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Here are Van Diepen’s tips for pulling out a lawn, improving the soil and creating an edible garden:
Get ready to sweat
Van Diepen used a pickax with a wide (5-inch) head to dig up Mars’ old lawn, “a weekend of intensive labor,” he laughed. For larger yards it’s possible to rent turf cutters that cut strips of lawn that can be rolled up and carted away; just keep the rolls small because they get heavy very quickly. Van Diepen doesn’t like techniques that use plastic or herbicides to kill the the grass because those also kill the microorganisms that help create healthy soil. His goal is to retain as much of the native soil as possible.
Add compost, not topsoil
Once you’ve recovered from removing the lawn, go somewhere that sells good bulk compost. Never use topsoil, Van Diepen says, because you’re introducing a non-native soil to your yard. The goal is to add organic matter to enrich the existing soil. Van Diepen got his compost from BD White Top Soil Co. in Gardena. He used one large pickup load, about 3 cubic yards, for the 900-square-foot area, spading in the compost so the yard’s soil was about half compost. Check the source of your compost, van Diepen said. Composted manure can be a problem, for instance, if the animals were fed antibiotics. The same goes for municipal composting facilities, which may include clippings with herbicide or pesticide residue. “Your compost is only as good as the ingredients.”
Plant and install drip irrigation lines
Pay attention to the tags on your plants so you space them appropriately. Don’t add fertilizer or too many amendments in the holes for native plants, because they prefer native soil. You may not save a huge amount of water, especially in the beginning, because the new plants need regular watering to get established, but at least you are growing something you can eat, Mars said. And expect to rotate certain plants depending on the season; for instance, pull out tomatoes in the late fall and plant cool-weather crops, such as lettuces or broccoli.
Van Diepen advocates using fallen leaves or larger wood chips for a thick mulch, to discourage (unwanted) weeds and retain moisture. Many tree-trimming companies will happily give you their wood chips, he said, because it saves them the cost of disposal. But be prepared for a big pile, which you should spread at least 3 to 4 inches thick on your new garden.