In April, I got the call.
My name was at the top of the list. The list? The most delectable of community gardens, and just up my block. I’d been on the waitlist ever since we bought the place two years ago, so I jumped at the chance. Three months later, here are the lessons I’ve learned.
#1 – Trust the wisdom of your elders.
(Both figurative and literal.) It’s likely the most active people at your garden are old. They have the time. They also have the knowledge. It’s assured that almost everyone at your garden has more experience than you do. Ask them questions. Trust them. By throwing myself on the kindness of others and listening/eavesdropping to the wisdom they espoused, I a) saved a row of brassicas (broccoli and cauliflower) from marauding caterpillars by creating rings of eggshells and building mounds of soil around the leggy stems, b) saved the oregano, dill and onions I would otherwise have thrown away as weeds, and c) ended up with copious vegetables (watering a lot is key!) that I got to eat (watering at night leads to more bugs and more mice, early morning watering is especially key).
#2 – Play to your region’s strengths.
There’s a reason everyone in the PNW grows lettuce, peas, beans, carrots and tomatoes. They grow happily, they grow readily, and for the most part, they grow quickly. My more exotic attempts like the Broccoli Romanesco and Vietnamese coriander struggled. Jury’s out on the tomatillos, though one of those heat-seeking seedlings had to be replaced after a freak May hailstorm.
#3 – Read the package.
The instructions about spacing? Follow them. My cabbage is currently overpowering my peppers, and the squash sprawl is threatening my tomatoes. That said, I’m a big believer in square foot gardening. At least I will be when I get my act together enough to actually map out the square foot grids. If you think you can eyeball it and get close enough… trust me, you can’t. Whether or not you’re doing square foot gardening, if you’re attempting a pretty heavy planting be ruthless with the thinning. I was reluctant to thin out healthy looking radish and carrot tops so let them grow too close to others of their kind. The competition made for some pretty weird looking shapes and inedible sizes.
#4 – Spend the time.
My garden did its best when I was spending 4-6+ hours a week in it. About 20 minutes a day through the heat of summer, watering and harvesting. Another hour or two twice a week weeding, replanting/resowing to ensure a continuous harvest, babying the tomato plants, etc, etc.
#5 – Know your limits.
And ask for help. I got help watering while I was traveling, and eating when the lettuce, radishes, beans and carrots all came in with a vengeance. Trying to do it all on your own means your crop will suffer, or rot away in the ground or on the vine. Husbands are also particularly useful when turning over the soil and adding in manure.
#6 – Geek out.
I read a lot about the importance of keeping relatively accurate tabs on what you’re planting, where you’re planting it, when to harvest, how much to water, what to plant next to what and when, etc. Most traditional sources – even the ones online – recommend a “garden journal.” I am a huge tech nerd, so that seemed ineffective to me. Enter, Google Sheets. I have a Community Garden doc with multiple tabs, that encompass the number of plants for each square foot, what to plant where and when (based on the best of companion gardening), an info tab that not only has notes on what was planted but formulae for harvesting times, and conditional formatting for potential issues while I was traveling. Yes, I’m a harsh nerd, but I’ve found it very helpful as a means to keep on top of things, and I’ve since expanded to plan my fall and winter gardens.
#7 – Get the supplies.
I live my life winging it most of the time. While you can get by in a garden with what you have – weeding with your bare hands, wandering through rows of vegetables in Birkenstocks, attempting to break off cauliflower heads without a knife, and planting new crops based on the seed packets at hand – get the basics and get it together. A trowel, some gardening gloves, scissors and/or a camp knife and the biggest bowl I’ve got served me for 99% of my planting, managing, and harvesting.
#8 – Embrace the community.
Sometimes it’s hard to find community in the city. People are plugged in, checked out, and making eye contact can seem like a struggle. I’ve never experienced front porch chats or getting to know your neighbours in all the places I’ve lived as an adult. Turns out the community garden was the key all along. I know more people of more ages, backgrounds and points of view than ever, thanks to this silly little plot. They say hi, ask about my dog, give me advice on my cauliflower, and share their raspberries. The group hosts BBQs and get-togethers, and takes care of each other’s plots when people need help. It’s the most neighbourly thing I’ve ever done.