Transforming Your Yard Into a Garden of Eatin'
By now, we all know the virtues of eating local, fresh, seasonal foods. We have our favorite haunts: farmers' markets, farm-to-table restaurants and artisan grocery stores. But in the quest for the ultimate fresh, local food you need look no further than your own yard. San Diego has the perfect climate to grow a plethora of gorgeous fruits and veggies. With a bit of space, and a little sweat, you can build a small garden to feed you and your family.
Edible gardening is fun and rewarding, but many are afraid to take the first steps. I have heard the phrase, "I don't have a green thumb" more times than I'd like to count. Indeed gardening can be tricky. Every plant has its own quirks and every yard its own microclimate. Sunlight, drainage, soil type and frost conditions all affect what and how you grow. Add a few chickens or a goat into the mix and things get complicated quickly. Whether you're just starting out, or trying to push your garden further, you may want to get some professional help to learn what an urban farm can really be.
Urban Plantations is a small local business specializing in the design, construction and maintenance of backyard edible landscapes. Contreras founded the company four years ago, when she realized she could put her extensive knowledge of gardening to work. Contreras grew up gardening with her grandmother, and eating veggies right out of the yard. Later she owned a small farm in Oregon, where she produced 90% of her own food and sold the excess at local farmers' markets. A lifetime of farming has given her a wealth of knowledge of both plants and animals.
The company grew organically out of Contreras' mind. She was living in San Diego, working at an unfulfilling job, and seeking solace in her home garden. One day a visiting friend pointed to her zucchini plant and asked, "What's that?" She replied, "zucchini," to which the friend responded, "I thought those grew underground!"
Contreras describes that as her aha! moment. "I realized that there was a real interest in growing food, and a real lack of knowledge." It was her opportunity and she seized it.
Contreras is a Master Gardener, but she describes herself as the least knowledgeable member of her staff, "Most of my knowledge is hands-on, but these guys all have degrees." She is passionate about bringing the locavore movement to the backyard and returning San Diegans to a diet of fresh, organic produce. But she isn't satisfied with just building gardens that produce tons of food; she wants them to be beautiful too.
A walk through one of Urban Plantations' gardens is an education in urban agriculture. The gardens combine the practicality of producing tons of food with a flair for beautiful meandering overgrowth; form meets function. Tomatoes, beans and herbs intertwine in lush bundles, with fruit trees peeking out. Grapevines wind up around posts and canopy hidden sitting areas. Rows and rows of dense corn promise delicious barbecues to come. Enormous squash, with dinner-table-sized leaves, form borders. Colorful ornamentals are scattered about, providing relief from the blinding photosynthetic green. It is at once beautiful, daunting, enviable and almost prehistoric—a modern, edible Garden of Eden.
Urban Plantations has installed over 300 private gardens in San Diego, and maintains up to 50 of them at any time. They are experts in garden design, layout and construction; building all structures out of handsome, sustainable hard wood. They regularly install four-stage compost bins, and can even design and build custom chicken coops and goat pens. All their gardening methods are natural, even starting their own plants from seeds—organic and local whenever possible. Contreras describes their philosophy as subtle: "We don't try to ram our politics down people's throats, but we do try to lead by example."
Urban Plantations' professionalism and high-quality work has even won them contracts in restaurant-supported agriculture. They have teamed with the Alexandria Real Estate group to provide edible landscaping for integrated corporate campuses. Their crowning achievement (thus far) is the onsite Fibonacci Garden and Bistro, located near UCSD—a brilliant garden that lies just steps from an inspired café on a LEED-certified biotech campus. Each week Contreras and company harvest nearly 400 pounds of fresh produce for the restaurant, which in turn plans its menu around the garden.
Whether you are just starting out with a few plants, or are already swimming in compost, a five-minute chat with Karen Contreras is enough to diagnose half a dozen problems in your garden. An hour of her time could probably change your whole worldview. Should you hire her to tend your garden, you might never have to visit the produce aisle again.