Introducing master gardener, Lee O'Hara

Today we hear and read about e-coli in the spinach, chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides on pretty much everything. The sanitary practices of those who handle our food are being brought to our attention. We’re shown the harm we’ve caused our environment at every turn. The horror stories seem endless.

Why is it then that so many people who appear to be so conscious of health and environmental issues in every other way, don’t plant a tomato or little lettuce patch? I see gorgeous roses and hydrangeas and manicured back yards that are rarely enjoyed. Those take as much, and often even more time, energy and money to produce than it would to grow the best organic tomato most of the current generation has ever tasted.

Our home is on a small hillside lot at the northeast edge of Los Angeles, between Glendale and Pasadena. We probably have one of the best climates in the US for gardening, but we do have our handicaps. Topsoil is rare. It’s been scraped away for homes and buildings. We get virtually no rain from about mid-April through about mid-October or November.

We have “June Gloom” every year, starting about mid-May, and continuing sometime until the 1st or 2nd week in July. During much of that period, we’ll get 2-3 hours of afternoon sun, with the rest of the day being foggy and over-cast.

Over the past 24 years I’ve turned our front and back yards into raised planting beds.  At first it was just with the intention of creating retaining walls, but soon escalated into growing vegetables organically. The term “Organic”, in farming or gardening, means using fertilizers and pest controls that come only from plants and animals.

One of my original actions was to keep records and statistics on what I did, and what the results were at the end of the season. I wanted to know exactly how effective my new methods were. The results were so consistent year after year, and more or less incomparable according to everything I could find about what one can expect from any given vegetable plant. Year after year I was getting 20-30 lbs. of foot long “burpless” cucumbers per seed, 30 lbs. of yellow zucchinis per seed, ¾ lbs. of green beans per seed, 100+ Japanese eggplants per plant, 40-50 bell peppers per plant, 30 lbs. of leaf lettuce from a planting bed of 15 sq. ft., etc.

As I comment on in the film, “Organic Gardening Made Easy,” we give away more than half of what I grow. The truth is that it’s more like 80-85%. After a few years, the habit of weighing and counting everything became boring. I stopped weighing and counting everything, unless I was trying something new. As in the case of last year when for the first time I planted two sweet potatoes I’d bought at the supermarket. I can tell you that four and a half months later when I dug them up I had 20 lbs. of them, with the biggest sweet potato weighing in at 3.25 lbs. But I didn’t quit keeping daily yield statistics in the case of my tomatoes!

For instance, the 7 Beefmaster tomato plants currently still growing on October 29 October, a few inches high on April 15th when I planted them in their 20' by 4' garden bed - produced 805 lbs. of "amazing" tomatoes between July 12th and October 20th. As they don’t still have the full rich flavor they had in mid-summer, I quit counting with maybe another 20-30 lbs. still ripening on the vines. My wife protests that, saying that they’re still 10 times better than anyone can buy.

Be that as it may, having had to do without a decent tomato for many years, my standards for tomatoes are very high. I don’t count or weigh anything I’m not willing to confess that I grew.

The full statistics on the 2007 tomato crop were:

1)  From an eighty square foot raised bed (20' x 4')

2) 7 tomato plants

3) 805 lbs. of tomatoes harvested

4) An average of 115 lbs. of tomatoes per plant

5) The total number of tomatoes; 1,386, or 198 per plant

6) The average weight per tomato; 9.3 ounces

7) The largest tomatoes: Several at 2.25 lbs each

While I may be a world-class braggart, the point I want to make is that anyone can do it. If tomatoes don’t do well in your particular climate, vegetables that do well in your climate will do immensely better with the kind of gardening practices you’re starting to read about.  --Lee O'Hara