From corporate campuses to thousands of schoolyards and backyards across the country, from hospital grounds to the White House lawn, interest in edible gardens has exploded over the last decade. For good reason. Growing our own food, when done by many people, is part of the solution to some of society’s most pernicious problems—food safety, diet-related illness epidemics, food waste, food insecurity, disaster response, environmental degradation and even climate change itself.
But are the gardens that are sprouting up throughout our cities and counties built to last?
Many garden programs throughout the country suffer from one or all of the following challenges: insufficient and poorly handled funding resources, ego-driven politics, lack of authentic gardening and farming knowledge, dreamy idealism, and dysfunctional management.
There’s no doubt that the intentions of gardening programs are good at their core. Through gardening, cooking and eating together, communities are unified across social, generational, political and economic differences. In remembering our food traditions, we preserve not only the genetic diversity of our food crops and farm animals, but also the cultural diversity which weaves together the fabric of our heritage as Americans.
Gardens are also the best investment we can make in our health care system for the foreseeable future. A recent study by the University of California-Berkeley’s Center for Weight and Health found that when students have access to gardening and cooking programs, they eat significantly more fruits and vegetables (see pdf below).
What could be more valuable in school than getting our children to fall in love with healthy, responsibly-sourced food at a young age? How many billions of tax dollars will we save over the next few decades if our kids start eating right?
But can we reach these goals if the garden that brings us together suffers from poor management, low fertility, or is overgrown with weeds and infested with aphids?
Here are some tips to make your urban garden thrive:
1. Spend wisely. Before you apply for a grant or ask anyone for money to support the project financially, consult experts on what you really need to purchase. So many schools and organizations we work with already have hundreds, if not thousands, out the door before they realize they didn’t really need all the plastic hand tools and fancy tree irrigation contraptions. Whenever possible, garden in the existing soil instead of building raised beds. Your first purchases or donation requests should be for forks, shovels, rakes, a wheelbarrow or two, a hose or two, a place to store your tools, and some good compost and cover crop seed to build fertility in the soil.
2. Start slowly. Contrary to commonly-held belief, you should start a garden in the fall, not in the spring. Lay the groundwork thoughtfully. Build the soil first with compost, cover crops and mulch, then slowly add in the plants at the appropriate time in the seasons.
3. Delegate responsibility. Burnout is an unfortunate symptom in these kinds of projects. Once a core group is formed to support the garden program, responsibilities should be shared and should rotate on a semi-regular basis so that no one is forced into overwhelm and eventual resentment.
4. Obey your climatic limitations. So many people want to grow cucumbers and tomatoes along the coast or lettuces inland in the summer time. This is simply impractical; experiments are useful for the sake of education, but should not be the focus of a productive edible garden project. Seed packets and reference books do not provide you with sufficient information. You need seasoned local farmers and gardeners to help you develop a planting calendar that is customized to the specifics of your site.
5. Maximize diversity. A garden should contain as many different species as possible. There should be pollinator plants, native plants, culinary herbs, vegetables and fruit plants in your garden. The diversity of the plant community will ensure resistance to disease and resilience during environmental shifts.
6. Eat food when it’s ripe. So much food is wasted in our gardens because people don’t know how and when to harvest their crops. A perfect head of lettuce or perfectly ripened tomato may look too beautiful to touch if you have never grown anything before. But you have to pick it. Otherwise, what is the point of all the effort? Take a picture, send it to all your friends on Instagram, and then eat your lunch.