Plant a Pizza Garden

If your family loves Italian food, why not plant a pizza garden? It’s simple, inexpensive and will help you add fresh Italian flair to any meal.

For my container pizza garden I chose:

  • 1 Super Italian Paste tomato
  • 1 Green Bush zucchini (mine came with three seedlings in one pot, and since there wasn’t room for all of them I shared the rest with friends)
  • 1 Italian oregano
  • 1 Genovese basil
  • 1 Italian Pesto basil (Growing Tip:f you’re new to growing a certain type of plant or haven’t had much luck with it in the past, selecting different varieties can improve your chances of success and help you learn which perform best in your area)
  • 3 trailing rosemary (Money Saving Tip: Be sure to check the groundcover section of your nursery–you can get more plants for less money and the smaller individual size makes them easier to work with, I plan to plant the other 3 from the six pack I bought in the pot that holds my Eureka lemon tree)

You’ll need:

  • A large pot and potting soil or clear planting area in your garden that receives at least six full hours of sun per day
  • One tomato cage per tomato plant
  • Mulch
  • A variety of Italian vegetable and herb plants

To plant your pizza garden:

  • Clear your planting bed of any rocks and weeds (find container planting instructions and tips here)
  • Leaving your plants in their pots, arrange them on the soil to decide where each plant will go–put the tallest plants in the back so they don’t block the sun from reaching the smaller plants
  • Dig a hole for each plant slightly wider and deeper than its current pot
  • Plant each plant
  • Water thouroughly
  • Mulch

Be sure to water regularly throughout the season and by late summer, you should have all the makings of the perfect Italian feast.


Designing an Edible Garden: Before You Start

The perfect garden is as individual as the person who dreams of it. Each of us has our own style, our own tastes, our own desires. The perfect garden cannot come from a template. It has to be created individually each time like a work of art. And like a work of art, before you sit down to create — whether you are creating the art for yourself or someone else — you have to make a few decisions: what medium will you use? What colors? How big will it be? What will be its purpose? The same is true for a garden. Some of the questions will be about the garden itself, while others delve into the person who will be using the garden, to help make sure it fits their personality, style, tastes, and needs. Before you embark on any gardening project ask yourself the following questions:

  • What space will you use for the garden: yard, patio with containers, a few pots in a sunny window?
  • What kind of garden do you want to create? If you’re here on this site, chances are you want it to include some kind of food, but how? Do you want a few strategically placed edibles or an entire garden dedicated to food? A traditional raised bed vegetable garden or an eclectic mix of flowers, fruits and foliage plants?
  • Are you starting with a blank slate or are you trying to incorporate edible plants into an existing garden plan?
  • What do you love about the garden you have?
  • What do you dislike about it?
  • What plants do you love?
  • What plants do you dislike?
  • What fruits and vegetables do you love to eat?
  • What things may impact where you place your plants: sun exposure, existing structures,desire to have food plants as close as possible to the kitchen?
  • Do you have any special requirements/considerations (access, kids, pets, pests, possible polution)?
  • What styles appeal to you (garden, architecture, interior design, clothes, cars…)?
  • Do you consider your tastes formal, casual, ecclectic, exotic, minimalist, or other (specify)?
  • How much time/energy do you have to devote to gardening?
  • What is your favorite type of cuisine?
  • What is your favorite vacation location? Why?

If you’re looking to create an edible garden experience rather than just adding a plant here or there, or if you are especially space constrained, you may want to make a garden plan before you start planting. Consider starting an inspiration file and fill it with photos of parks or neighboring gardens, postcards, pictures from books or magazines, wallpaper samples, you name it. Anything that captures the look or feel of what you’re hoping to create.

Once you’ve pulled these pieces together (along with a gridded map of the existing yard and structures), you’re ready to start designing. And that’s where the fun begins. With a little planning and preparation, your edible garden can be as beautiful as it is functional.

Container Gardening Basics

Choose the Right Container
Outdoor containers should:

  • Be at least 14-18” across otherwise they can dry out too quickly (indoor containers can be much smaller but will require more frequent watering)
  • Have adequate drainage (holes should be between ½ and 1” across, large pots should have multiple drains)—when planting, cover holes with fine screen, cheesecloth or coffee filters to keep soil from running out of the holes
  • Suit the size of the plant (or plants) that are going into them

Containers come in a variety of shapes and materials, which you choose are a matter of taste, style and how you plan to use it. Learn more about Choosing Containers.

