Christy Wilhelmi of ‘Gardenerd’ Talks Hen-tertainment, Organic Growing, and the Garlic Clove That Changed Everything

PHOTOS BY RYAN BENOIT

Moments after arriving at the delicious ecosystem that is Christy Wilhelmi’s Los Angeles backyard, we’re startled by the sound of the screen door snapping open. With a deadpan and luxurious air, a small tuxedo cat slinks through the doorway and heads in our direction.

“Hi, Pumpkin!” Christy greets her. Christy, a prominent voice in the organic gardening movement and founder of food-growing resource Gardenerd.com, explains, “This is Mittens. She adopted us. She found us in November of last year: I was sitting on the front porch [when] she jumped up on my lap and started kneading my stomach.”

Hang out in Christy’s garden long enough, and you’ll understand why Mittens (whose mittens are in fact more like opera gloves) was so instantly smitten.

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Mittens, the tuxedo cat Christy and her husband adopted, has been known to shepherd wayward chickens.

Christy’s space is a testament to her mission to put people back in touch with their food sources: Her front yard’s orchard of plum, nectarine, navel orange and Meyer lemon trees gives way to a generous backyard of raised beds growing corn, beets, poblano peppers, strawberries, green onions, tomatoes and Japanese eggplant (just to name a fraction) at various times of the year, along with compost bins, rain barrels, and a rambunctious Cecile Brunner climbing rose plant “that has probably been here since the ‘50s.” In one corner, a freestanding cobalt casita, technically her husband’s office, has been partially usurped by Christy’s five varieties of kale, which are being grown from seed and are now sprouting beneath grow lights.

More on that in a moment!

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From left, Sylvia the Silver-Laced Wyandotte, Wilma the Welsummer and Annabel the Ameraucana.

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The Chicken Waterer is a “lifesaver” because it keeps the water sanitary and can’t be knocked down by “the girls.”

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It was hot and sunny when we visited Christy’s Mar Vista surroundings last Saturday. The hens, named according to their breed, were taking sips from their Chicken Waterer: Sylvia is the Silver-Laced Wyandotte, Wilma is the Welsummer, Annabel is the Ameraucana and Ethel is the Easter Egger. Ethel is the remaining elder from Christy’s last flock, and “the only one laying [eggs] right now. The new girls should start any day.” She adds, “They’re incredibly entertaining. For the first few weeks I literally pulled up a chair and probably watched them for an hour at a time.” (Pre-adoption, Mittens the cat secured her place in the household after demonstrating her skills at shepherding any “girls” that would fly over their barrier.)

Chickens and humans were enjoying the generous shade of a large-canopied Brazilian pepper tree in flower. “The bees love it,” Christy says about the tree. “You come out here in the morning and the whole tree is humming. It’s particularly good timing, because during late summer bees don’t have a lot to forage on. So they’re very happy. We try to create an environment that’s always producing something to attract beneficial insects to garden.”

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The expansive canopy of the Brazilian pepper tree.

You’ll find the same compassionate, homestead-minded voice on Christy’s Gardenerd site, which offers wisdom (now is the time to plant your brassica seeds indoors, reads a recent Tip of the Week), a podcast, blog posts, impressive makeover recaps, and offline classes, consulting and garden design services. She teaches organic gardening classes at Santa Monica College. Last March, Christy’s book Gardening for Geeks (Adams Media) hit shelves, bursting with tips and visuals on edible species, fertilizing, trellising and water catchment.

“I’m the product of an engineer nerd and a nurse nerd,” says Christy, who grew up in Simi Valley. “Nerds beget nerds. There’s no way around it.” Below, we chat with her about what might be the best kale recipe on Earth, why opossum can sometimes be a welcome sight, and why the community garden revolution is just beginning.

What was the first thing you ever planted?

The first thing I ever planted was garlic, in 1993, the year I became vegetarian. My boyfriend at the time was living in a duplex that had a little soil in the back. We went to UC Irvine — I was there for dance and drama.

