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Turning the soil, caring for seedlings and tasting homegrown bounty is what gardening is all about. For Judith Yisrael, growing nutrient-rich food for her family and her surrounding community is an everyday way of life. She is the co-founder of Yisrael Family Urban Farm, a half-acre plot of land in the Oak Park neighborhood where she and her husband, Chanowk, work hard in the soil and in the community. In January, Sacramento County’s board of supervisors unanimously passed the County Urban Agriculture Ordinance, a law that will allow residents to legally grow and sell crops, keep bees and even raise chickens and ducks at home. For the Yisrael family, the news means they will open and operate an urban farm stand selling organic fruits and vegetables to their neighborhood.
“Remember, we’re not just growing food when we’re talking about urban agriculture,” she says. “We’re actually growing community, we’re growing hope and we’re growing health.”
With a passion for growing herbs, vegetables and colorful flowers, Yisrael thinks about how to create biodiversity in her garden by the use of companion planting, which she says is a natural system where the plants and insects take care of themselves. She makes homemade soaps and salves and infuses oils with ingredients from her backyard bounty, and she still found time to help Sacramento Magazine with a month-by-month guide for our readers with a green thumb.
April showers bring May flowers. So try to have a majority of what you’re going to be growing this season in the ground to take advantage of that glorious rainwater. Rainwater is rich in nitrogen, which gives plants a healthy boost.
As far as soil temperature requirements, they depend on what type of crop you’re planting. For cooler crops, the soil temperature needs to be between 30 and 40 degrees. This includes cabbage, broccoli and leafy greens. Summer crops need warmer soil at about 50 to 60 degrees. Any variety of summer and winter squash, Ping Tung or Black Beauty eggplants, basil, thyme, borage and chamomile will do well at these temperatures.
Comfrey is a medicinal herb that can be grown in May and can easily be propagated all over your property. The herb promotes healing and is commonly used for cuts and scrapes. Use comfrey’s roots after they are dried in teas or salves, or infuse it in oils. The herb also acts as a dynamic accumulator when used in your compost pile, which gives soil a nice boost of nutrients. Calendula is another great plant to grow this month. In a Mason jar, pour a high-grade extra-virgin olive oil over the flower petals and leave the mixture out in the sun. Use the oil for salves, soaps and even on salads for a light honey flavor.
It’s time to harvest what you planted in April, so call up the relatives and have them come over to share the bounty, or throw a canning party to reap and safely store the benefits of all that hard work.
In June, it’s hot. So it’s important to stay on top of watering duties, and mulching really helps. Tree bark adds an extra layer to the soil so the sun isn’t directly beating onto the ground. This process also helps prevent overwatering during this time.
Expect to harvest the first red tomatoes, summer squash (such as zucchini and yellow crooknecks), Red Burgundy okra and deep purple eggplants.
Judith Yisrael in her greenhouse
Continue to water, mulch and harvest your bounty. A good tip for herbs: The more you harvest, the more they will produce and the longer they will produce. Some plants, like lavender and calendula, will even produce twice in a year. There’s lots of harvesting and eating in July with colorful heirloom and cherry tomatoes in full swing. Cucumbers and the first figs of the season will make an appearance in late July. The summer heat also marks the start of stone fruit season, with apricots, peaches, plums and nectarines aplenty, perfect for canning and making homemade jams.
Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cabbage are all great veggies to plant in the soil during August, along with root crops like parsnips, beets and carrots. Perennial herbs such as comfrey, mint, oregano and mullein can go into the ground. Mullein is a medicinal herb with great use in soaps, salves and teas. The soft, fuzzy leaves feel almost like fabric and are known for their ability to aid in congestion. Feverfew is another helpful herb to plant this month. In ancient times, feverfew was good for toothpaste and to help relieve oral pain. Chives and fennel are two more perennials for this time of year. Chive flowers are edible and brighten up teas and salads.
Winter squash gourds start to pop up around this time. Winter squash has thick skin, so it keeps well into the winter, when it’s made into savory soups and hearty casseroles to comfort families during the cold season.
Garlic varieties like soft-neck garlic are planted from September throughout December. This variety makes a nice conversation piece for your kitchen as its soft shoots can be braided into a large garlic braid and stored by hanging up.
In September, continue to propagate all herbal plants, stay on top of weeds and find creative ways to use herbs and flowers in lemon-verbena tea or sweet lavender lemonade.
By now, some plants, like tomatoes and corn, may start to not produce as much. It’s time to pull those plants out and recycle them into the compost bin. Clean out those garden beds and start to prepare for fall crops.
