants in our city and places the city manages, like medians?
“[The] Theodore Payne Foundation is an awesome start. They are leaders in native plant horticulture. Not only do they provide education, [but] they have a nursery, they are cultivating natives that are adaptable to our climate change. They provide springtime garden tours. … They also are really good at providing opportunities for people and community organizations who want to plant in their community. So learn about your natives first. And then start looking at your local nurseries and see what kind of outreach they have available.”
What should gardeners do to protect their plants from the intense heat and sunshine?
“Climate adaptive plants and trees is a big conversation in the garden world, because with climate change, our zonings are shifting. Make sure you are planting plants that can handle really warm temperatures in the soil. Those are going to be tomatoes, eggplants, corn, squash. Do a little companion planting that can help shade some of those crops that are less heat tolerant. I always do a canopy type of gardening, where I'm growing things that are taller that can naturally shade some of my leafy greens that are going to be closer to the soil.
I also would look at the area you're growing in. Use buildings as shade. If you have trees in your backyard, if you're planting on a balcony, pay attention to the way the sun hits your growing space and then modify that way.”
What are some of the better resources for knowing when to plant what throughout the year?
“Sunset Magazine is always a great resource. However, I would start with knowing your planting zone. Gurney's Seed & Nursery Company’s Plant Zone Finder is a great website where you can find your plant hardiness zone and information about the appropriate plants to grow. Knowing your climate zone will inform you of the lowest temperature your area reaches so that you can cultivate plants that can withstand your climate.”
What are some relatively safe (i.e. less toxic than pesticides) ways to deal with aphids and spider mites on flowering and fruiting plants?
“I'm a true believer in a balanced ecosystem, and in a balanced ecosystem, you don't eliminate anything, you just create balance. [Introduce] ladybugs, lacewing, and parasitic wasps into your garden. Planting plants and flowers that attract them will help keep that aphid population down. Also the health of your soil. If your soil is healthy, your plant is likely to be more healthy.
The true fire way to take care of them, if you're going out into your garden every morning, is manually dealing with it while you're waiting for all those beneficial bugs to come in. A high-powered hose, if it's an established plant, can wash those aphids off. I've even gone out there and just run my hand over plants and squish the aphids out of the way.
There are some sprays you can use. People have used neem oil, tomato leaf spray, garlic oil, but scientifically, those biological controls are going to be your best bet.”