Fresh off the Vine

Idea Garden

A young family's hillside yard becomes their go-to snack bar.

By Elizabeth Jardina
Photos by Rachel Weill

Kids who run toward their veggies? It's a parent's dream. And it's a reality in the San Anselmo, California, backyard of photographer Rachel Weill and her husband, David Levitt. When their sons Daniel, 11, and Joshua, 7, get home from school, they head straight outside to pick tender cucumbers, beans, lettuces, and carrots. "They constantly bring in food at random times, wanting to make a salad," Weill says. "And when they have friends over, they like to show off the garden."

Formerly a dry, rocky corner of the yard occupied by a couple of gnarled grapevines, the garden got its structure thanks to four raised beds built into the hillside. To fill the boxes, Weill looked to landscape designer Leslie Bennett (, who came up with a plan in which trellised cucumbers shade speckled red lettuces, variegated "Alaska" nasturtium trails out of the boxes, and feathery tops of carrots and fennel contrast with the wide leaves of summer squash.

Bennett's approach is to design gardens that are so beautiful, they don't have to be hidden away. "All those different colors as well as textures and herbs make your garden look interesting," says the designer, who managed to fit 40 different crops into the family's roughly 8- by 8-foot plot. "But they also make your dinner look interesting."

Seven Steps To Your Best Edible Garden

Plan for beauty and bounty
Designer Leslie Bennett chose plants with edible flowers as well as culinary herbs in purple, silver, chartreuse, and dark green to give the functional garden an ornamental look. Garden workhorses, such as zucchini and cucumbers, produce a summer's worth of salads from one or two plants.
Build the beds
Weill hired a contractor to build four raised beds of untreated redwood into the hillside. Because of the sloped location, the boxes were secured with long bolts, and the supporting posts were anchored into the soil with cement.
Prep your soil
Weill and her family filled the beds with fresh garden soil after first laying wire landscape mesh to discourage gophers and moles from chewing on tender roots. At Bennett's suggestion, they set up irrigation with micro sprayers, which they run for a few minutes every morning on hot days.
Construct support
The backbone of Bennett's design are trellises made of thin bamboo poles and twine, which are so easy to construct that the boys were able to help. The trellises allow the beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers to grow vertically throughout the boxes.
Plant strategically
Everything was planted as a nursery start, except for carrots, which the family grew from seed. Above, handpicked seedlings wait for their transfer to soil. During transplanting, Weill watered them while they were in their pots and again in the ground.
Pack it in
Weill and her family laid the seedlings in place before planting to make sure everything would have adequate space, but she packed her plants in a little more tightly than nursery tags recommend, to create a lush look.
Care for your bed
Taller plants found homes toward the back of beds, against the slope, while shorter plants and those with trailing habits stayed closer to the front. Although plants looked tiny on planting day, it was only a matter of weeks before the garden seemed to explode. Weill kept the garden growing steadily by adding a layer of mulch to retain moisture, and applying organic fertilizer every few weeks.

Creating A Garden With Kid Appeal

Go higher
Gardening in raised beds rather than in the ground makes planting and harvesting easier for kids.

Give them chores that they'll like
Many of Weill's vegetables, such as beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes, require a steady harvest for continued production. Daniel and Josh often help with maintenance while chomping on tomatoes. They also help with the less appealing work of keeping pests at bay by seeking out and collecting snails.

Give them ownership
Daniel got his own bed to care for. He planted carrots and tall green beans, while his younger brother, Joshua, got a cucumber plant to call his own.

Take chances
"Leslie suggested a few vegetables that my kids don't normally eat, but I planted them anyway," Weill says. What she discovered: When kids are involved in the planting, they're more likely to try new vegetables. Daniel, for instance, now loves parsley.

Don't take it too seriously
The rows that kids plant might not be the straightest, but remember, you're trying to cultivate a love of gardening above all else.

Our garden is as much a destination as it is a source of food."
Rachel Weill