Down and Dirty 3: My Garden Crash-Landing in the San Fernando Valley

Down and Dirty 3: My Garden Crash-Landing in the San Fernando Valley

Down and Dirty Southern California Gardening
A weekly GardenZeus article series to help gardeners succeed in Southern California’s unique climates and growing conditions.
Post 3: My Garden Crash-Landing in the San Fernando Valley

Well, that didn’t turn out as I expected. I don’t know how many times I said that, along with many enthusiastic and colorful variations that I won’t share here, when I first began gardening on a half acre in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles during the mid-1990s. In the first summer after I landed here, both I and my vegetable plants did not perform at all well in my garden.

I moved to Los Angeles in the middle of the year, and was eager to get started with gardening after the hassle of moving, so I dived right into gardening in the valley in June. I knew enough to recognize that it was late in the season but I forged ahead anyway with heat-tolerant crops. I planted seeds, transplanted vegetable starts, and waited for them to grow – for weeks. My plants grew a little, then most stopped – and they showed no interest in producing a harvest. Large expanses of my beloved vegetable garden were blasted by pests as though silent grenades were being detonated when I turned my back.

By August, my vegetable plants simply expired in waves as though the avenging angel of vegetable death were visiting my crops every night to pass judgment on my humble efforts. With such disasters, such brutally punishing gardening failures, let’s call it the work of the vegetable avenger, AKA Mother Nature.

Mind you, this was after a short lifetime of success as a vegetable gardener and horticultural professional in other areas of the United States, from New York to Northern California. I was, naturally, using the methods that had succeeded for me over many years in areas with snowy winters, mild summers, and acidic soils. I planted varieties that were supposed to yield well during hot summers in Southern California.

My problems were alkaline and compacted soil, which I had never faced to this degree; and the blind incorrect assumption that temperate-planting cycles and temperate-climate gardening knowledge were relevant in Southern California. My crops did not have time to put down the roots necessary to withstand the 100-degree days that followed a few weeks after their germination. A vegetable garden that is mostly harvested and going into its annual quiet period by late June or early July? This had never occurred to me. In other areas of the United States, I hadn’t even been able to plant most crops until May or June.

My crash landing into Southern-California gardening was a long time ago, during the early days of the internet. I searched but couldn’t even find bad advice for gardening in the San Fernando Valley in books or online, much less the information I needed to succeed here. Even now, when I look at new gardening books or internet articles, including some that purport to be specific to Southern California, few seem to reflect the reality of what I know does and doesn’t work in Southern California.

So I continued making mistakes, but happily with fewer and fewer over months and years. My gardening exploration became an adventure and odyssey, sometimes disappointing and other times enlightening or exhilarating, one that has lasted now for more than two decades. My hard-won positive perspective after long experience is simply this: even though at times I felt a bit like an alien who didn’t speak the language and couldn’t even breathe without help in the gardening atmosphere of planet Southern California, the hard way (making mistakes and trying again) was as good a way as any for me personally to learn how to garden well here.

My advice in this article series has been eked out over more than two decades of gardening, landscape design, and professional consulting in Southern California. I have made and/or observed numerous others making all of the same mistakes, in some cases year after year, that I will describe in the articles to come.

My hope is that my advice will help others to find an easier way to succeed with gardening in Southern California.

“Down and Dirty Southern California Gardening” is a weekly GardenZeus article series in which expert Darren Butler shares more than 20 years of experience about what works and what doesn’t with gardening in Southern California:
Post 2: Grow Your Gardening Brain Here in Sunny Southern California
Post 4: Oops! Common Gardening Mistakes in Southern California #1: Testing Soil AFTER You Buy or Lease
All articles in this series: Down and Dirty Southern California Gardening

GardenZeus California climate zones
Enter your California zip code for customized advice by plant

By continuing, you are agreeing to the GardenZeus Affiliate Policy, Terms of Use, and Privacy Policy.