Planting and design tips from an organic grower

More than a decade ago, Craig Murray began growing hard-to-find tomatoes and peppers in Los Altos Hills, California. His organic methods yielded so much beautiful produce that he planted other vegetables, herbs, and flowers to sell at a roadside stand.

Many crops now grow in Murray’s 1-acre plot, from zinnias, rudbeckias, and dahlias to tomatoes―’First Lady’, ‘Big Beef’, and heirloom ‘Caspian Pink’ are among Murray’s favorites― and peppers, such as ‘Gypsy’ and ‘Vidi’.

Murray, a landscape designer, contractor, and horticultural consultant (650/941-1301), says his garden enables him to connect with the community as well as the earth. “This is a gathering place,” he explains; customers come to chat and exchange recipes.

For his summer garden, Murray sows seeds in a greenhouse in late winter, then sets seedlings in the ground when they reach planting height, about 10 inches tall.

He uses no chemical fertilizers or pesticides and says they’re not needed in a healthy garden that’s visited by beneficial insects, which eat insect pests. “If you provide sun, water, enriched soil, and the best (seed) varieties you can find, you’ll get results,” he adds. Download our guide to beneficial insects

Coppery ‘Cherokee Sunset’ rudbeckia, pink celosia (C. spicata ‘Flamingo Feather’), and a blue-and-white bicolor salvia thrive in narrow raised beds.

You can duplicate Murray’s method by following these steps before planting:

Start plants from seed so you can grow unusual varieties that are not available as seedlings in nurseries. Murray annually orders new and unusual varieties as well as tried-and-true types. “There’s a lot of joy in germinating seeds and watching them grow to maturity,” he says.

Prepare the soil. Dig in several inches of compost and a balanced organic fertilizer. Or use Murray’s method: in midfall, plant cover crops of barley, clover, legumes, oats, and vetch, then till them into the soil in spring.

Create narrow rows (30 to 36 in. wide) for easy harvest. Mound the soil in these beds to 8 inches high for good drainage.

Lay drip tape or soaker hoses lengthwise, close to where you’ll set out seedlings. Irrigate for several hours to moisten the soil.

Cover rows and drip tape with plastic mulch and bury the edges with soil to keep it in place.

When rows are ready for planting:

Use a tighter-than-usual spacing method for seedlings so that plants will support each other and protect foliage from sunburn. Cut 4-inch Xs in the plastic; through the openings, plant seedlings atop the mounds.

Support plants with a simple stake-and-string method: place a post at each corner of the bed and run plastic twine horizontally from post to post at every 8 to 10 inches of height.

Veggie 101: How to grow vegetables

Keep Reading: