Monday, September 23, 2013

Rewards of garden coaching

This blog entry features a guest article from my garden coach client, Michelle Pugliese, who I started working with this past winter. Watching her grow as a gardener, and hence caretaker of the land, was just as rewarding for me as it was for her. She passed on the excitement typical of a new grower, dancing around her kitchen during one of our meetings while squealing with delight: "What could be better than cooking the eggplant that I grew myself and feeding it to my garden mentor?!"

As her pepper plants climbed to the same height as her torso, so did her confidence. Positioned on a slight slope, the plants were in the perfect location for this summer's heavy rains. The beds we created contain layers of soil loose enough to allow rainwater to soak deep into the ground. Meanwhile, excess water slid off the slope instead of over-drenching the beds.

I walked away from our experience thinking: "A new grower is born," remembering how meaningful it was for me to further my relationship with the land in my beginning days of gardening. As an outdoor enthusiast and conservationist, Michelle already feels intimately connected to the nature, but gardening is taking her to a level beyond what a sight-seer, biker or hiker might feel. A skilled organic gardener not only understands the natural world but also participates in and encourages the interactions of the ecosystem. A fuller appreciation of how the world works emerges.

Since Michelle had someone holding her hand through the learning process, she was less likely to feel frustrated or overwhelmed and was more apt to simply enjoy the experience. Even though Michelle's journey as a grower is just beginning, this year of success has given her the assurance that she can keep learning, keep expanding and keep bonding with plants just outside her front door.

I grew this
By Michelle Pugliese

"This is the best arugula salad I have ever had!" I think while eating my packed lunch at the office. I am so proud of it that I show it off to my coworkers, who laugh at my enthusiasm over a Tupperware of greens. I am bouncing with excitement when I say, “I grew this!”

Each time I harvest from my new garden, I believe I am preparing the most delicious meal. With something approaching parental pride, I have stir-fried Japanese eggplant, roasted sweet Italian peppers, blended fresh pesto and more from the modest bounty I can now claim as my own. Maybe these dishes are not worthy of Cúrate or Table, but to my palate they are exquisite because I grew the ingredients, and the plants are my babies.

For the first time in my 37 years, I planted a garden. And it is producing beautiful herbs and vegetables. Food has always been a great pleasure of mine, and growing my own ingredients has been a life goal. Circumstances were against me in the past. I was a renter who did not want to spend the time or money to prepare a garden in a temporary space. I had tried container gardening with results ranging from catastrophic to marginal.

When I bought my home in West Asheville last summer, I immediately enlisted the expert services of Megan Riley of M R Gardens to help me prepare my garden. My goals were simple: small scale and easy crops for guaranteed success. Of course nothing is guaranteed with gardening, but I needed small achievable goals to gain the confidence to stick with it.

Megan has helped me turn my brown thumb green. Having known her for years both professionally and personally, I knew I was in good hands. We share the same values of organic methods and native plants that benefit wildlife. The promise of minimal weeding was a bonus. Her intake process included an interview to determine what kind of garden would best suit my lifestyle, my property and my personal goals. It is a holistic approach that considers not just the plants, but also the time constraints and emotional needs of the gardener.

Tending the garden was not hard, and very satisfying. Megan had the patience to hold my hand just the right amount to get me started. She checked in with small reminders, somehow sensing when I was slacking, and gave me simple tasks that suited my busy schedule.

I admit I am probably not the ideal client. I told Megan that gardening is not my first priority, and some days I will choose to ride my bike or hike with my dog instead of tending the garden. She factored all of this into my design, so my garden suits me perfectly.

And the promise of minimal weeding? I am delighted to report this to be true. Her method is so effective that nobody knows I neglect the weeding for a month or more at a time. About 30 to 45 minutes a month is all it takes to pull the weeds in my three small beds.

Armed with a successful harvest and a belly full of my own delicious produce, I am planning to expand my garden next year. Thanks to Megan I have both the knowledge and the confidence to do this. I stand back and admire how beautiful my peppers and basil are, and dream of winter squashes and cucumbers in next year's garden.
If you're interested in becoming a garden coach client of M R Gardens, the first step is to fill out a questionnaire as well as invite me (Megan) to your site for an initial evaluation. At that point, I create a package according to your situation. It might look something like this:

The Full Treatment — This package includes a site design and garden management tools, including timelines, work guidance, seasonal succession plans, and spreadsheets with plant requirements. I work with the client at least eight times throughout the year, two to five hours a session, to set up the garden beds, prep and plant, perform pest control, prune and trellis, trouble shoot, harvest, build season extension structures and prepare the beds for winter. I am also available throughout the year to answer clients' questions via email and phone.

A Day in the Garden — I provide instruction at the client's garden on one or more of the following topics: setting up no-till gardens; prepping beds and planting; managing pests; pruning and trellising; building season extension structures; preparing the garden for the winter; creating a container garden. Sessions typically last three to four hours.

Coaching and design fees vary depending on the needs of my clients and size of their properties. I am currently offering a special for a $20 initial consultation and site visit, which usually takes about an hour. That consultation fee is waived if customers commit to a package that day. I offer a sliding scale for my services to encourage community members of all income levels to try edible landscaping.

Fall is the best time to contact me about becoming a garden coach client. With my style of no-till gardening, we start building the beds as soon as enough leaves have fallen, since they provide the perfect mulch. So, I hope to hear from you soon!