Don’t Scrimp on Soil
Choose a soil mixture that:

  • Drains well so plants don’t get waterlogged
  • Holds enough moisture so plants don’t require constant watering
  • Is organic—everything that goes into the pot goes into the plant and will eventually wind up on your plate
  • Has the right pH—most vegetables prefer a slightly acidic soil (5.5-6.5), however blueberries require an even more acidic soil with a pH of  4.5 to thrive

For vegetables, add extra compost (up to 25%) so your plants have what they need to produce in abundance.

Pick the Right Plants
When selecting individual plants:

  • Size matters—always take into account the mature size of any plant before you put it in a pot, especially if you’re planting trees; make sure you stick with dwarf and/or slow growing varieties so they don’t outgrow their new home too quickly or crowd out other plants
  • Buy big—the larger the individual plant (say, a 1 gallon vs. a 4” pot) the more well-developed the roots
  • Consider the cold—in a container, a plant’s hardiness decreases by about 10 degrees (sometimes more in smaller pots); a plant that may ordinarily handle your winter quite well might not have the same success in a pot

When determining which plants go together:

  • Make sure they have compatible needs in terms of water, sun, soil pH, etc.
  • Coordinate plant heights—include something tall, a few things mid-range, a few more small and of course, some trailers to hang over the edge of the pot
  • Keep the pot’s location and planting design in mind—taller plants may cast shade on lower level sun-lovers or a building may block light from one half of the planter

Water Wisely

  • Keeping your containers appropriately watered is crucial to plant survival. Pots can’t hold as much wateras a planting bed while inadequate drainage may keep water trapped.
  • Check daily in hot weather—when the mercury rises, your plant’s water needs increase, and without the buffer of a large garden bed, to keep them cool and damp, sometimes it takes only hours to permanently damage a heat-sensitive plant
  • Dig deeper—don’t just rely on how the soil looks, dirt dries out fastest at the top of the pot so be sure to stick your finger at least one inch into the soil to test its true moisture content
  • Elevate your pots—putting containers on risers helps water drain and air circulate and protects your patio surface from water damage; you can purchase decorative pot feet in most garden centers, but bricks work just as well
  • Consider irrigation—container watering systems cost some money up front, but they will save you time, worry, and the cost of replacing lost plants; they are also invaluable for vacation care
  • Don’t forget the mulch, it helps retain moisture and helps keep roots cool in hot weather

A Few Other Tips

  • Place a saucer below pots on a wooden deck to prevent the deck boards from rotting
  • Consider placing heavy containers on rolling plant caddies so you can move them more easily—especially helpful in climates where tender plants need to be moved indoors for the winter


Understanding Climate Zones

Different plants like different climates. Artichokes like mild weather year round. Okra loves heat and humidity. Apples and plums need a certain number of hours of winter chill to fruit well. To help gardeners know which plants perform best in which areas, the USDA created a map of climate zones, assigning each zone a number. Once you know the number for your area, all you need to do is look for that same number on the label when you shop for plants.

Unfortunately, these zone maps aren’t any guarantee that the plant you choose is actually suited to your area for a couple of reasons:

  • It doesn’t account for microclimates—variations from the standard climate of the area caused by terrain, construction, vegetation and other variables. Concrete, for example, collects and retains heat, raising the ambient temperature of the surrounding area, while dense trees keep the ground cooler than usual by preventing sunlight from reaching the ground. Microclimates can even vary within a single yard. A sunny wall in an enclosed backyard can be almost a full number higher than a shady, open area at the front of the house.
  • It focuses on lows and largely ignores highs. Just because a plant can’t take freezing weather doesn’t mean it can handle scorching heat. Take for example the artichoke, mentioned earlier. It loves the temperate Northern California coastal marine zone for its fog and even, year-round 50-60 degree temperatures but may not be happy at all in Austin Texas or the Florida panhandle (all zone 8b).
  • Climates change. The current map, which was last updated in 1990, no longer accurately reflects the current climate trends. Thankfully, they are currently in the process of updating the map, but that won’t really help the plants you already have in place.

