Edible Gardening and Spring Vegetables

It’s mid-February, and even in the colder sections of the North State the time is now for planning and even planting your spring and summer vegetable seeds and starts – inside and out. On Feb. 15, I hosted a special edition of I-5 LIVE on Northstate Public Radio (91.7 fm KCHO in Chico and 88.9 fm in Redding) to chat about edible gardening and getting ready for the spring vegetable garden.

My guests for the evening were David Grau, owner of Valley Oak Tool, former market gardener and organizer of the Chico Organic Gardening Series; also, Wayne Kessler, co-owner with his wife, Laurel, of Shambani Organics, a specialty herb and vegetable start grower based in Shingletown, California.

Both men are longtime, avid home gardeners with a wealth of experience and knowledge. They approach the topic of edible gardening from the perspective that home-grown or locally grown food is better for the planet, better for the health of your community and better for you. They see knowing how to grow your own food as being an essential — and likely necessary — skill for the future.

Both men work arduously toward sharing this skill and knowledge base with others: Wayne through his work as a speaker and teacher for People of Progress in the Redding area, as well as through his involvement behind the development of a new Community Teaching Garden on the campus of Shasta Community College in Redding. He hopes the garden will be a hands-on learning environment, and the garden’s first workshop, “Getting Started in your Organic Garden” will be March 7, 1-4 p.m. The address of the garden is Shasta College Main Campus 11555 Old Oregon Trail, in Room 821. Participants will receive information on techniques in preparing and enriching soil, where to get seeds and plants, developing an efficient watering system and gardening resources. The workshop will be appropriate for beginners and those wanting to improve their productivity. The fee for the workshop is $10. To register online : shastacollege.edu/EWD and click on the Pathways Catalog. For more info call 530-225-4835. For more general info call: 530-242-2248 or email teachinggarden@shastacollege.edu.
Photo: Wayne, Laurel and Colin Kessler at the Shambani Organics greenhouses in Shingletown.

Finally, Wayne and Laurel — beyond growing starts for market — are also involved in a “sustainability circle” with other gardeners in their area in Shingletown. They get together and go over how much and what kinds of produce each household would like to have throughout and at the end of the season. They divide up who is growing which crops – this way not each household is buying and storing storage onions, for example, just one or two families are and then they share produce throughout the season. “It really cuts back on resources and brings us together as a group,” Laurel told me. Cool season vegetable and herb starts are now widely available at the nurseries and farmers markets. Shambani Organics starts, including lettuces, greens, onions and brassicas, are now at the Wyntour Gardens in Redding and the Chico Saturday morning farmers markets. For more information on their starts, give them a call or send an email: LWKessler@shasta.com or 530-474-1646.

David of course works toward sharing the skill of growing your own food through the edible gardening class series he puts together each year, which includes the eight-week sessions each winter and then smaller sets of classes in later spring and summer. For these he brings together some of the best growers and gardeners, soil scientists and irrigation specialists from around the area, most of whom are regular attendees throughout the entire class series. Personal gardening stories of success and failure are shared; seasonal produce is shared, starts are shared, seeds catalogs are passed around, as are seeds themselves. The group of “students” and “experts” become one and the same to a large extent throughout the series and the group as whole forms a communal bond through the course of the series. Besides the series itself, David also puts out a regular edible gardening newsletter for the Chico area with summaries of recent classes, information on upcoming classes and tips about what to do in your Chico area garden at specific times. If you would like to be on David’s email list for this newsletter, send him or Hazel Van Evera an email at david@valleyoaktool.com or hazel@valleyoaktool.com. Photo: David Grau at work in his garden with the wheel-hoe of his own design and making.

Key Points to Remember

Wayne and David plant in rows in the native soil at their home gardens, Wayne’s being in a rural site in Shingletown and David’s being on a city lot in Chico. David strongly recommends getting a laboratory soil test of your garden’s soil before planting so that you can incorporate appropriate amendments. You can get a good test from as close as Peaceful Valley Growers in Grass Valley. David explained that a good test will include a reading of your soil’s acidity (ph level), its available NPK (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous), and its important trace minerals such as calcium, magnesium and boron. The test comes back to you as a graph with some recommendations on how to amend your soil to address those elements you might have too little or too much of.

Wayne went on to say that if you are not the kind of person who will get the test, then the addition of “compost, compost, compost” is a pretty good way of adding organic matter and relatively safe fertility to your soil. He claims he is a “lazy” gardener (I have seen his garden and he is not lazy but very efficient) and in the fall, he likes to layer mulch, grass clippings, leaves, and compost onto beds of ground that he has previously planted or loosened only a little, thereby creating a sort of rich berm that with winter’s rain and snow will decompose at the same time loosening and enriching the native soil below. When it comes time to plant, he plants right into this berm.

