Early spring is considered the ideal time to start a backyard garden. While the thought of growing vegetables and herbs may be intimidating to some,
local experts say it’s easier than it looks - it just takes patience.
The first step in growing a low-maintenance garden is to decide which vegetables will grow best in your garden. Ask neighbors what they’ve had success growing, or contact the UC Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County for assistance.
Those with green thumbs also can help you determine whether it’s best to plant seeds or transplant pieces of the vegetable or herb into the ground to start the process, along with how deep to seed them.
Los Altos Hills resident Vince Zunino, who’s had a passion for gardening since age 10, recommends planting lettuces and spinaches early in the year when the soil is still cool; otherwise, the leaves will become bitter in the warmer weather. Beets, radishes and carrots also do well when planted in cool soil.
"Any kind of pea works well, too," Zunino said. "Sugar snap peas - you can eat them like candy. Those are fun. When (daughter) Amanda was little, we would go harvest them and half wouldn’t make it into the house."
Like Zunino, Candace Simpson - a longtime volunteer for the UC Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County - said March is the best time to plant cold-season crops.
"All plants need some kind of fertilization, and in March an easy way to do this for your vegetables is to mix it into the ground before you plant the plants," she said. "Usually, you don’t need to add any more (fertilizer) during this time of the year, since they are only growing for three months."
Simpson noted that spring vegetables, such as beets and peas, do not require nearly as much energy as summer fruits, which need additional fertilization. That has to do with the roots and leaves of spring vegetables being consumed; summer plants are in the ground longer because only the fruit is eaten.
Sprouting vegetables in an open garden often attract uninvited guests. In and around Los Altos, such pesty guests include squirrels, rats, gophers and deer.
"If you don’t protect your crops, you’re feeding the animals," Zunino said.
The squirrel and rat populations are "really very high," Simpson added, and the best way to stop them "is exclusion - meaning something around the vegetables so they can’t get into them."
Simpson and Zunino agree that chicken wire is the best deterrent for most pests. Simpson also suggests hardware cloth, a material similar to welded fencing that works even better for rats, which can’t squeeze past it like they can with chicken wire.
Gophers can be just as problematic. There are two widely used solutions - kill them or trap them. Zunino prefers the former.
"If you’re no good at trapping, there’s a gopher bait bar you can buy at the hardware store," he said.
Many experts agree that the best way to protect your crops is to build a small pen of chicken wire with a lid and line the pen with hardware cloth on the inside to keep the rats out. This can also stop deer; if they try to get into your plants, the chicken wire will shift slightly when they attempt to move it, and that will scare them away.
For more tips and tricks, visit mgsantaclara.ucanr.edu. O