Call Me "Gardener"

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Rachael Brown


A few weeks ago, I came home from work to find my husband at the stove, stirring a fragrant pan of garlic and eggplant, and grinning triumphantly. "We got a plot!" he proudly announced. "Excuse me?" I responded.

Apparently, almost nine months earlier, Bryan had placed our names on the waiting list at Twin Oaks, the community garden a few blocks from our apartment in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. A spot had finally opened up. We were going to garden.

First, a little bit about us—I'm an Atlantic fact checker, and Bryan works in public radio. We've been married about seven months, and have lived in D.C. for almost five years. Neither of us has ever really gardened before, and we have, in fact, killed several basil and thyme plants on our tiny apartment window sill. But we do enjoy cooking. When we first moved to D.C., Bryan worked part-time for Fresh Farm Markets, the organization that runs the Dupont Circle and White House farmers' markets, among others. He got to know a number of area farmers and food activists, which increased our knowledge and interest in local, sustainable farming. Trying to grow our own food was the logical next step.

But I had a few reservations. First, our few forays into window boxes had taught me that amateur gardening can become expensive very quickly. And I worried that the garden would become more of a chore than a hobby. We have a difficult enough time prying ourselves out of bed to go to the gym—were we realistically going to add watering and weeding to our morning routine?

Over dinner that night, we settled on a plan. To offset the initial costs (a $30 garden fee, seeds and starter plants, organic fertilizers, etc.), we'll try to make the garden a significant source of our summer produce. Of course, in order for that to happen, we need things to actually grow. So we decided to arm ourselves with research, talk to other urban gardeners to learn from their successes, and try to pick hardy, productive crops that can survive the hot, humid, D.C. summer. And then we'll pray.

Not surprisingly, we discovered a vast wealth of resources for novice gardeners on the Web. A friend with a thriving vegetable patch (in the summer it looks like Whole Foods exploded in his backyard) pointed us to a handy planting guide from the Virginia Cooperative Extension to help us track the region's growing periods and planting dates. The D.C. Urban Gardeners blog contains a multitude of useful links for metro-area gardeners, even if it unfortunately no longer appears to be regularly updated. I also spent some time reading through the archives of Get Rich Slowly's year-long gardening project, in which a personal finance blogger tracked all of his family's garden work and spending, and found they were able to save hundreds of dollars by growing their own vegetables.

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Rachael Brown is a writer and analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. A former Atlantic editor, she has written for The Guardian and Smithsonian.com, among other outlets. She is also a former public high school teacher.

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