We were like, ‘Oh, let’s make bread, let’s grow garlic,’ so we planted garlic in unamended clay soil. We knew nothing about gardening at all. And it grew! And it grew really well! And we waited six months and we harvested it, and it was great! We just loosened the soil thinking that would do the trick and it grew big, we had big cloves. And from there I did start growing things on a balcony when we moved here to LA, in ’96, ’97. And then I got my community garden plot in ‘98. And I’ve been there ever since. And then we got this house in 2007. So I use both spaces. We call this the test garden.

[The community garden] is right up the street, Ocean View Farms organic community garden. I walk there. The interesting thing about it is, I said we had to buy a place close to the garden. [Laughs.] Because I didn’t want to give up my plot. And so we found this place.

What are some of the plants that you grow in your garden now?

Plum, blackberries, strawberries, nectarine, navel orange, loquat, malabar spinach, poblano peppers, celery, corn, beets, strawberries, green onions, tomatoes, eggplant, green beans, pumpkins, trumpet vine, juniper, yarrow, lemon geranium, Brazilian pepper tree, Dodonaea viscosa, Cecile Brunner roses.

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One of the many poblano peppers Christy is growing this year.

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We took a bite from the garden’s yummy malabar spinach. The veggie tastes like beets and will eventually produce beautiful black pods that could lead to ‘thousands’ of volunteers. (That is, a plant that has not been deliberately sewn.)

A lemon tree that had been in a pot for years is now in the ground, and it’s finally growing a little bit. It’s so funny because it’s always been this little Charlie Brown tree, but it puts out tremendous lemons — and lots of them. And they’re Meyer lemons, which are the best for making lemonade.

Wisteria: This time of year its pods start to dry and crack open, and it sounds like someone’s shooting off fireworks out here. It survived termite tenting. You can’t kill it, I’m happy to say.

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The scrappy ‘Charlie Brown’ lemon tree in Christy’s front yard puts out ‘enormous’ Meyers.

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The wisteria vines are among the four ‘anchor’ plants that were already growing on the property when Christy and her husband moved in in 2007. Right now the pods are twisting and cracking open, which ‘sounds like someone’s shooting off fireworks.’

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The wisteria pods have an ultrasuede texture.

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An earlier shot of the garden’s strawberries at their prime. (Photo courtesy of Christy Wilhelmi.)

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Corn previously photographed by Christy.

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The potted herb garden includes yarrow, sage and mint. (Photo courtesy of Christy Wilhelmi.)

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Lakota squash photographed earlier this year by Christy.

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The solar food dryer, which Christy built, dries green onions from the garden. (The product will be added to soups and other dishes.)

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Seed collection begins on the celery plant.

Brassicas: I’ve got my seed tray going. This is just the beginning of the fall garden; it’s mostly the brassicas because I start those ahead of time. I will be planting lettuces, mustard greens, spinach, all the root vegetables in the ground directly. Right now I’m addicted to kale. I love kale. So I grow five different kinds of kale: Vates Blue, Portuguese, Siberian, Red Russian and Lacinato.

[My favorite] is Siberian because it’s not as tough [as other varieties]. It’s curly but not really, really curly — it’s open, like a wave. And it softens more quickly under acid [like] lemon juice, and it’s just sweet, and I love everything about it.

I make Esalen’s Raw Kale Salad most of the time. Everywhere that I bring that dish to, everyone wants the recipe.

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We are, no doubt, talking about that “50 Shades of Kale” book.

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These brassicas were started from seed in late August. Normally, the grow light is positioned within three inches from the top of the plant leaves.

Why grow from seed?

You can grow anything from seed that’s not available in the nurseries. When you go to a nursery you can usually find curly kale, maybe Dinosaur kale, probably Red Russian but that’s it. This Siberian kale is really hard to come by. This Portuguese kale I’ve never, ever seen anywhere. I grow heirlooms and open-pollinated seeds to make sure I can save the seeds. I’d been on a hunt for savoy cabbage that’s open-pollinated and heirloom. They’re almost all hybrids, which means you can’t save the seed. I [eventually] did find, and am growing, seeds [for] Vertus Savoy.

[Find a collection of Gardenerd’s trusted seed catalogs here.]

How long will these brassicas stay under their grow lights and in their trays? 

