When Jim Rockoff of Oceanside scans his backyard full of citrus, guavas, figs, grapes, mulberry and avocado trees, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, and Swiss chard, he sees it as an inherited interest and a practical way to reduce grocery purchases. "About half of the fruit and a thrid of the vegetables I eat comes from gardening. When I go to the store, I [mainly] buy a week’s protein,” he says. His grandfathers, Jewish European immigrants, moved produce by horse and wagon down Chicago streets in the 1920s for a living. Rockoff’s parents preferred to deal only with trees and a lawn. “But they always had me and my brothers helping. Our hands were always in the soil.”
When he bought his home 14 years ago, Rockoff had to deal with lots of clay. He amended the soil with mulch, sand, and decompoased granite, then planted trees and eventually vines and vegetables. He still averages an hour of work a day to get a useful harvest using basic organic methods. It can be tedious, he admits, and the harvest isn’t always what he wants but tending his 1,000 square feet of plants is therapeutic. And, for someone who measures water quality in a lab for a living, the science is interesting.
Pests are the primary challenge.
“This is the ‘Great Wall of Jim,’” he says, smiling wryly, pointing to the garden’s perimeter of concrete blocks topped with metal “hardware cloth,” then aluminum flashing in an upside down V, so rodents can’t jump or climb over. Poured concrete exists 14 to 18 inches below the blocks to deter gophers, who have created pothole-sized craters elsewhere on the property. Rockoff has also used traps. He chuckles about how he gave up on his electrical fence because rabbits found a way between the wires and made babies among his vegetables. Instead, he added chicken wire, which worked. He has come to terms with sharing space with wildlife. Critters get their portion and he gets his. But to keep that ratio in his favor, Rockoff employs a variety of measures, such as nylon drawstring bags, socks or plastic bread bags to cover his grapes and figs so fruit flies can’t eat them. To avoid molds, he also thins foliage to increase air flow.
Is it all worth it?
“Yes, if you enjoy it,” he quickly responds. Rockoff is a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers and formerly served on the San Diego chapter board. He benefits by attending lectures, acquiring cuttings at trade event at San Diego Botanical Gardens in Encinitas, and chatting with neighbors who grow. Over the years, for example, he has learned to graft trees to get a better crop.
His front yard centerpiece is a large, cream-colored plumeria. All around its base, passion fruit and grape vines sprawl, intertwined, like a carpet advancing rampantly over decorative pebbles. Along a fence, sweet potato leaves and bark cover a patch of soil whose dark, moist, crumbly texture shows it has been well amended.
Rockoff’s practices are an example of turning a residential property into a sustainable and fully edible landscape, recommended by Amy Lerner, an Urban Studies and Planning professor at the University of California San Diego . She tends her own family farm in North County on weekends and will teach a Food Systems class for UCSD undergraduates in spring.
“We increasingly have fewer farmers in the United States. Our food producers are more likely to be consolidated, big operations with fewer growers. Our farmers are aging and there’s a big land turnover. It’s really dire. There’s so much land available in all our backyards.” She says the heat of climate change is causing crop loss and that’s driving up prices. “There’s also an increasing interest in regaining control over what we eat. We don’t know what’s in any of our products any more. Young people are also showing interest in learning crafts such as metalwork. They don’t have access to land but they just need the knowledge to get up and running.”
Lerner encourages people to freeze and preserve their own food and cites her “gardening mentor,” instructor and friend Sharon Kopi, who recently filled her kitchen shelves with her own produce, including salsa.
There are design apps gardeners can use to envision placement of plants for an aesthetic view, but it’s critical to get intimately acquainted with your yard by observing it in person at various times of day and in each season, according to Lerner and Cuyamaca Community College instructor David Boggs, who teaches a course called Edibles in Urban Landscapes. Watch how sunlight moves across the property and which way rainwater flows and settles. Most vegetables and fruit need at least six hours of sunlight, Boggs says. “The great thing about San Diego County is that we can grow almost anything here, even apples and some tropical fruit,” he says. “Some plants, like apples, will need some ‘chill hours,’ like they get in Julian.” Most plants like to face south or east. Some that need shade, such as strawberries, can go under trees but Boggs cautions to avoid tree roots.
To get the most out of each square foot, think three-dimensionally, these experts say. Peas, beans, cucumbers, squash, and some melons can grow vertically, if given support. An arch, trellis or chair can decoratively undergird a vine. Add attractive espaliers by pruning plants against flat surfaces. “Figs are flexible so you can bend new growth,” says Boggs. “Passionfruit are very productive but can get aggressive.” Don’t jam too many plants in your space and be careful not to prune too much or you’ll reduce your harvest.
In small plots, deter underground pests by digging down and installing chicken wire before planting, or plant in a box lined with fabric or a metal feed trough with drainage holes.
Herbs such as cilantro and arugula, plus lettuces are examples of plants you can put in right away to give a quick yield. Lerner says the common pests don’t eat arugula, and cilantro attracts beneficial ladybugs. Multi-colored lettuces make a nice display in hanging containers, she says. If you keep them near your door, you’ll have a practical “kitchen garden.” Choose plants that are time efficient. Focus on herbs that can be snipped and will keep growing. Lerner recommends starting herbs and veggies from seeds because “sometimes seedlings at nurseries are already old.” Also, mulching is key for water retention—Lerner uses straw. Recycle as much household water, e.g. from your dish sink or bathtub, as you can, to save on water costs. She recommends watering in the morning to avoid molds. To make sure water reaches plants and isn’t wasted, use drip systems. Rockoff likes to water with a hose.
Plant vegetables in the middle of your property, then trees in the farthest corners. Consider how big the trees will grow and consider dwarf varieties. "Rotate crops each year, so pests can’t gain a stronghold," says Boggs. Different crops attract different pests. Also, sterilize pots between repotting, to avoid passing along any disease.
Make it Fun
The whole family can enjoy growing together, says Lerner. “Plan in the winter what you’ll do in spring. Involve kids in the harvest. Peas and beans are easy to grow, and kids can shell peas while watching TV.”
Cuyamaca Community College will offer an Edible Landscapes class in spring 2023 that anyone can take.
San Diego County Master Gardener Program offers workshops, a plant sale, a hotline for questions (858) 822-6910 and more.
San Diego Chapter of California Rare Fruit Growers offers lectures, a plant sale and exchanges of seeds, and cuttings and plants for home growers.