The secret to a great garden? Grow what you love

Life is short, and the new thinking is that gardeners will be happier with what they grow if they focus only on crops they actually love to eat.|

When planning a garden, it sometimes pays to be ruthless.

Garden designer and teacher Emily Murphy says a well-curated garden will inspire you to success if it includes only what you truly love to eat and look at.

Forget the mounds of zucchini unless you really love zucchini bread. Do you really anticipate eggplant as much as your tomatoes? Or do you grow them out of some obligation because everyone else does?

“Start with the things you love and let those passions drive you. That’s where your success will come in,” she said.

Murphy, who lives and gardens in Mill Valley, says gardeners, especially beginning gardeners, will be more motivated and ultimately get more satisfaction out of the experience, if they focus only on crops they regularly cook with and consume.

There is a higher philosophy behind her method. Murphy, in her new book “Grow What You Love: 12 Plant Families to Change Your Life,” maintains that planting and growing a carefully selected handful of ingredients, is “a small step toward approaching life a little differently, a little more deliberately - and finding beauty in food, nature, seasons and healthy, hand-made living.”

It’s a process, she says, that allows you live more simply while adding flavors to your cooking that you can experience only when you grow it in your own soil.

“It’s important to remember that when you have a hand in growing your own food, the story of your food becomes your story, too,” she said. “We learn to live seasonally and learn to find joy in the simple act of growing and joy in the simple things of living. That elevates everyday living.”

Murphy will speak about her book and blog during a talk at 7 p.m. June 16 at Copperfield’s Books in Sebastopol.

Murphy’s book offers lots of how-to information essential to getting started, from essential tools and cultivating soil to composting, planting, plant combinations and watering.

But for that “now what?” moment when your beds are ready and you’re wondering what to plant, she offers a well-thought-out plant directory that covers the most popular basics, including greens - both summer and winter, tomatoes, tender and perennial herbs, cukes and summer squash, pods and beans, edible flowers and companion plants and more.

Murphy says rather than grow everything, focus on plants that are highly productive but require less time and care. Cabbage, for instance, can take half a year to produce while leafy greens are easy, quick and keep on producing. Ditto for snap peas.

If lack of space is your problem, she said, choose plants that grow vertically rather than spread.

If you’re a newbie, select just a few things to grow. It could be only one from each category. One herb like basil that you use all the time, one green like your favorite lettuce.

Still wondering what to grow? Ask yourself, what do you love to eat? What do you consistently cook? Pick some favorite recipes and grow those key fresh ingredients. Over time you can add a few more crops and expand your culinary horizons, she said.

Murphy’s own story is rooted in the North Coast’s fertile soil. She was born in Petaluma, grew up in Humboldt County and spent summers in Sonoma County where her grandparents on both sides, had farms.

Her paternal grandparents, Bill and Jean Perry, had a farm off Bodega Avenue in Petaluma, where they had dairy cows, a pear orchard and grew crops like carrots, cucumbers and potatoes. Her maternal grandmother, Sue Boom, had a homestead near the Russian River above Austin Creek where she grew fruit and chestnut trees, bees and chickens.

“I was surrounded by food growing up. I didn’t think about it,” she said. “It was just something we did, making food from the things we either picked or found. In Sonoma County there are all sorts of cherries and fruit trees and other foods available. We were always busy making things from things we harvested.”

On her family’s own little half-acre in Arcata they grew vegetables and flowers. That fed a love for plants and nature and led her to study botany and environmental science at Humboldt State. She later studied garden design and worked as a classroom teacher and school garden coordinator.

It was while teaching in the school gardens that she got the idea for a book. It was apparent kids were fired up by the miracle of growing things. But the parents of those kids often seemed bewildered about how to get started and what to grow.

The book includes recommended food crops, tips on cultivating them and ?14 simple ingredient recipes with each category.

But she doesn’t neglect flowers. Without their fragrance and color and the beneficial critters that they attract, there is something missing.

She singles out flowers that are either edible or make good companion plants to a food garden, such as borage, calendula, nasturtiums, scented geraniums, sunflowers and violas.

Murphy’s personal go-to crops are herbs, both perennial and annual. She also favors greens of any kind and root crops, and religiously grows onions and garlic because she uses them so frequently in her cooking.

Her philosophy on gardens is similar to the law of attraction.

“What I’ve discovered in my life is if you look where you want to go and focus on what matters most, you get those things. It’s a like attracts like formula. Sometimes when we go into nurseries we buy what’s there. We’re not sure what to grow. Instead we should ask ourselves, ‘What do I cook most and what makes me really, really happy?’?”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

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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