Califonia Bountiful

Personal growth

March/April 2021 California Bountiful magazine

One woman's 'grand experiment' to raise a vegetable garden during a pandemic

Sondra Ames-Hauger started growing vegetables last spring when the pandemic sent her home to work. She continues to garden with, clockwise from top left, daughter Madison, son Riley and husband Chris Hauger. Photo: © 2021 Manny Cristostomo

A pandemic descends on your hometown, and your employer sends you to work from home, which happens to have a ginormous yard. You have no idea how long this will last. What now?

If you're Sondra Ames-Hauger, you get to planting.

"I knew that with the pandemic, it was going to be really difficult to go anywhere, and that we really should try to stay home as much as possible," said Ames-Hauger, who works for a school district in the Sacramento area. "I thought it was a perfect opportunity to start my garden in the backyard, because I knew I would have a lot of extra time after working from home."

From that seed sprang forth a summerlong bounty: zucchini, cucumbers, carrots, basil, pumpkins, tomatoes—plus trial, error and lessons learned for 2021.

"I called this my grand experiment," Ames-Hauger said, "because I'd really never done a garden like this. I planted things here and there, but I've never done a vegetable garden that I tended to in the way that I did this, and I can see why so many people do this. There's something really soul-fulfilling about growing a garden."

And it all started with a fence in need of repair.

The couple's nephew and niece, Reece and Ayla Johnson, help every chance they get. Photo: © 2021 Manny Cristostomo

Getting started

Ames-Hauger lives on a third of an acre in Carmichael with her husband, Chris Hauger, also an educator; daughter Madison, 16; and son Riley, 14. Last spring, while helping replace a fence on their property's boundary, the idea came to her.

"We've been in our house for four years, and we haven't really done anything with the backyard," Ames-Hauger said. "And I thought, 'You know, it'd be really nice to have a garden back here.'"

Being new at gardening, Ames-Hauger went online and scooped up all the information she could find. She also found planter boxes online, buying shipping crates for beehives; these were about 4 feet square by 1 foot deep.

"Once I knew that I was going to have a garden, I kind of got a little bit of the cart before the horse and went and bought a whole bunch of seeds," she said, and "just thought, 'You know, what do I want to grow? What would I love to try to grow?' And seeds aren't very expensive, so it was a good way to start."

So she planted, as she put it, "a little bit of everything." At the outset, in April, that meant zucchini, bell peppers, carrots, bush beans, cabbage and cauliflower. She also planted artichokes and several kinds of tomatoes. Pumpkins and cucumbers followed.

"We did rows of carrots, which were pretty fun," Ames-Hauger said. "The pumpkin seedlings and watermelon went into the ground end of May. We did onions as well."

Madison spends time in the kitchen helping her mom make dishes such as zucchini lemon loaf from the garden bounty. Photo: © 2021 Manny Cristostomo

Learning on the job

What she ended up harvesting was a mixed bag. Pumpkins did well, she said, and made for fine Halloween decorations. Watermelons did not fare as well: "I couldn't ever get them to be bigger than the size of a golf ball before they would die."

Ames-Hauger and her family were learning as they went, "understanding that planting the stuff starts to attract things that you really have never seen in your garden."

Case in point: the beautiful white butterfly—called a cabbage white—that she noticed flitting about her garden. Little did she know it was a bringer of doom to some of her plants.

"While I thought it was just a lovely little visitor, I found out that she was laying like 400 eggs every time she was in my garden," leading to "little cabbage worms that eat everything," Ames-Hauger said. Those voracious worms made short work of her cabbage crop.

Her zucchini fared better—she put half a dozen plants in the ground and learned they're "really easy to grow. You need sun and water and some soil, and you'll get a lot of zucchini, and they get big quickly." Many of these ended up on the grill. Along the way, she also discovered zucchini lemon loaf, which became a family favorite because it "was so bright and kind of like a dessert, but you didn't feel terrible about it because it also has zucchini in it."

Also learned the hard way: how not to grow carrots.

"I planted all of my carrots at one go, so I ended up with all of my carrots ready at the same time," Ames-Hauger said. "I put carrots in just about everything that I could think of to use them up."

Next time, she said, she'll stagger the carrot plantings.

