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Expert advice from a garden geek

Christy Wilhelmi (Photo courtesy founder shares her tips in revised 'Gardening for Geeks'

Every gardener has an inner geek, a nerdy voice that keeps asking, “Why?” Understanding the science of gardening – how plants and soil work – pays off in much more productive and rewarding gardens.

Christy Wilhelmi knows this; she’s a hard-core garden geek. Her popular website and blog, , has become a must-read for organic gardeners who want inspiration as well as science-based tips on growing food.

Wilhelmi’s best advice and loads of valuable information are distilled into her book, “ Gardening for Geeks: All the Science You Need for Successful Organic Gardening ” (CompanionHouse Books, 248 pages, $19.99). Published this month, the new “Gardening for Geeks” is an updated and expanded version of her original 2013 book by the same name.

“A lot of the updates were bringing people up to speed with climate change, how important and threatened pollinators are, how these changes affect the natural world around us,” she said in a phone interview.

Wilhelmi also updated her pruning techniques and added more vegetables to her plant profiles.

“The first edition, I stuck with easy to grow veggies,” she said. “This time, I added celery, cabbage, corn, cucumber, eggplant and watermelon. These crops are a little trickier and take some skill to get going.”

Take watermelon, for example. “Timing is everything,” Wilhelmi said. “Plant them too early, they just sit there. But if you don’t plant early enough, you’ll be eating watermelon in November.”

A former professional dancer, actress and model, Wilhelmi got into food gardening when she decided to become a vegetarian 27 years ago.

“The more I learned about the food system, the more I wanted control of it,” said Wilhelmi, who lives and gardens in the West Los Angeles neighborhood of Mar Vista. “I dove into gardening. Now, I never want to do anything else. It became my living.”

Wilhelmi teaches organic gardening through Santa Monica College’s community education program. Her book mirrors her class curriculum, covering the basics of soil, planning, planting and what to grow. She tackles pest management, irrigation, composting and more in information-packed pages that make the science of gardening fun and easy to digest. It’s a great guide for beginners, but also has plenty of ideas for experienced gardeners.

The updated book was published this month.
Wilhelmi believes in making the most of limited space. In just 300 square feet, she’s able to produce most of what she eats.

Her favorite vegetables? “I love growing kale; I have 14 different varieties. I love how beautiful they look in the garden. They each have a different texture and flavor; some are better for chips, others better for salads.

“For summer, I’m addicted to growing winter squash,” she added. “They’re so pretty. I love delicata squash; they’re delightful and delicious.”

Her best tip for beginners: “Worm castings!” she said. “They solve a lot of problems. They’re really high in nutrients; a little goes a long ways. And they help with pest control, too.”


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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