Thursday, October 5, 2017

Intrigued by Grow? Go for it.

I’m excited that “Grow,” our year-long gardening program held here at the farm starting October 24, is half-full with a great mix of people of all ages and backgrounds. A few others have expressed interest, but are concerned that they won’t have the time or the funds. This is my advice based on years of focusing on creating a lifestyle that deeply fulfills me:

If Grow is something you really wish to do, then go for it. You may feel like you don’t have time at the moment, but if you set your priorities, then events and logistics rearrange so that what you truly want slides into your life.

M R Gardens
If you’re worried about the cost (a total of $600 for 36 sessions), consider that you are essentially paying up-front for your produce for a full year. I can’t guarantee the weekly basket of veggies, herbs and/or flowers will supply all your needs, but certainly much will be met during the key growing months. And all with high quality organically grown foods that you helped grow.

If we factor in the investment it takes for a program like this to get started—the established gardens, greenhouses, equipment, tools, land, not to mention what the teacher (that’s me) brings—16 years of experience, education, and lessons learned through trial-and-error—the value of this program is immense. But I’ve kept the program at a cost similar to a CSA share because I really want people to give this model a try. I understand your life is packed, and I am very appreciative when you can prioritize being a part of growing your own food.

When determining if your budget can handle something you love, it’s often best to ask—“Is it feeding my soul?” If it is, then usually no monetary value can adequately illustrate the amount of joy, health, education and motivation it brings into your life. Proactive, positive energy carries over to other parts of your life, providing fuel that you didn’t have before.

And remember—if financial limitation is honestly the only barrier holding you back from participating, please inquire about scholarships because funding may be available.

What is Grow?

M R Gardens is offering a new opportunity for clients to be involved with the growing of their own food at our two-acre farm in the Oakley community. Called “Grow,” the program meets for a full year on a nearly weekly basis, starting October 24 with building the soil for the following spring. Grow participants learn how to cultivate food in diversified, ecologically sound gardens, and then take home the bounty, dividing up the harvest of vegetables, fruit, flowers and/or herbs.

M R Gardens is now interviewing potential students. To confirm that the program is the right fit, applicants go through a simple application process. Candidates can contact me (Megan) at 828.333.4151 to set up a meeting at the farm. The main requirements are an interest in a unique ecological way of landscaping, excitement about the work of gardening, the ability to help create a conducive learning environment for all in the group, and acceptance to others of different backgrounds and belief systems. Applicants should express interest as soon as possible, and the first payment is due October 20.

Grow offers education not only in the specifics of growing each particular vegetable and fruit, but also in creating a healthy system to support the crops. That includes beneficial microbes that convert the nutrients in the soil into a form that plants can uptake; beneficial flowers that attract pollinators as well as predators of garden pests; and native plants that are key elements of the food web. Participants also learn about naturalized landscaping, ground covers in place of grass, medicinal herbs, and seed starting in M R Gardens’ passive solar greenhouse, which is climate controlled by design with no additional heating or cooling.

The goal is to create ease and fun in growing food. When farming is concentrated in the hands of a few, it can become drudgery. On the other side of the coin, home gardening can be frustrating if the knowledge and the group structure isn’t in place.

Early September harvest
The Grow program is an exceptionally sustainable model of growing food. While there are a lot of promising advancements in all scales of organic and sustainable agriculture ventures, I gravitate to a farm size in which I can create the healthiest soil ecosystem possible. For me that means limited mechanization and more hands helping in the garden. I also give attention to the diversity of plants, insects and microbes—to all that surround the vegetables to help them grow—rather than solely concentrating on food crops.

Similar to a Community Supported Agriculture model, Grow offers residents an opportunity to essentially pay up-front for their produce for the coming year, therefore sharing in the risk inherent in farming. The difference is that the emphasis for Grow is on education and participation. While Grow students might not go home with quite as much produce as a CSA basket, they get to harvest unique, nutrient-dense fruits such as goumi berries and chokeberries, along with the typical vegetables that are in season. For some participants, it may be a relief to only take the amount of food they know they can handle that week.

Because of the structure of the Grow program, the weekly gathering in the gardens is something members look forward to. The education is hands-on, so most of the learning is through activities, such as preparing garden beds, planting, and tending the plants, rather than in memorization of facts and terms. While participants are physically active and are given opportunities to bustle if they so choose, most of the work is relaxing and meditative—or lends itself to conversation with others in the group.

Emerge into a new Hort profession

Budding ecological horticultural professionals may consider Grow’s parallel program, Emergence, which is designed for students who see themselves one day making an income from farming. As the Grow model expands to sites other than just M R Gardens, Emergence students are prepared to help coordinate these gardens. Grow can be replicated on sites such as businesses that hold the intent to better the lives of their employees and community members, or even on private property held by individuals wanting to share their space for group classes in exchange for an edible/native landscape install.

A few students of M R Gardens, who started out as volunteers, have already begun making a side income from gardening. After more than a year of learning here, Asheville resident Jenna Payne occasionally helps out M R Gardens’ landscape design clients, if Payne gets a break from nursing school and a midwifery apprenticeship in which she’s currently enrolled.
Owner Megan Riley
“Megan is a skilled teacher and mentor with the basis of her instruction focused on real-time, hands-on learning,” said Payne, who has been working off and on with various growers for a decade. She was struck with the uniqueness the M R Gardens style—the way of building the soil, of using ground covers in place of grass, and of integrating plants that naturally pop up in the garden.

“Megan's gardens are incredibly abundant despite the small scale,” Payne said. Most of the edible and native gardens are currently in a half an acre, with plans to eventually expand throughout the two-acre property.

Payne is particularly impressed by the care and attention that M R Gardens gives, which makes for strong, robust plants and also skilled students. “Megan excels at conveying her successful gardening processes and systems in a digestible, fun and applicable way to beginner or advanced gardeners,” Payne said.

More about the inspiration for Grow

The inspiration for Grow and Emergence is multifold. While the programs are in part a response to customers’ need to gain more vegetable growing knowledge and have greater success in the garden, we are also addressing an issue that persists despite the many films about food and agriculture that have been released in the last decade. The general public is still too removed from farming to fully understand all that is entailed—such as the resources spent, the skills required, and the timing and seasonality.

Over the years, I have also noticed a great need for connection. Community members are drawn to help out in the garden simply because they want to be around the plants and in a natural environment. When I give volunteers vegetables to thank them for their assistance, they often act like I am giving them too much, Just being here and participating was enough ‘thanks’ for them.

The programs are also way for me to share my lifestyle with others. I thoroughly enjoy my day-to-day activities of gardening, learning about the natural world, and having conversations with fellow gardeners, even in the midst of the vast amount of attention a business needs to grow.

Why should I be the one to have all the fun? There’s plenty here to go around.