Despite the fact Southern Californians live in farm-rich areas where much of the produce is grown for the country, food prices have gone up. Those high prices have hit every family hard – especially when costs for other necessities have skyrocketed, too. But there’s a surefire way to avoid rising food costs: Grow your own vegetables! It’s as simple as that.

Vegetable garden

You can easily incorporate your vegetable beds into your regular garden, and your yard will still look great!

Photo Credit: Gerald Burke

Lettuce

Lettuce can be grown almost all year long in Southern California.

Photo Credit: Gerald Burke

Purple carrot

Carrots are easy to grow. For something really different, try this All-America Selections® Winner called Purple Haze.

Photo Credit: Gerald Burke

Sugar peas

Sugar peas are a tasty vegetable you can grow from fall to spring in Southern California – but the vines will need some support.

Photo Credit: Gerald Burke

You may be an experienced gardener who hasn’t felt the need to do it before, or maybe you’re new to gardening and never so much as planted a radish seed. But fear not – you can do it! Growing food isn’t rocket science. Nevertheless, here are some words of wisdom to help you along in your quest for less expensive food:

First, pick a spot for your vegetable garden. Plot out a 10-square-foot area in your yard (or the equivalent space in smaller beds) with plenty of winter sun, as well as a reasonable amount of summer shade. Work the soil up to a depth of 6 inches, mix in some organic fertilizer, smooth out the surface, and you’re ready to plant…which leads us to the second step: What can you plant?

It’s important to know what you can grow and when. By the end of summer, I'm ready to concentrate on fall vegetables. Happily, they’re among the most desirable for the home garden – and in some cases they’re the easiest and most rewarding.

Think lettuce. We use it all the time in salads and sandwiches. And leaf lettuce, quick to grow and ready for harvest early, may be one of the easiest. For fall planting, Green Ice lettuce is one of the best – ready to cut in just 30-45 days. And you can harvest the crisp, savoyed leaves for two to three months. A repeated planting will prolong your enjoyment of this tasty vegetable throughout the winter. Buttercrunch, a butterhead type, makes good leaves, too, and Salad Bowl and Red Salad Bowl are terrific as well.

Plant your lettuce in a row, or broadcast the seed over a small area. You don’t need to thin the plants – harvesting will do that for you. Just be sure to plant in full sun, cover lightly with soil, water twice a day to get good germination, and watch out for snails and birds – both like salads as much as we do. (Covering the area with cheesecloth helps to protect emerging seedlings.)

Radishes are also a good fall garden choice. The seed is big and easy to handle, and it’s something kids can plant. Plant in rows 1/8 of an inch deep, and thin to about 2 inches apart when the seedlings are 2 inches high. Cherry Belle (red with white flesh) and Burpee White (a round, white radish with no aftertaste) both grow well in short days.

Cooked or raw, carrots are always welcome at the table, too. Seed is small, so plant in rows and then thin out the seedlings – or broadcast and thin as they grow. Plant about 1/8 of an inch deep, cover with soil, then water well during the germination period. Almost any carrot variety will work in Southern California, but a few good varieties I like are Nantes Coreless and Little Finger, which are very sweet and useful raw. If you want to try something different, consider Thumbelina (a plump, round carrot) or Purple Haze (a purple variety). Carrots don’t need a lot of water after they’re well-established, but regular watering when our touchy rains fail is necessary.

Other root crops manage well in the cool days of late summer, fall and winter, so try beets, turnips, parsnips and rutabagas. Almost any variety will do, but when it comes to beets, choose either red ones (Detroit Dark Red is a winner), or look for seed of the golden beet. Whichever variety you choose, you’ll need to thin to about 4-6 inches apart.

Fall and winter are the seasons here for short-day onion seed, as well as onion and garlic sets. Let’s not forget pak choi (or bok choy), cabbage, Swiss chard and celery, and it’s definitely the right season for sugar peas. Some of the newer varieties of peas are worth trying, but you can’t miss with Oregon Sugar Pod II or the heirloom Mammoth Melting Sugar.

Pea seed is big and easy to manage. It should be sown individually, 3 inches apart, 1/8-1/4 of an inch deep. Pat soil firmly over the seed, and water well to start. (These are vining plants, so you’ll need support for them.)

Once you’ve got your veggies in the ground (or container or raised bed), just water well to get good germination – then again only as needed. All that’s left is to sit back and watch them grow. You’ll marvel at the produce you’ve grown for the dinner table – as well as the money you’ve saved on groceries!