The Year of the Garden

April 24, 2009

maria finn

This Saturday, in celebration of Earth Day, Maria Finn will be onsite at the market to talk about planting edibles in urban areas. We spoke with her recently about some tricks of the trade.

CUESA: What are the biggest challenges gardeners face in the Bay Area?
Maria Finn: SF is tricky – it’s full of probably a hundred different microclimates. So it’s about finding what variety will grow in your area. I’m on the hunt for the perfect San Francisco tomato (I’ve heard there’s one that does fine in cool, foggy climates) in time for Saturday’s demo. Even fig trees are finicky. If you’re in a cool, foggy place you’re going to want to use a Desert King or Osborne Prolific. Some of the others, like the Panache or Mission varieties are going to prefer a hotter, sunnier climate.

CUESA: How much food can urban residents reasonably expect to produce?
MF: It depends on how much space and time you have. The two easiest things to grow are lettuce and herbs. With two five-gallon buckets, you can grow as many lettuces as a family can eat. And with a couple of window boxes, you can grow as many herbs as you’ll need.

Beyond that, it’s just a matter of how much you get into it. You can espalier an apple or pear tree against your terrace and graft 6 different kinds of fruit onto it, for instance [Espalier is a technique used to grow trees in small spaces; it involves pruning and training a tree’s branches so they grow along a single plane]. Different varieties fruit at different points in the season, so if you have more than one variety you may end up with less fruit all at once, but you can spread out your growing season.

CUESA: How should gardeners choose what to grow vs. what to buy?
MF: Sites like tell you which [conventionally grown] fruits and veggies have the most pesticides on them, so that’s a good place to start. Then it’s just a matter of knowing what you like.

If you have one of those 70-hour-a-week tech jobs, maybe start with a fig tree, and keep it simple. Because gardens do require care. And I tell people that if you’re over the age of 30, it counts as exercise; you burn around 300 calories an hour gardening.

CUESA: Why do you think we’re seeing such a renaissance of backyard gardening?
MF: I think we have kind of a perfect storm going on.  For one, it’s a recession, so people are looking to save money on food. On top of it, everyone’s more interested in local and organic food. The [edibles] are also becoming more accessible. Every Home Depot and small gardening center – they all carry this stuff. My brother in Texas told me recently that even the Sam’s Club in his area had kiwi, raspberries and blackberry vines for sale.

CUESA: What is the role of trial and error?
MF: It’s just part of gardening. Some years your cilantro’s going to do great, other years it’s going to shrivel up and die and it’s not you. Maybe you have a cold spring, maybe you have a warm spring. I tell people, it’s just light and it’s water and it’s having the plants in the right place…but it can also be mysterious.

CUESA: What else have you learned as a gardener?
MF: I’ve learned to appreciate process. And life and death. When you’re gardening, you see beauty where you wouldn’t normally see it.

When I install gardens for people, they’re always happy. Clients hug me and send me pictures – it’s really a wonderful feeling to get to bring this to people. Just going outside to water the garden, seeing a hummingbird or even sitting out there at night…these things can bring joy to your life in a way that very few other things can do.

Find Maria Finn at a booth in the South Driveway (across from Roli Roti) this Saturday from 9:30 am – 1:00 pm. Read more about Maria Finn’s work through her company Prospect and Refuge.

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