These were planted in late August; I keep the grow light within three inches from the tops of the leaves, and I have it on a timer, 14 to 16 hours a day depending on what’s growing here. When they have two sets of true leaves I will transplant them first into four-inch pots, and they will stay under here and get a little bit bigger. By the time this heat wave is over, in early October, I will put them in the ground.

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A sundial sits atop a column that was a garage sale find.

Why does organic gardening matter?

Our global use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is destroying our waterways and our soil. Our soil is filled with microorganisms; synthetic fertilizer kills those microorganisms, and its concentrations are higher than the plant can absorb.

By buying organic we’re supporting methods that are ecologically sound, supporting farmers who, despite not receiving government subsidies, are putting themselves out there. The main reason, for me, for growing my food is that it’s about taking back control of the food system. The food system affects every part of our lives — we just don’t know it because we’re not as connected to our food as well as we could be.

With the rise of “guerilla gardens” (and Snoop Lion getting involved!) and LA city council suspending the ban on parkway food forests, do you think there’s a community gardening movement afoot?

 This is the beginning of something really exciting. Our community garden has a waiting list that’s four years long. It’s not going away any time soon; the more people learn about the food system, the more they want to take back control.

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Despite the bell on her collar, Mittens has caught hummingbirds (rescued by Christy from the jaws of oblivion) and even a large mourning dove (ditto, and rushed to an animal sanctuary in Topanga Canyon).

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What was the first plant that really gave you confidence as a gardener? (Or was it that garlic…?)

Garlic was the first plant, but I plant beets every year to keep me feeling confident. They’re so easy to grow and have very few, if any, pests or diseases.

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What’s the best piece of gardening advice you’ve ever received?

It’s hard to choose because there’s so much advice that’s good, but I think the one thing that stands out is a permaculture concept that I heard a couple of people who teach permaculture say. It’s sort of a parable: There’s a guy with a really bad grasshopper problem in his field, and he brings somebody in, and he says, “What do I do? I can’t control these grasshoppers.” And the [other] guy says, “You don’t have a grasshopper problem. You have a turkey shortage.”

We do all of these things in medicine and gardening to treat the symptom. This is the idea of letting nature actually do what it’s supposed to do. I’ve got organic pesticides on the shelf — I never use them. The only thing I use them for is to spray soap spray in the water, so that it coats the surface, and when I throw bugs in there they die. But I don’t spray the plants.

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At the far border of the backyard, bins collect compost at its various stages.

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This bin includes unbleached tissues, hair and nail clippings.

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The forks and spoons you see are ‘from a birthday party I had three years ago,’ says Christy. ‘ “Biodegradable” my ass. We throw something away; where is “away”? Away is a landfill. I did this to make a point: Have a party and tell everyone to bring their own forks and plates and spoons and make it fun.”

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A swarm box from HoneyLove.org offers bees ‘an attractive place to call home.’

What are some of the other critters that visit your garden?

We are fortunate not to have the raccoons that are down the street. We don’t have an alley, so that might be the main reason why. We’re do have opossums that walk right along the fence. They eat stuff, which is a good thing too, because they eat snails. So they’re good to have around — we don’t have any snails here. And then we have garbage rats — and we set traps.

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Rainwater collection is another feature of Christy’s garden. ‘We shut off the irrigation in November,’ she says. ‘Between the rainbarrels and the [winter/early spring] rain, we don’t have to turn it back on until April.’

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The Gardenerd office.

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Seed potatoes are kept out of direct sun, but receive enough light to develop ‘short, bushy eyes.’ As an experiment, Christy will grow half of her seed potatoes in plantable CowPots (made of composted cow manure) and the other half in regular pots.

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How does your garden reflect who you are? 

I keep a tidy, neat garden. You can’t tell right now because everything is a disaster, but…[Laughs.] Because I use either square-foot gardening or biointensive plant spacing, everything is a patchwork quilt of beauty and there aren’t any weeds, there are a couple of volunteers, but everything is just orderly and very efficiently run. 

What’s your favorite time of year in the garden?

Fall. Once everything is in the ground, you sort of sit back and just check for bugs.

—TH

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  • Christopher Paul

    Great write up. I liked the part about the grasshoppers and turkeys.

    • Thank you! It was an inspiring visit. The insight about the grasshoppers and the turkeys shifted our perspective on everything.