All credits to Architectural Digest
California landscape designer Christian Douglas transforms outdoor spaces into beautifully nutritious gardens

It’s never a bad idea to cultivate some new interests—like growing your own year-round edible garden. Naturally, having a space to garden is key and—believe it or not—most of us have some usable real estate, whether it’s a full backyard, a small side yard, a patio, a balcony, or a window box. There are a few things to keep in mind when planning your edible garden, so we consulted award-winning landscape designer and urban farmer Christian Douglas, who’s spent over two decades creating extraordinary and productive outdoor spaces.

Through his two companies—The Backyard Farm Co. and his eponymous firm Christian Douglas Design—Douglas combines his passions for classic design and sustainable agriculture. “There’s pretty much always an edible component in everything we do,” he says. “We didn’t see a pandemic coming, for sure. But in some ways, we’ve been preparing for this a really long time by empowering self-reliance—and growing food is one way to do that.”

The San Francisco Bay Area–based designer and his team, including landscape architect Christian Macke and farming experts Christiana Paoletti and Amy Rice-Jones, help clients all over the world through a variety of virtual programs that serve to educate them about growing and harvesting food. “Based on a site assessment and soil samples, we guide them where to establish the garden (if they don’t already have one set up) and make a crop plan for the season,” Douglas says. “We tell them where to plant, when to plant, what to plant, and do regular check-ins every two weeks by FaceTime to provide feedback, tips, and advice from afar.”

Closer to home, where his clients include Tyler Florence—for whom he’s spent several years designing and maintaining a three-terraced kitchen garden, among other projects, at the chef’s Northern California property—Douglas prefers keeping his hands dirty with projects following roughly the same process.

Image may contain Outdoors Garden Human Person Gardening Worker and Gardener

Douglas and his team designed, planted, and maintain this three-terraced kitchen garden at chef Tyler Florence’s Northern California home.

Photo: Tolan Florence

Step 1: Assessing the light and the site

“We need to know there’s ideally between six and eight hours of sunlight—particularly for things like tomatoes and peppers. We look at the amount of sunlight to determine what can grow,” he explains. “Then, of course, we look at how much space you have–there are ways of growing horizontally and vertically to maximize space, particularly if you have a small area for your garden.”

For small spaces, Douglas suggests a couple of options, including growing your garden in plant pots that can be ordered online from places like Wayfair, Houzz, or your local nurseries (which also deliver). “We like to consider the style of the house when choosing the right pots for our clients. You can pick from terra-cotta, ceramic, wood, or even fabric pots—which are a quick way to get set up. These are planters that ship folded up, and you simply unfold them, fill them with soil, and start growing.”

If you have a bit more space, you can go bigger with galvanized troughs that have a “farmhouse” aesthetic or steel planters that are more modern. “You can also go for classic lumber planter boxes,” he offers. “While it’s likely you’ll need to order the others, you can have the materials for lumber planters delivered from your local hardware store. We’re big on supporting our local retailers, and during shelter-in-place most hardware stores and nurseries are staying open. You can pick up (they’ll even load your car for you) or they’ll deliver.”

Image may contain Animal Poultry Bird Chicken and Fowl

Big galvanized metal troughs offer ample space for growing your vegetables.

Photo: Christian Douglas Design

Step 2: Knowing when to plant

“This question is very bioregional; everything is based on your last frost date. A lot of summer crops will perish if you get a hard frost on them when they’re small. If you’re unsure when your last frost is, you can go online to your regional master gardener program—it’s a great place to get a lot of local knowledge, particularly if you’re unsure of your bioregion.” The same principle applies for pulling up and replanting. “In California we can grow all year long, but in general planting for the next season depends on your first frost date. As soon as you start getting frost, it’s time to take everything out.” Douglas points out there are actually two planting seasons—the warm season and the cool season—and this dictates what you can plant successfully.

Image may contain Outdoors Garden Arbour Patio Porch Plant Vase Pottery Potted Plant Jar Nature and Yard

Though we don't all have room for a magnificent edible backyard like this one designed by Douglas, it's nice to think we could get our own blueberries, strawberries, or peppers growing.

Photo: Caitlin Atkinson

Step 3: Deciding what to plant

“Some things you can grow with seeds, and others with vegetable starts,” Douglas says. “For seed planting, by next week you could be growing warm season crops like leafy greens—these are all your salad greens like arugula—as well as basil, cilantro, radishes, and carrots, which will start to yield in about 30 days. With vegetable starts (which you’d buy from a nursery ready to plug right into the ground) you’d go with heavy hitters like tomatoes, summer squash, Asian greens, and even shishito peppers. These give you a really great return on your investment and grow quickly so you can keep harvesting throughout the summer.”

Your cold season crops should go into the ground by late September. These are things like cauliflower, brussels sprouts, broccoli, romanesco, kale, and potatoes that will generally start producing in about 60 days. If you’re on the East Coast, you’ll eventually be under snow, but you can grow a bit indoors—all the Italian herbs, basil, and cilantro are a few options.

Image may contain Potted Plant Plant Pottery Jar Vase Planter Wood Herbs Herbal Staircase and Hardwood

Herb planters line the steps of this deck—a perfect solution for growing food in a small space close to the kitchen.

Photo: Christian Douglas Design

Step 4: Maintaining your new crops

“After planting, you’ll want to water thoroughly so the soil is saturated, checking with your trowel or finger to see that the soil is moist a few inches deep. Following this you’ll water once a day–preferably in the morning–taking special care to ensure seeded areas don’t dry out until they’ve safely germinated and sprouted,” instructs Douglas. “As long as your soil is damp and the plants don’t look wilted, you’re watering enough. Remember that you’re growing healthy soil with living microbes and worms, which need a moisture to survive.” To get the best harvest possible, Douglas says you’ll want to feed your plants periodically. There are two ways to do this: You can add nutrients to the soil for the plants to take up in their roots, or you can dilute nutrients in water for them to absorb through their leaves. For either option, Douglas’s favorite brand is E.B. Stone Organics.

Notes on sourcing

Douglas is a fan of several organic seed companies based in the Midwest and on the East Coast, including High Mowing Seeds and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. “Locally, in Marin County, we love Fairfax Lumber & Hardware—they have the soil, compost, seeds, vegetable starts, fertilizers, and really everything you need to get started. The San Francisco Bay Area has so many great places, including a number of Sloat Garden Centers, Green Jeans Garden Supply in Mill Valley, and The Living Seed Company in Point Reyes Station—they’re all still stocked and have great heirloom seeds.”

Other metropolitan areas may not have as many accessible garden centers, but Douglas contends it’s not impossible to source your starts. “It might be a little different if you’re living in downtown Manhattan, but all you have to do is go up the Hudson and there’s the Hudson Valley Seed Company. Wherever you are, there are all these small retailers crying out for business.”

“We want to redefine how we perceive the landscape by turning it into a resource we can use to feed our families and still maintain a space for entertaining,” remarks Douglas. “We want to prioritize food in our landscapes and shared spaces—if nothing else this may inspire people to think differently about their spaces—particularly with what’s happening in the world today.

Previous Article Next Article