Loosening the soil of the ground in which you intend to plant, whether it is an area in the ground, a raised bed or a container, is key. If it has never been loosened before, then you’ll want to dig or fork to a depth of about 10 inches more or less, incorporating compost as you dig if desired. Compost will help the “tilth” or “friability,” which is basically the health and texture of either clay, sandy or gravely soils. The organic matter of the compost will increase beneficial organisms as well as hold water more efficiently than sand or gravel, but help drainage in clay soils. For most seeds, you will need to rake the top of this loosened and amended growing area so that it is relatively smooth and fine — without a lot of rocks or clods. This will be your “seed bed.” Seeds can then be planted at appropriate depths (see the individual seed packet for depths), covered and watered in.

Besides compost and without a soil test, both agreed that just putting general balanced fertilizer out there was NOT the greatest idea because even with a balanced formula, you could be throwing your soil’s nutrients out of balance. While many sources recommend putting down lime for vegetable crops, “that is to help balance out more acidic soils, which may be an issue in the higher elevations of northern California but not here in the valley. We actually tend to be on the base side, and valley gardeners are probably safe with putting some gypsum down,” David told us.


Wayne and David grow most of their own crops from seed. Wayne suggested making a list of the vegetables you like to eat before going out shopping for seeds. They recommended several good seed sources including:
Territorial Seed Company,
Peaceful Valley
Baker Creek Seeds
Seeds of Change
Seed Savers Exchange
and a relatively new, certified, organic seed producer in the Manton Valley, Redwood Organic Farm, which can be reached by email at redwoodorganicfarm@hotmail.com or by phone at 530-524-5537. Their seeds are also available at local garden centers, including Wyntour Gardens in Redding.

They encouraged gardeners to experiment with saving their own seeds. Wayne explained that hyrbid and non-open pollinated seeds will not come true from seed, whereas open pollinated seeds will, do if you would like to try your hand at saving seeds, look for purchasing seeds labeled “open-pollinated.”

What to Plant Now

For a spring garden, the next two weeks are your opportunity to plant cool-weather crops. Peas, beans, lettuces, kale, chard, strawberry starts, bareroot asparagus, rhubarb, horse-radish, cane fruits such as raspberries and seed potatoes are all available and good to be planted if your soil is not too wet or too frozen.

For small seeded crops like lettuce or carrots, David described a technique of lightly pressing his shovel handle lengthwise into the raked and prepared seed bed to form a very uniform trough, sprinkling the tiny seeds into this, sprinkling a light compost onto the seeds and watering gently in. “Tiny seeds have a hard time coming up in hard soil or heavy dirt,” he said. For carrots, he also recommended the “nantes” varieties for our region and for their sweetness, and reminded listeners that newly planted seeds need to be kept evenly moist in order to germinate.

Last-frost dates are still more than a month off even for the valley, so for tender summer crops such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and the like, now is a good time to start seeds indoors.


We all agreed that learning from people who are already growing vegetables and other edibles successfully in your area — which would include gardening neighbors, independent nurseries and gardening societies or master gardeners, will be the best source for troubleshooting or just getting started. Keep checking the Monthly Calendar or Regional Gardening Events at Jewellgarden.com for spring workshops and seminars. New events are listed almost every day.

As Wayne likes to point out that he “can’t teach someone to garden” per se, but he “can show them how (he) does it and hope that inspires them to give it a try.” David and Wayne agreed that there are many ways to garden successfully, but getting out there and giving it a try is the only way to start.

The next best resources after your local gardening community, in order of their favorites:

1. Seed catalogs. “Save them from year to year; they have incredible amounts of useful information.”

2. Seed packets. “Full of all the information you need to know to grow the plant successfully!”

3. Books:

“The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible,” Edward C. Smith (Storey Books, 2009).

“Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners,” 2nd Edition, Suzanne Ashworth and Kent Whealy.

“The New Seed Starters Handbook,” Nancy Bubel.

I also really like “The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food,” Tanya L.K. Denckla (Storey Books, 2003) and its encyclopedic approach to vegetables, fruit and herbs.

And of course our own Edible Shasta-Butte magazine is another great resource.

All the books recommended by Wayne and David are available at Lyon Books in Chico. If there’s one in particular you’d like set aside or shipped to you, give them a call at (530) 891-3338.

If you or your gardening organization has a class or plant/gardening-related event you’d like posted to the online Calendar of Regional Gardening Events at jewellgarden.com, send the information to me at: Jennifer@jewellgarden.com

Did you know I send out a weekly email with information about upcoming topics and gardening related events? If you would like to be added to the mailing list, send an email to Jennifer@jewellgarden.com.

In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum — Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell — all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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