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Consult Rosalind Creasy before planting a kitchen garden

April 15, 2011 | 11:50 am

Creasynewcover  If you are considering converting part of your yard, patio or even the edges of your front steps into a kitchen garden this spring, it merits checking Rosalind Creasy’s “Edible Landscaping” (Sierra Club, 2010) out of the library.

While you’re at it, consider looking up its nearly 30-year-old forerunner “The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping,” also by Creasy, and the Sunset Western Garden Book (Oxmoor House, 2007).  Few people have been quite so consistently ahead of their time as this Los Altos gardener.

CreasyoldcoverIn the 1970s, Creasy began systematically rolling back the lawn of her Bay Area home and replacing it with a kitchen garden. In the process, she slashed her water bill, eliminated sprinkler runoff and filled her pantry, to say nothing of cutting tens of thousands of “food miles” from her dinner plate.

Then in her 30s, a trained educator and mother of two, she went to the local community college to study horticulture, where she scandalized her teachers by pressing the idea of replacing much of our ornamental landscape with food crops.

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Dean Riddle's Catskill, N.Y., garden when dormant, above, and in flower, below.

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In 1982, she took the notion public with the “Complete” book. After dangling fruit and flowers before lawn-weary eyes, she exhorted readers to double dig vegetable beds a foot deep in the soil, add compost by the cubic yard, then finish the beds with planked edges so the protruding mounds of turned soil, manure and mulch didn’t look like we buried our dogs under our strawberries. Print was small. Photographs were few. Finely detailed drawings were many. This was a "How To" book for the robust. How to design. How to dig. How to plant. How to grow. How to select seeds and rootstock. How to water efficiently. How to mulch. How to prune. How to espalier fruit trees for small gardens. Even how to seek out the right recipes.

What we were not to do, she warned, was dig up our front lawns, stake up tomatoes with old panty hose, then leave the increasingly straggly vines out front until we’d gleaned every last fruit. Beauty, she stressed, was part of the social contract.

Pre-Martha Stewart, pre-Edible Estates, pre-1990 drought, it’s hard to overstate just how revolutionary Creasy’s ideas seemed. Fast forward to late 2010, and her ideas are mainstream. Late last year, as captured by Nan Sterman on this blog, Creasy returned with the updated volume, this time with a new emphasis on show, and less on tell. This time Creasy sets out to seduce readers with photos, most of them by her, of food gardens captured from travels to 49 states.

The old invocations to double dig are there, along with nods to more modern no-dig methods, but these are largely buried in the appendices. The early book’s many fine illustrations are largely gone. For those who want to learn how to plant a bare-root fruit tree, an un-illustrated and updated process more skeptical about amending soil is offered at the back of the book. For those who want more there is a link to Dave Wilson Nursery.

Upon reflection, what at first seems disappointing –- fine drawings educate in ways that cameras can’t -– makes sense. Why put illustrations about digging and planting in a book when the thinking about how to do it is rapidly changing and the latest advice can be readily found on nursery and university extension program websites?

Bugs, too, have been stripped of their illustrations and moved to steerage, but faithful readers will find that Creasy’s wisdom about living with them remains. The new book has her in fine form, telling us how to buy healthy plants, then maintain them in ways that encourage beneficial insects and discourages the pests. Her farmer’s sense of sustainability permeates both books: that a good garden seeks low input, high-output beauty.

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Given the re-jiggering, the new book’s emphasis rests more heavily on design: A brief history of landscape design from the first book has been dusted down and polished. She helps us form a priority list while doing our very own bubble drawings of our yards, so as we design, we are satisfying our needs, rather than the To Do list of a know-it-all. This respect for her reader alone puts her in an all-too-rare class of genuinely useful garden writers. There is the same old Creasy wisdom on how to create a plan for your property, assess shade, drainage, access and plant grouping, but the new book offers photo galleries.

Some things never change. As before, roughly half the book is devoted to lists of edible plants, almonds to yams, that Americans might profitably and attractively stick in their yards, then in their cookpots, with notes on zone, difficulty, planting, tending and reaping. Both books emphasize the potential of potted gardens to produce surprisingly large amounts of food. This woman wants trowels in the hands of not just homeowners, but also apartment dwellers.

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The main thing that the new volume offers that the old one doesn’t is a photographic record of a change that Creasy herself has brought to American gardening. With each picture in the new volume comes a story of another home garden transformed into a Beatrix Potter-worthy potager, my personal favorite being that of a Portland, Ore., driveway turned into a dazzling network of raised beds. (The "after" photo is above, the "before" below.)

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Be warned: These lovely photographs can induce what the poet Lorca once called a “lyrical headache.” The many casually positioned baskets of food in the foreground of dizzily abloom gardens are twee enough to turn a bee into a modernist. More prop-less photos of these annual-dominated gardens in off-season would have been valuable. Whatever your aesthetic, it merits listening extra hard to her advice about studding in evergreen structural soldiers to hold the form of a dormant garden.

On a fundamental level, both of Creasy’s volumes have one significant shortcoming for Southern Californians. Both her books are pitched at a national audience. So the fine guidance needed to help gardeners partner summer-dormant natives and Mediterranean plants with summer-growing exotic edibles remains frustratingly under-explored, even by this Californian.

Catering to a national audience further requires that Creasy use the USDA climate zone system. With only 11 zones for the entire country, this system is borderline useless for California. Apart from the Golden State, no other place in the U.S. has what is known as a “Mediterranean” climate. By contrast, to capture California’s many microclimates from rainforest, coastal plain, alpine to high desert, the Sunset Western Garden Book (Oxmoor House, 2007) divides California into 24 distinct zones.

So, whatever you do, don’t plant one of Creasy’s reverently photographed kiwi fruit vines without checking with Sunset first about whether the plant is suitable for your locale. Only Sunset will tell you whether you will need both a male and female plant (likely with kiwi), whether your microclimate has sufficient chill hours (borderline here in the Southland), if it’s water-wise (it’s not), or give you a clear idea about whether you’ll be able to contain them when they grow (dicey). Chances are, inspired by Creasy, the next thing you know, you’ll be checking the far more suitable Santa Rosa plum in Sunset, and finding that it’s a perfect fit.

-- Emily Green

Photos, from top: Cover of 2010 book; 1983 edition of "The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping"; Catskill, N.Y., garden photos courtesy of Sierra Club Books; edible garden in pots by Rosalind Creasy; photos of Portland, Ore., driveway courtesy Sierra Club Books.

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