Assess the soil. Some residential property, especially in formerly industrial neighborhoods, may be polluted with chemicals and lead, which edible plants may absorb and store. Find a company that tests soil at EcologyCenter.org/directory so you don’t eat dioxin along with your salad. Some tests will also evaluate pH and mineral levels so you know what the soil lacks and which plants will grow best there. If your yard is contaminated, you’ll need to replace the dirt with store-bought soil or build raised beds.
Tear up the lawn. Grass, much like invasive English Ivy, is a hardy colonizer, so you’ll have to physically remove it if you want to plant this winter. First, rip out as much sod as you can. Next, dig down a foot and a half to remove the root system, shaking out as much soil as possible. A rototiller may be faster than hand labor, but the machine will leave behind pieces of roots that will regrow grass.
For a less time-intensive process, and if you can wait until spring to plant, cover the grass with non-waxed cardboard and then add a six inch-deep layer of mulch, such as wood chips. After about three months, the grass beneath the cardboard will have died, nutrients from the cover will have trickled down, and you can plant directly into the mulch. (If you buy the mulch from a tree care company, make sure the chips aren’t contaminated with diseases that attack local trees, such as eucalyptus and elm, so your soil doesn’t become infected, too.)
Amend the dirt. Much of the soil in Northern California is clay-based, so you’ll need to add nutrients for a healthy growing medium. Soil enhancers such as manures, compost, and fish emulsions will give the ground the nutrients it needs to yield a bountiful crop. Many municipalities and nonprofits offer free or discounted compost, too.
Plan your garden. You’ll want a mix of trees and perennials, such as drought-resistant citrus or pomegranates, annuals (your produce), and pollinator-attracting native plants, such as Mexican Marigolds. Read seed labels or talk with a nursery employee to learn when and how to plant each variety. Think about the layout—for instance, you may want herbs close to the door, since you’ll use them often for cooking—and the design of the paths to make tending the area easy.
Plant your garden. Although we tend to think of gardening as a springtime activity, in much of coastal Northern California, winter is an ideal time to start. The soil is less active so your plants will have an easier time settling in. The season is also perfect for planting winter crops such as beans and peas, as they capture nitrogen—an element essential for produce yet scarce in nature—and make it available for the rest of the year’s abundance.
Get more information. DIY can only get you so far; if you need help, seek it out from fellow gardeners, Web sites, or books. Thayer recommends An Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison and Sunset magazine’s Western Garden Book.
Thayer reminds gardeners that growing your own food is often a process of trial and error. Don’t be discouraged by setbacks or daunted by the idea of perfection, he says. And while planning is essential for a successful garden, nothing will grow before you begin. So start digging!