Ames-Hauger also harvested basil that became pesto; tomatoes that became spaghetti sauce; and cucumbers that became pickles. Her mission: leave no vegetable behind.

"I basically tried to figure out what I had and then look at recipes that could utilize what I had, so that nothing that I grew went to waste," she said. "That was my goal, that we could benefit from everything that I grew, even if it was just a small crop of stuff."

Ayla helps her aunt plant seeds. Photo: © 2021 Manny Cristostomo

Family time

This was not strictly a one-woman show, as Ames-Hauger had help from the family.

"They helped me with the setup of the garden, and they helped me with some of the planting of the seeds," she said. "And sometimes they helped me with watering. They definitely helped me with harvesting."

Of her kids, she said, "it was kind of eye-opening for them to see how things grew, and that you don't just go to a grocery store and pick it up."

She also involved her 7-year-old nephew Reece Johnson and niece Ayla, 4, with planting seedlings; after that, they wanted to see the garden every chance they got.

"These tiny little plants that they put in the ground are now a couple of feet tall, and they were always blown away by how big things have gotten," she said, adding that she also sent them their own plants in a garden box, watching their progress over video calls.

Zucchini, cucumbers and tomatoes are just some of the vegetables the family grows in their backyard. Photo: © 2021 Manny Cristostomo

Looking ahead

Ames-Hauger started prepping for 2021 before the holidays in 2020. She began by tracking her planting progress on a calendar.

"By doing that, I was able to see where I needed to make adjustments, when to start things," she said, adding that she began a few months earlier this time around. Fruit trees are in her future, as is drip irrigation—and a lid on how many crops she has going at once.

"I think that I would just limit what I am going to plant and try to maybe, well, definitely do succession planting, so that I don't have everything ready all at one time."

Through it all, Ames-Hauger gained not only food for her family, but also "incredible appreciation that I gained for farming and for farmers, and for people that grow our food."

"I think a lot of us take it for granted, right? That we just go to a grocery store and there's food there, but the food has to come from somewhere and someone that knows what they're doing," she said.

Kevin Hecteman

Chris Hauger and nephew Reece share the excitement of growing a carrot. Photo: © 2021 Manny Cristostomo

So, you want to start digging?
Here are some tips

Beginning gardeners will often be eager to get out there and plant—maybe too eager.

Bill Krycia, a University of California Cooperative Extension master gardener in Sacramento, said one common rookie mistake is "being overzealous as to what you're going to put in." He recommends starting small and considering what you want to eat.

"Try and limit yourself to half of your dreams the first year," Krycia said. "You're not going to start out with 5 acres."

Want to get started right about now? You're in luck.

"March is a fabulous time in most of the state, except the far northern state, to really get started on putting in a summer garden, and in some spots maybe a late-spring garden," Krycia said.

Where you place the garden is also crucial. Krycia said a garden plot will need at least 6 1/2 hours of good sunlight.

Pat Rubin, California Bountiful gardening columnist, suggested location is crucial for another reason: "I've always maintained that you should put the garden where you can see it and where you'll walk by it. Don't tuck it in the back 40 where you'll never see it, because you'll never go out there."

Rubin also said soil is crucial; most locations in California have clay soil, which is rich in nutrients, but also dense. "It needs to be broken up a little bit," she said. "The answer is always compost." Raised beds are also a good idea, with no side being longer than 4 feet. "If you walk on your soil, you're going to compact your soil," she said.

Krycia suggested starting with easy-to-grow crops such as carrots and tomatoes, especially the Early Girl tomato variety. Herbs such as parsley, rosemary and chives are also a good call, he added: "Those are simple, straightforward things, even for a small garden."

Don't expect perfection, Krycia said.

"Some of your tomatoes are going to have a little crackle on them, or maybe a little sun scald on them," he said. "They're still delicious. Just cut that part out, eat around it."

Water, Rubin said, is "the cause of a lot of problems in gardens—too much or too little." Remember to water the roots, not the leaves, and aim to keep the soil moist but not soppy.

"A lot of gardening is trial by fire," she said. "That's how you learn. You make mistakes." Experienced gardeners can have terrible years, and beginners can have excellent years, she said.

Rubin's column offers tips on how to start your garden with seeds or starter plants. The UC Master Gardener program offers information and support from master gardeners statewide at

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