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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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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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