Homegrown: Alternatives in the food garden

Unless this final week of April brings a chilling frost, sowing seeds and setting out plants will pick up speed in the days ahead as we try to produce food for our tables despite the need to cut back on watering.

Tales of dry-farming potatoes and tomatoes are legend in some families as we recall earlier days when we lived through droughts. Now we're faced with finding other crops that will succeed with fewer resources. It may be time to try different foods than we usually grow.

If you're limiting your garden to low-water-requiring crops, you likely have some open space where thirstier plants would grow in other years. This leaves space for low-water herbs and a few crops that are more often sown in cooler spring and fall months rather than for summer harvest.

Although we're nearing the end of the cool season, it does carry on quite a bit longer along the north coast than in hotter climates.

In general, plant more deep- and thick-rooted crops that take less frequent watering and in lesser amounts than shallow-rooted leafy types with thin, fibrous roots that draw only on surface moisture. If you still want to grow greens, plant kale and chard. Though not considered drought tolerant, both perform fairly well with less water than lettuce and spinach demand.

Not all root crops, though, thrive in drought. Beets and radishes become woody with too little moisture; carrots will split with erratic watering.

If you have perennial artichokes in your garden, you can reduce water use by allowing the soil to dry after harvest. Leaves and stems will die back, but roots will lie dormant until rains return in fall and winter, when they'll become active and top growth reappears.

Asparagus is similar, though ferny stems and leaves depend on moist soil until mid to late summer when they turn yellow, orange, then brown as roots enter dormancy and regular irrigation can be eliminated.

<strong>Kohlrabi:</strong> My German grandfather grew and sold kohlrabi in Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods along with truckloads of turnips and parsnips, cabbages and cauliflower. But not all generations developed a taste for old-world root and "cole" crops.

It's only been in the past few years that kohlrabi has become a staple in my own garden. And judging from articles in trendy cooking magazines, it's become popular in the foodie world for its crunch and mild flavor in salads, sliced thinly on a mandolin, cut in matchsticks, or left in chunks on snack trays for dipping — a tasty alternative to thirsty cucumbers.

A thick root forms, but kohlrabi develops above the soil. Harvest when pale green or purple bulb-like stems reach 2-3 inches across.

<strong>Resilient herbs:</strong> A good many common culinary herbs grow easily when established in ordinary, even poor, unfertilized soil with little supplemental moisture.

Winter savory — one of my favorite deer-resistant garden plants — has multiple uses beyond its peppery spiciness. Considered a sub-shrub because of woody lower stems, its attractive form is easy to incorporate into an ornamental bed, where tiny white blossoms attract bees.

Nearly all species thrive best with some irrigation, but rosemary and thyme take no summer water at all when growing in at least afternoon shade. Dill, parsley, oregano, sage, and tarragon provide adequate harvests with only minimal moisture.

A few herbs — such as chervil, chives, and cilantro — depend on regular watering and are best grown in a pot near the kitchen door.

Mint seems virtually indestructible no matter where or how it's grown, which is why it should always be restricted inside a sturdy container.

<strong>Special events of note:</strong> If you missed the April sale at Jail Industries, you can catch their final spring event on Saturday, May 10, from 9 a.m. to noon. You'll find trees, shrubs, vines, ground covers, perennials and some vegetable starts at bargain prices at the North County Detention Facility, 2254 Ordinance Road, adjacent to the Sonoma County Airport.

Saturday, May 3, is Conifer Day at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg. This 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. event focuses on using conifers in the landscape and includes tours, expert presentations and sales of specialty plants. No reservation needed. Access is through general admission to the garden.

The renowned Medical Alliance annual tour will once again offer garden admission on two days this year. Six Healdsburg gardeners share their splendors on May 16 and 17. Visit <a href="http://scmaa.org" target="_blank">scmaa.org</a> or phone 578-4537 for tickets.

<em>Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa 95402.</em>