One other thing to consider, plenty of plants, given the right placement and attention, can survive outside their zone. The trick is make sure all of their other needs (sun, water, etc.) are being met and that you’ve placed them in an area of the yard with a microclimate that comes as close as possibly to their preferred zone.

Find Your Zone

NOTE: If you live in the Western United States, check out the Sunset Western Garden Book which has its own zone system designed to account for the extremely varied climates of this area.

Choosing Containers

There are so many great things about container gardening. For starters, they fit just about anywhere from a tiny apartment windowsill to a sweeping multi-acre estate. They let you garden where you couldn’t otherwise—on a 5th story balcony, inside an office building, on land that’s soil has been damaged by toxins or overuse. They allow you to move plants around as your moods (or the weather) dictate. And most fun of all, containers come in a wide variety of sizes, styles and materials to suit your personality, architecture and budget.

Here is the low-down on some of the most common container types:

Terra Cotta
Probably what most people think of when they think of planting in pots, terra cotta has been around since ancient times. The signature orange unglazed pottery tends to build a mossy coating over time making it especially well-suited to English country gardens.

Pro: Inexpensive, available most everywhere in a variety of sizes, very well draining, easy and fun to decorate (use non-toxic paints as terra cotta is porous and any chemicals could leach through to your plants)
Con: Heavy, dries out very quickly, susceptible to cracking at freezing temperatures, easy to break

To help terra cotta retain water more efficiently, consider using it as a liner for another decorative pot.


Ceramic pots are a great way to add color to your garden. These days they come in a wide variety of patterns, shapes and hues. Try a bold red accent in an Asian-themed garden, or a rich gold for a Tuscan feel. Make sure they have drainage holes unless you plant to use them for a water garden.

Pro: Retains water well, lots of variety in size, shape, color and design,
Con: Often very expensive, especially in larger sizes, extremely heavy, can shatter in below-freezing temperatures

Cast Concrete
These planters can give an instant old-world feel to any garden, especially when overflowing with ivy or other tumbling vines. Consider adding a single, clean-lined focal piece for a bold modern statement, or flank an entryway with two more traditional containers for a classic look.

Pro: Strong design statement, ages beautifully, hard to damage
Con: Extremely heavy, often expensive, can be affected by severe weather, can break down over time

Because concrete can break down over time and because some concrete products may contain harmful chemicals, make sure it is coated inside and out with a non-toxic sealant.

From redwood planters on the patio, to a recycled wine barrel full of veggies, wood ads a warm, natural look to any landscape. Because wood is readily available, simple to work with and often inexpensive, you can easily build your own pots to suit your tastes and space.

Pro: Natural, not harmed by cold
Con: Decompose over time, can invite termites if placed directly on soil

If you’re going to place a wine barrel or other wooden planter directly in a planting bed, be sure to place it on brick or cement blocks to prevent contact with the soil.


You used to only be able to get plastic pots in a terra cotta color and forest green, but things have changed a lot since those days. Now you can find just about any color, size and shape you can imagine, including pots made to look and feel like ceramic, terra cotta, cast concrete and even wood without all the weight and with a lot more resistance to cold and rot. With so much variety, you can find a plastic container for just about any style of garden you can dream up. Plastic pots are especially well suited for balcony and rooftops gardens where load-bearing may be an issue.

Pro: Lightweight, weather-resistant, retains water well, huge variety in color, size, style and price, work well as liners for other pots
Con: Can tip when planted with top-heavy trees, can be expensive for the more elaborate designs, inexpensive or thin-walled pots can break down or fade with prolonged sun exposure

Use caution when planting trees in plastic pots in high-wind areas, as they can be blown or tipped over fairly easily. Consider securing the tree to a nearby structure where wind is a problem.

Nursery Pots
A subset of the plastic category, nursery pots are the black, terra cotta or green pots that most plants are sold in. While they are not particularly attractive, most gardeners usually have a few lying around in a variety of sizes making them easy to get for little or no money, so if you’re on a budget they can be a great solution.

Pro: Inexpensive or free, lightweight, weather-resistant, retains water well, work well as liners for other pots
Con: Unattractive, can tip when planted with top-heavy trees

Nursery pots are best used as liners for other pots or in places where they can be hidden by foliage.

