Sustainable Food Gardening
The Food Gardening Specialists of the UC Master Garden Program of Sonoma County provide science-based horticultural information and teach home and community gardeners how to grow food sustainably. The emphasis is on using practices that will not compromise future conditions of the environment. We break down the practical implementation of sustainability in our food gardens into five major components.
Nurture and Protect the Soil
- A food garden begins with good soil.
- Compost is your very best friend here. If possible, make your own compost to recycle your own organic matter and purchase additional compost only as needed. Compost improves soil structure and feeds soil organisms that, in turn, feed your plants.
- Practice minimum soil disturbance to promote the macro- and microorganism population, to retain carbon in the soil, and to improve water retention. This includes digging small holes for transplanting, leaving roots in the soil, and returning healthy plant residue (composted or chopped) to the top of the soil.
- Mulch protects your soil, prevents weeds, and conserves water.
- Plant cover crops rather than allowing beds to remain fallow.
Right Crop, Right Place, Right Time
- The right plants for your food garden are those vegetables and fruits crops that you want to eat and grow successfully in your microclimate.
- For example: sweet potatoes require a tropical climate and will have limited success in most of the county. However, regular potatoes grow well here.
- If growing fruit trees, know the chill hours. Don’t plant a peach variety requiring 800 chill hours if your area only receives 400 chill hours—pick another variety.
- Whatever your microclimate, fruiting vegetables need to be sited where they will receive 6-8 hours of sun but prefer 8-10 hours—shady areas are not the right place for them. But salad greens will mature with only four to six hours of sun.
- For the food garden, the right time means the right season.
- Cool-season crops are sensitive to temperatures over 70 degrees and are typically planted in early spring or late summer into early fall.
- Warm-season crops are sensitive to frosts and are typically planted in late spring for summer and early fall harvest.
Include Plants That Attract Beneficials
- Including herbs and flowers as companion plants encourage beneficial insects.
- In addition to soil organisms and beneficial insects, bees, worms, frogs and lizards are the preferred wildlife in the food garden. They pollinate and help control pests.
- Encourage beneficials to stay by planting a hedgerow or adding a source of water and a wild bee house to your food garden.
Incorporate Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
- Sustainable pest management approaches are those that are the least toxic.
- Avoid using synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
- In addition to attracting beneficials for pest control, sustainable practices include using physical barriers such as bird netting, using sticky and pheromone traps, hosing off aphids, handpicking insects and eggs, spraying with insecticidal soap, and crop rotation.
- To avoid overwatering, always check soil moisture before irrigating by hand or with a drip system. Drip irrigation is the most efficient way to deliver water to your food garden.
- Minimum soil disturbance and mulch also help retain water in the soil.
- Links below lead to valuable resources for gardening in drought conditions.
- Food Gardening Specialists
- Year-Round Food Gardening in Sonoma County
- Vegetable Planting Summary
- UC Integrated Pest Management for the Home Gardener
- Food Gardening with Less Water
- Growing Vegetables
- Food Gardening Resources