It's no wonder that the Orange County Great Park has a Farm+Food Lab. Orange County has a rich agricultural past and backyard farmers know that it is fairly easy to grow most edibles in our neck of the woods. It wasn't long ago that Irvine was filled with fields of lima beans and orchards of citrus. Though UC Irvine sits in our backyard, this large demonstration garden is actually run through and extension of UC Davis which is one of the nation's leading agricultural institutions. The garden is a great way for visitors to experience Orange County's agricultural past, learn about what food actually looks like as it grows (which can be downright shocking to city kids), and take back newfound knowledge so that their own gardens will flourish.
My children and I recently took a fieldtrip the Farm+Food Lab. The kids had shown an interest in what vegetarians eat and how plants grow so we headed over to the Great Park for some free education of the subject. The kids and I are quite familiar with the park's Orange Balloon, carousel, and playground but had yet to experience the great park's demonstration garden. We were pleasantly greeted by Hank, one of the cheerful gardeners who keeps this special place running. He explained that the purpose of this garden was to help visitors learn practical knowledge about backyard gardening and take that information home with them to grow their own food. As a novice backyard farmer, I have grown my fair share of crops over the years and consider myself fairly knowledgeable on the subject but I still managed to learn some new things. For instance, did you know okra grows up from its stem, instead of down like a chili pepper? And were you aware that apple trees can be espaliered and trained to grow up along trellises or fences? This certainly opens up the possibilities for those of us bound to the fenced in confines of a small, suburban backyard.
The kids were eager to say hi to the chickens, play hopscotch underneath the massive sunflowers, play a rousing game of "Good Bug/Bad Bug", and sniff and touch just about everything in the sensory garden. Hank informed us that a new batch of worms would be arriving soon to replenish the worm bin and koi were going to be residing at the farm sometime in the near future. I enjoyed seeing beautiful examples of produce and herbs that I was familiar with growing alongside some plants that I had never actually attempted to cultivate. But perhaps, most exciting of all was knowing that there were Master Gardeners either on site or reached via email which were available to answer every question a gardener could ask. Whether you snap a picture of bugs on a plant that you want identified, are curious why Pride of Madiera bush isn't blooming (like I am), or want to know which varietal of apple is best for your neck of the woods, the Master Gardeners of the University of California Cooperative Extension have the answers. Have gardening questions? Contact the UCCE Master Gardeners of Orange County via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.uccemg.com.
Though the Farm+Food Lab is open daily from 10am to 3pm, the best time to visit is Sunday, after a visit to the Great Park's Farmer's Market. Master Gardeners are available onsite to answer questions and special Children's Workshops are offered every second Sunday from 11am to 1pm. Visit ocgp.org for more information.