This is the time to reduce water flow, especially if your system is on a timer. If seedlings are in the greenhouse, start them hardening off for winter, transplanting before they go into the ground by taking them outdoors and setting them under a shady tree or garden bench to get a little bit of sunlight every day. Start mulching any trees with wood chips to protect and nourish the soil around them for the upcoming winter. Now is also the time to start adding compost and working the soil before it gets too cold for planting winter crops. October is also a great time to start planting wheat to grow during winter. Wheat increases the soil’s ability to absorb water, and its roots help aerate the soil.
With the winter garden now planted, it’s time to cover plants to prepare for the cold and rainy weather.
If growing plants in pots, bring them indoors, or dig up delicate pepper plants and transfer them into pots to protect them from the elements. For citrus and avocado or even young trees, purchase tree fleece from a local nursery to protect them from frost. For garden beds, make miniature hoop houses to protect crops. A majority of perennial herbs will go dormant. But when spring comes back around, they will sprout back to life.
This is also the time to plant berries into the ground: blackberries, blueberries and boysenberries. Berry bushes will go dormant and come back when it’s their time. It will appear as if the plant is completely dead, but trust that it is indeed alive. A majority of berries, especially blueberries, like a certain amount of acidity to the soil. Visit a local nursery for a soil-testing kit and check for a pH level between 4.5 and 5.5 when planting berries from seedlings.
December is last call. Move plants indoors or into a greenhouse, get hoop houses built over garden beds, and spread mulch around trees and berries. Tuck all the new babies into bed for their winter nap. Be sure to remove dead plants—not the dormant ones, the dead ones.
From December to January, it’s onion time. Green, red, yellow and white onions go into the ground this month and will harvest as early as April. Plant and cover asparagus, rhubarb, artichokes, snapdragons, primrose and pansies.
Water very sparingly. Rain will naturally feed the plants, and they don’t need as much water anyway. December is a time for conserving. It’s time to put up your feet because gardening is a lot of work. Use this time to mimic nature and the plants. When it’s time to go dormant, rest and hibernate.
January is the month of preparation, with the last frost right around the corner. Prep the soil by adding amendments and make sure compost is turned over so it gets plenty of oxygen. If you use a drip irrigation system, flush the lines to clean trapped dirt clods. Take inventory of your gardening tools and replace what is broken.
There isn’t much planting happening during this month due to frost, but now is the time to sow seeds indoors or in greenhouses. Take seed inventory and create a plan for what to grow this season. Think about what new vegetables you’d like to try.
When creating a garden plan, keep in mind plants that will attract beneficial insects like bees and other pollinators, like hummingbirds, to the garden. Shrubs, such as pineapple sage with its red, tubular flowers, have sweet nectar that hummingbirds and even children cannot resist. Sunflowers will attract buzzing bees and also brighten the garden, while marigolds will protect tomato and pepper plants from nematodes.
Start these vegetable seeds indoors: broccoli, lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, kale and eggplant.
In February, the soil is still fairly cold. It’s best to continue to sow seeds indoors or in a greenhouse. About mid-February, the last frost will finally run its course, but for most areas in Sacramento, this month’s frigid weather is still too cold for seeds to germinate. In the meantime, continue to sow seeds, growing them into seedlings. Radishes, leeks, beets, celery and cabbage are great vegetables to sow indoors right up until the last frost.
Think about where to transfer the seedlings after the last frost. Seedlings are like babies. Make sure the babies are strong enough to sustain a healthy life in the great outdoors. Generally, wait until the seedlings have at least two to three adult leaves before they are transferred into the ground. More importantly, seedlings need to go through a hardening-off process so they will be acclimated to their new outdoor temperatures. This process prevents plant shock.
When seedlings are ready for planting, it’s best to transplant them on cool days; overcast days are even better. Too much sunlight can shock a seedling, so think of this time as the weaning process. When taking care of seedlings, put them on a windowsill or keep them in a greenhouse. Also, online sources like YouTube or Pinterest will provide plenty of do-it-yourself mini greenhouse ideas.
As soon as the soil becomes workable, add compost to it and start working that soil. Adding a layer of bark helps keep the soil warmer than if it was just exposed to the natural elements. It also helps keep seeds germinating once it’s warm enough to start sowing seeds outdoors.
Some crops to start in March include carrots, beets, radishes and leafy greens like chard, lettuce and spinach. This is also the time to start thinking about weed management. The old-fashioned way is to pull weeds out of the ground from their taproots. Vinegar is a all-natural weed controller, but beware of windy conditions so the spray doesn’t harm other plants. Garlic spray is another chemical-free option against harmful insects. Simply mix garlic cloves and water in a blender until smooth and transfer into a spray bottle.
Companion planting is a great way to encourage and create biodiversity in a garden where the plants and the insects take care of themselves. Marigolds have really sweet nectar that attracts beneficial insects and deflects nematodes, a worm that is harmful to the garden. With a tomato or pepper bed, plant marigolds on the edge of the bed and in the middle. If growing crops in rows, plant marigolds every 2 to 3 feet.