For one Santa Barbara gardener, harvest season never ends. Here are tips from her extraordinary edible garden
Kathleen N. Brenzel
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Growing the good life
Valerie Rice's 14 1/2- by 29-foot walled garden explodes with edibles all year. Unlike many vegetable gardens, Rice’s yard is designed for looks as well as production. Bamboo trellises turn bean vines into architecture, and apple trees are espaliered near the back wall. In summer, the beds spill with sweet corn, red-speckled beans, lemon cucumbers, and Padrón peppers—“things I can’t find in markets,” she says. In fall, Romanesco broccoli, watermelon radishes, and greens take over.
“The garden takes the guesswork out of menu planning,” says Rice, who feeds her family of four (she and her husband have two daughters, ages 8 and 10) almost entirely from the garden and writes about it on her garden-food blog, eat-drink-garden.com. It also serves as the starting point for frequent dinner parties. “I grab a notebook and head outside a couple of days ahead of time to see what will be ready to harvest.”
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Easy raised beds
Rice built her 4- by 8-foot raised beds from nursery kits and lined them with wire mesh to deter gophers. They accommodate an ever-changing cast of edibles, planted in rows—lowest crops in front and tallest in back—so sunlight reaches them all.
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Rice mixes potting soil with sand, compost, and an organic amendment containing bat guano and worm castings (G&B Organics; kellogggarden.com). After planting, she dusts soil with cottonseed meal or kelp meal. “I always want to rush the planting stage, but hard prep work pays off.”
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Downhill from the main garden, Rice created a “veggie oasis” by turning tree boxes into raised beds. You can buy the wooden boxes at many nurseries, even though they’re not always clearly for sale.
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To support fava beans, Rice ties together bamboo stakes with twine. For staking bush tomatoes, she makes tipis of fruit tree prunings. Vining crops stay tidy in tomato cages; Rice turns the cages upside down and gathers ends in a finial.
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Stick to a schedule
Rice tackles pruning and weeding on Tuesdays and harvesting on Fridays to replenish the food supply for the weekend. She frequently replants bare spots with new crops. “Keeping at it keeps it easy,” she says.
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Extend the season
Rice preserves anything she doesn’t use immediately. She dries apple, chile, squash, and peach slices in a nine-tray dehydrator (excaliburdehydrator.com). Fruits get puréed and turned into fruit leathers; fresh tomatoes, broccoli, and green beans are put in resealable plastic bags and frozen.
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When harvesting, Rice never overlooks crops that appear a little overripe. “String beans are so tender when I first harvest them,” she says. Left on the vine, they toughen up, “so I parboil them in salty water, then braise them with cherry tomatoes and sherry. I’ve opened up my cooking repertoire by using veggies in all stages.” She also finds uses for every last bit of her crops, tossing broccoli leaves and flowers into salads, and tucking tomatillo clippings into bouquets.