Every Day Objects
Just about anything that won’t rot when wet and can be drilled for drainage can be used to hold a plant, so get creative. Here are just a few ideas to get you started.

  • Metal trash cans
  • Buckets
  • Pedestal sinks
  • Claw foot tubs
  • Tea pots
  • Rubber boots
  • Empty paint cans (be sure the paint is completely removed)
  • Antique wash basins
  • Get creative!

If you’re going to be growing food plants, make sure your container doesn’t contain toxic materials (lead paint or glaze, for example). If you’re not sure, use a nursery pot as a liner to protect your plant (and your pot).

Book Review: Golden Gate Gardening

Golden Gate Gardening: Year-Round Food Gardening in the San Francisco Bay Area and Coastal California give an amazingly clear and comprehensive overview of the Bay Area’s many microclimates, including which types of fruits and vegetables thrive best in each one and what the best planting times are for each.

From there the author goes on to provide ample, accessible information on garden planning, seed/plant selection and acquisition, planting, watering, pest management and so much more. The real jewels in the crown of this book, however are the nearly 200 pages of detailed plant descriptions including recommendations about which grow best in which microclimate.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay area and want to grow fruits and vegetables, this book is a must-read. Especially if you, like me, have ever wanted to grow tomatoes in a garden 10 blocks from a foggy San Francisco beach. Try the variety Stupice. It grew and produced like a dream.

Gardening Classes & Programs

You don’t need a college degree to become a great gardener, but taking a class or two can not only help improve your gardening knowledge and skills, it can also be a great way to meet fellow gardeners in your area. Many park and rec departments offer classes on gardening, composting and other related topics, as do local community colleges and many garden centers.

If you want to dig deeper, there are a variety of programs available through universities, colleges and specialized educational centers. Here are just a few to get you started.

Occidental Arts & Ecology Center, permaculture and ecological design
Sonoma State University Extension, Sustainable Landscape Certificate

New Mexico
Permaculture Institute, courses offered in various locations

Book Review: Tropical Organic Gardening

Tropical Organic Gardening: Hawaiian Style by Richard Stevens is a sweet little gem of a book. Weighing in at a super-light 83 pages including a bevy of drawings, it still had plenty of room for inspiration.

The bulk of the work focuses on ancient gardening techniques and includes an entire section of methods of taro farming which I found myself longing to try, if only Northern California had the right climate. Ironically, another section of the book discusses what the author considers the top ten most nutritious vegetables, most of which he was sad to say he couldn’t grow because they required much cooler and less humid conditions, which made it the perfect list of what to grow in my garden.

It’s true that most everything in there is pretty basic, and that the author, who’s from the mainland, may not be the most immediately or obviously credible source of old Hawaiian knowledge and lore (gardening or otherwise). Still, he brings a joy and reverence to his topic that both charms and enlightens. And the appendices include pages of sobering statistics, inspirational quotes, footnotes galore, a glossary of terms, and, most importantly, a list of references and resources including the University of Hawaii’s Tropical Agriculture program.


Book Review: The One-Straw Revolution

I can’t even remember where I heard about this one, but something about it (and the reviews it got) piqued my interest so I ordered it from the library. It had been sitting on the shelf for three weeks untouched while I worked on Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez but when I got the renewal email and realized that a) both books were on hold and so couldn’t be renewed, and b) there was no way I could adequately get through the one I was reading, I decided to spend the day with The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming by Masanobu Fukuoka.

At 181 pages, I figured it would be a quick, easy read. It was. But the ideas in the book were deceptive in their simplicity. The four precepts: no cultivation, no chemical fertilizers or prepared compost, no weeding by tillage or herbicides, and no dependence on chemicals, seem like a fairy tale, but in his experience have led to the highest, most consistent grain production in his region.

The book reads almost like a series of Zen koans or the teachings of Buddha, every word about so much more than farming. The anticipated how-to on pest and weed avoidance was really a call to re-evalute your relationship with food, farming, the world and yourself — oddly similar to Dominguez’ approach to money management. Interesting to have borrowed them both on the same day.

This book was a gentle but powerful reminder of what I already intrinsically believe and where I am hoping to take my life but which has been buried in the side-effects of my current day-to-day.