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November 12, 2021, 4: 54PM
Updated 2 hours ago
Robert Kourik, the venerable North Bay gardening guru who helped define edible and low-water-use landscaping long before it became a thing, can be ruthless when it comes to which plants are worthy of taking up space in a yard.
Let’s just say they have to earn their keep, which should be minimal, says the man who wrote “Lazy-Ass Gardening.”
And minimal requirements mean maximum sustainablity.
“Sustainable food gardens are those where you have the least amount of input and the most amount of output,” he says. “And you want to generate as much raw material and nutrition without having to add stuff from outside the garden. The more you can do that, the more sustainable your garden will be.”
If you want to be truly sustainable, Kourik says, focus on plants that are multipurpose: trees, shrubs and perennials that offer food and forage for pollinators; fertilize the soil; and provide compost to feed the garden. Many trees and plants are more than just a pretty face.
Kourik was a sustainable gardener long before anyone had heard of the term. Since he began his horticultural career in 1974, he has been collecting information based on not just personal experience and anecdotes but research gathered by browsing library stacks and scientific journals.
He’s collected decades’ worth of tried-and-tested plant knowledge in a new book, “Sustainable Food Gardens: Myths & Solutions” (available at a discount at robertkourik.com and at Amazon). It is a hefty 462-page tome sure to entice horticulture geeks with its graphs, illustrations, detailed references to scientific studies and an impressive index of more than 400 items on topics from nurturing soil and conserving resources to forest gardens and companion planting.
“It has a tremendous amount of data, information you could hardly find anywhere else,” says Kourik, who has written 18 other gardening books. “Some of my gardening books have been based on anecdotes, but this book is based on real science.”
Not meant to simply look good sitting on a coffee table, Kourik’s books get down and dirty. He’s not afraid to take on dry topics like roots and irrigation and give highly useful information to help a gardener up her game.
New and improved
“Sustainable Food Gardens” updates the book Kourik wrote on the topic way back in the 1980s. He’s learned a lot since then. For starters, now he’s much less apt to recommend soil tilling than he was 40 years ago.
Many beneficial microbes live in the top 4 inches of soil, but the amount of microbes plunges to less than half when you go deeper. These mycorrhiza, or fungal roots, thrive on air and by not tilling, you allow them to live closer to the surface rather than burying them deep, where they will die. By not tilling, you help help minimize the loss of carbon dioxide and the depletion of healthy organic matter from the soil.
He says he gleaned much of his information by perusing the stacks of libraries at Berkeley in the 1970s and 1980s, pulling out books and studies and scientific papers with a buried wealth of information.
“I’ve included a lot of stuff that challenges people’s assumptions about gardening, and one of the most amazing things is that aphids do not suck,” he says.
Kourik is not being snarky. What he means is that the little pests really do not suck sap from the plant, as many assume. Their mouths can only open and close, meaning they depend on pressure in the plant to exude sap so they can consume it.
Why does this bit of trivia matter? Well, over-fertilizing a plant can increase the sap pressure, which in turn makes the plant much more hospitable to aphids. So controlling the amount of fertilizer you apply, say, to something like an apple tree, can help reduce the amount of aphids.
One main idea Kourik wants to share is that the most sustainable gardens are filled with plants that earn their keep. They are not just one-note wonders but offer a multitude of benefits. These are super plants that help you make every square foot count.
Here are a few of these superstars to incorporate into a sustainable garden:
Chayote: This plant produces a large vine for shade and has edible shoots, fruit and tubers.
Borage: This annual herb blooms almost all year with edible blue flowers that are pretty to look at but also attract bees.
Fava beans: This annual legume improves the soil by adding nitrogen. It’s a great winter cover crop that you can plant now (but plant before Christmas). You can eat the young beans fresh when they’re green, or leave them for longer and save them when they’re dry. The greens of the plant also are edible. In the spring, they produce up to 4 feet of foliage that you can cut down and put in the compost, to add nitrogen not just to the soil but to the compost. Fava beans bloom for a long time in early to middle spring.
Luffa: This plant, which can be grown in the hotter parts of the county, produces a huge vine that makes for great summer shade. It produces tons of edible fruit when young. Wait until the fruit is older and you can peel off the skin and get what is commonly known as a luffa sponge.
Nasturtium: This annual flower/herb has edible flowers, seeds and leaves. It lends natural beauty to a summer food garden and can bloom into early winter. But it also attracts aphids, which may lure them away from other plants. And the aphids attract parasitic wasps that can attack aphids on other plants.
Persimmon: This is a perfect tree for the North Bay climate. It is drought-resistant, offers spectacular fall color, produces edible fruit, comes in hundreds of cultivars and is disease- and pest-resistant, although deer like it.
Pomegranate: Another super tree, it provides edible fruits and beautiful golden fall color and is drought- and pest-resistant.
Pineapple guava: This is an evergreen shrub/tree that you can maintain as a dense hedge for privacy. It provides edible flowers, large fruit with a tropical flavor in the late fall/winter, attractive bark and winding limbs.
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or [email protected] OnTwitter @megmcconahey.
Features, The Press Democrat
Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.
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