When our company moved into a new office last year, it was hard for us to imagine a garden on the vacant lot behind it. The property was sprawling, overgrown, and loaded with debris. It had been so long abandoned, only unwelcome critters called it home. But we summoned our green thumbs, rolled up our shirt sleeves, and, eventually, managed to turn that forgotten space into a thriving, sustainable, organic vegetable garden. Here are a few lessons we learned along the way.
1. Have a “workday.”
Friends and family are often happy- OK, OK, willing- to help start a garden. “Workdays” are ideal for making new beds, moving or planting trees, carving paths, and any number of your other, larger-scale projects. Keep your list of tasks manageable, the time window relatively tight, and the music playing. While it’s about getting stuff done, it’s also an opportunity to have fun and build community! Be sure to offer snacks and drinks afterwards, so everyone’s still your friend in the end. Bonus points if you promise to share whatever produce you grow.
2. Get your soil tested.
This may seem obvious, but it’s important. Since our land once housed an old gas station, we opted for raised beds and trucked in organic soil. We weren’t sure what kind of soil we had, nutrient-wise, and were a little lax on getting it tested. We actually waited to do it ‘til after we had planted our first plants! As it turned out, our guesses about the soil we had were way off– instead of being under-fertilized, ours was over-fertilized. Bottom line: get the right answers from a local lab so you can treat your soil correctly. The blog A Way to Garden is also a great resource to review before you begin.
3. Zucchini plants will take over your life.
Zucchinis have a cool name, are full of fiber and vitamins, and are super easy to grow. The perfect crop? Perhaps- but, they may take over! Plant about half as many plants as you think you need. (Same goes for summer squash.) If you don’t spot the younger fruit hiding underneath the huge leaves, before you know it your zucchinis will be the size of your leg. Our kitchen counters were covered with ’em, our friends grew tired of eating them, and we ended up giving many of ours away to a local soup kitchen.
4. You don’t need to spend a lot on perennials to get plants that come back.
Our first year, we planted a ton of annual flowers just to have something pretty to look at in the space. This year, we were delighted to find them ALL over our garden! Zinnias, marigolds, and sunflowers dropped their seeds and then returned the next year in beautiful, unexpected places. We’ve found cleome to be a particularly lovely, long-lasting flower that looks great in the middle of beds and beside the front door of our office.
5. Native plants are the way to go.
In the summer, life can get in the way of, shall we say, consistent plant-watering. Listen, the beach calls! Luckily we learned that using plants native to our home, Rhode Island, meant that they would be better adapted and more resilient than any to be found at big box nurseries. We also discovered varieties we hadn’t known to be native to Rhode Island (a New England prickly pear cactus? Color us surprised!). For local plant sales near you, check out PlantNative.org.
6. Your blood, sweat, and tears taste delicious.
Yes, it will be the hardest you’ve ever worked for a tomato. Yes, you will be consistently overwhelmed– by weeds, or sun, or bounty. And yes, you will love it!
Have YOU ever started a garden? How did it go? (And grow?) Is there anything you wished you’d known before? We’d love to hear. Tell us your story in the comments below.