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Planting seeds: Common Ground manager offers tips for local gardeners

Photos Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Patricia Becker, above, is manager of the Common Ground Garden Supply and Education Center, bottom right, which sells everything gardeners would need to start and maintain their outdoor havens, such as plants and edibles, below left, and seeds, below right.

The Town Crier recently conducted an email interview with Patricia Becker, manager of Common Ground Organic Garden Supply and Education Center in Palo Alto. The 42-year-old nonprofit organization’s mission is to provide education and resources to support the local community in growing gardens sustainably through the cultivation of edible and native plants.

For more information, visit commongroundinpaloalto.org.

Q: What is Common Ground?

Becker: Our full name is Common Ground Garden Supply and Education Center. We are a 501(c)3 nonprofit serving the San Francisco Bay Area. We offer classes and events in sustainable gardening and lifestyles. We sell seeds and plants, organic composts, tools, natural disease and pest control products, books, magazines, cards and local gift items.

Q: How many people does Common Ground serve annually?

Becker: We had over 400 participants in one day for our Annual Edible Landscaping Tour in July 2013. An estimate is close to 100,000.

Q: What sort of products can someone expect to find at Common Ground?

Becker: Everything for your gardening needs, organic and sustainable from A to Z. And if we don’t have it, you probably don’t need it!

Q: What are the five most important tools for gardening?

Becker: High-quality pruners, a digging fork, a spade, a hand trowel and gloves. No. 6 would be comfortable, tough shoes.

Q: What is the best time of year to start planting a garden?

Becker: California has two optimal planting seasons – in all honesty, gardens can be planted here in the Bay Area at any time of year. Except December. We sell a “Common Ground Planting Guide” for this area that lists what to start in flats or directly in each month. It is a best-seller and highly recommended.

Q: Which plants grow best with maximum sunlight, and which do best with more shade?

Becker: Most edible plants prefer six to eight hours of sun per day. Certainly, plants will grow with less light, but the amount of flowers and fruit one receives usually correlates with how much sunlight is provided.

Q: Which plants flourish in local yards?

Becker: Plants that have come from Mediterranean climates will do very well. But overall, most plants find our climate quite amenable.

Q: What are some foolproof plants for the novice gardener?

Becker: Culinary and medicinal herbs, Nasturtium edible flowers, Calendula edible flowers, mints, lavenders, salvias. Most edible plants and California native plants are relatively easy to grow.

Q: What should you consider before replanting or redesigning your garden?

Becker: How much time will you truly spend in your garden? Who is going to care for it, and is that person up to the task? If the garden includes edible goodies, which fruits and veggies will the family actually eat?

Consider taking a Common Ground class that can help answer your questions.

Q: Gov. Jerry Brown recently declared a drought emergency in California. What are some ways gardeners can conserve this year?

Becker: Water at night. Mulch, mulch and more mulch. Rosalind Creasy, author of the wonderful book “Edible Landscaping,” suggests that we consider taking out our lawns and replacing them with food gardens. She points out, “Lawns require 1 inch of water per week; at that rate, using irrigation only, a 25-by-40-foot (1,000-square-foot) lawn can suck up about 625 gallons of water weekly, or approximately 10,000 gallons of water each summer.”

Q: What are your favorite ways to maximize a smaller garden space?

Becker: Growing plants like peas on a vertical support is fun, wise and attractive. Also, in our arid climate, it’s possible to grow plants closer together than might be suggested by a book or seed packet.

Q: What is the best way to fertilize the garden? Is it different for flowers than for edible plants?

Becker: If an organic fertilizer is used, then there should not be any difference in application between edible or ornamental plants. Different plants do require different foods, so it’s best to know those differences before they’re fed. The best way to fertilize is up to each individual gardener, but most opt for either broadcasting handfuls of fertilizer or spraying it with a hose-end sprayer.

Q: What are some bee-friendly plants? What are the benefits to having bees in the garden?

Becker: A beehive near your garden is said to improve yields of fruit and vegetables upwards of 35 percent. Most flowering plants will be visited by bees. Lavenders are particularly reliable attractors.

Q: What is the most challenging part of gardening, and how do you overcome the challenges?

Becker: The best garden is the garden that is paid attention to. Finding time to tend the garden is typically the greatest challenge. Otherwise, gardening is a pastime that can be enjoyed by essentially anyone.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who insists they have a “black” thumb?

Becker: You are what you say you are. Pay attention to your garden and your thumb will green up in no time.

Q: What are some great potted plants/edibles that work well in smaller garden spaces?

Becker: Citrus is a good potted fruit tree. Blueberries do well in pots. Lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, just about every type of edible plant can be grown in a container. We sell a popular book, the best book for growing edibles in container, “Container Gardening” by Rose Marie Nichols.

Q: What are some good guidelines when it comes to watering? Every day? Twice a week? Does it depend on what is growing or the season?

Becker: Typically, one waters less in the winter when the days are cooler and shorter (maybe twice a week max), and then in the summer, perhaps three, sometimes four times per week.

Q: Where can local residents find answers to their gardening questions?

Becker: By taking classes at Common Ground, where you learn and meet gardening friends. Our classes really educate the students.

Q: What are some upcoming Common Ground events that might be useful to local gardeners, expert or novice?

Becker: We have a superb Edible Garden Series beginning Saturday and running into late spring, which covers most aspects of organic gardening, all the way from design to harvest. We’re also offering a class Feb. 15 that will give gardeners ideas and strategies for how to get more from their garden in less time, taught by a Common Ground staff member.

Common Ground Garden Shop readies for Spring - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier

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