The pandemic spurred a demand for edible gardens that more than a year later hasn’t let up.
When Florie Hutchinson initially toured her Palo Alto home, the backyard was among its major selling points. Situated on twothirds of an acre, the property offered significantly more outdoor opportunities than her family’s previous residence on what she calls “a postage stamp lot.”
“I had always hoped to grow an edible garden,” says Hutchinson, a publicist for arts and cultural institutions. “The pandemic propelled me into action.” And she’s hardly alone. Last spring, with store shelves depleted and lockdowns in place, victory gardens — which were popular during World Wars I and II, when Americans were encouraged to grow their own food — made a comeback. But even as food supplies and public outings have rebounded since the early days of COVID-19, the interest in cultivating one’s own fare remains strong.
Unprecedentedly so, according to food-forward Bay Area landscape designer Christian Douglas, who is busier than he’s ever been in his 25-year career. “We’ve just been overwhelmed,” he says. Not only did his firm Christian Douglas Design stop accepting new clients in January, but today 100 percent of its endeavors include a food component. “Before the pandemic,” he recalls, “it was a harder sell.”
Some clients have upped the ante, engaging Douglas for work with a longer arc. “These are multigenerational legacy projects,” he says. “The goal is to create a 100-year plan — something that will be around for their kids and their kids’ kids.”
For Hutchinson, who enlisted San Francisco–based Ground Cover Landscaping, the intent is “to feed our family — and not the deer or turkeys — with as much fresh produce year-round, while also raising children who appreciate the life cycle and labor involved in the food we consume.” The mother of four young daughters notes, “They are slowly reaching the ages where chores can be assigned, and I fully anticipate that tending to the garden will be one of them.”
Her recently installed scheme includes seven boxes populated with fruits and vegetables; a row of fruit trees; and round planters filled with a variety of herbs. Although Hutchinson has no prior gardening experience, she welcomes the challenge. In this regard, she is not an outlier.
Stefani Bittner, the founder of Homestead Design Collective and co-author of The Beautiful Edible Garden: Design a Stylish Outdoor Space Using Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs and Harvest: Unexpected Projects Using 47 Extraordinary Garden Plants, has a handful of new clients who just acquired property outside San Francisco — hence the foray into gardening. “They’re totally new to living in an area where they have more outdoor space and can grow food, so they’re really excited about that,” she says.
Connecting with nature in a utilitarian way is a win-win, especially during a pandemic. “As everyone was stocking up their pantries,” Bittner observes, “I think they realized if they had some things in their garden that they could be eating from, how wonderful that could be. There’s much more of an appreciation for garden spaces.”
When chef and restaurateur Jesse Cool opened Flea Street Café in Menlo Park more than 40 years ago, she built an on-site edible garden. Its benefits have indeed been magnified over the past year. “It’s brought a sense of calm and comfort,” says Cool, who also runs Cool Café at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center and previously taught a garden cooking curriculum at the university. “Every night, it’s the sweetest thing: You see all the different cooks go out there snipping.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Cool has fortified her own backyard, adding a salad box and herb garden. The restaurant currently has six boxes and two more forthcoming. The bounty from both locations comprise the “taste of the season,” small bites that commence each Flea Street dinner. In the coming weeks, Cool hopes to reap cherry-sized tomatoes and diminutive fairy tale eggplants (“the little vegetables grow faster”). The Flea Street garden also yields culinary herbs, edible flowers and tea species.
Bay Area gardeners are lucky enough to produce victuals through all four seasons. “The key to any thing in the garden is knowing how to place it right for its growing condition — the amount of light that you get, the quality of the soil and making sure you have access to water,” says Bittner.
Douglas refers to salad greens — lettuce, chard, kale, spinach, arugula — and many culinary herbs as “the easiest of the easiest” to grow. Bittner suggests that every Bay Area garden have a Meyer lemon tree, though she notes that citrus is in particularly high demand these days. Both professionals emphasize the importance of considering bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators in edible landscaping.
When planning a garden, Bittner also advocates diversifying your plantings so there is always something to harvest. “What do you want to eat in two months?” she says. “Think about what your favorite things are and leave room for experimentation as well. People tend to get fixated on the tomatoes, yet there are so many other things. Your morning cup of tea coming from your own garden is pretty amazing.”
In addition to landscape design and installation, Christian Douglas Design and Stefani Bittner’s Homestead Design Collective offer maintenance services. Douglas also operates The Backyard Farm Company in Marin, which specializes in garden care and education, including online courses and virtual consultations.
Another great resource is the neighbor hood nursery, whose staff is likely knowledgeable about the microclimate and how it affects plantings. Douglas, who resides in San Francisco and Marin, is a fan of Sloat Garden Center, which has locations in both areas as well as in the East Bay. For specialty herbs and perennials, Lafayette-based Bittner’s go-to is Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville.