What I Learned from my First Garden

August 22, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

This year, I started my first garden—a micro garden really. I live on the third floor of an apartment building so I don’t own any land, but I do have a tiny balcony, and this summer I set out to put some life and color onto that balcony.

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The growing season starts late here because I live in the north, so I waited eagerly for a warm day in late May when the nights had warmed up well past freezing, then I visited a local garden store and purchased soil, plants, pots and a shovel.

I have essentially zero gardening skills, which is one of the reasons I chose to start practicing now, even with such a small space. My hope is that by the time I actually own a house and have some ground to plant in, I’ll have enough knowledge to be reasonable successful at it.

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I decided to plant mostly herbs—rosemary, chives, cilantro, and basil—plus two types of flowers. On a whim, I also purchased a tomato plant. I wasn’t incredibly hopefully that I’d be able to successfully grow it in my limited space, but I thought I’d give it a shot.

The balcony garden has been an enjoyable experiment throughout the summer, for reasons I didn’t even expect, which reach far beyond the food I produced in my harvest. 

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The first thing I had to learn was how often to water. I quickly discovered that—as with baking where you can’t really pull the cookies out of the oven until they are golden brown and slightly crispy on top, even if the timer has already gone off—gardening is also something that must be done by feel and sense. Just because the tag that came with the basil plant says water once a week, that doesn’t mean my basil will adhere to such guidelines. Just because a gardener friend says “Don’t overwater the tomato plants,” that doesn’t mean my particular windy and sunny balcony habitat won’t need a bit more water than a typical tomato. After a few weeks of observing my plants, I eventually fell into a rhythm of checking and watering them every couple days.

The second thing I discovered in this experiment was the veritable menagerie of creatures that my minuscule garden invited. Without the plants, my balcony was mostly just a collecting point for cobwebs, bird poop and the occasional stray leaf. But this summer, it became a temporary stopping point for all sorts of animals and bugs. Over the last couple months, I’ve observed birds, butterflies, lady bugs, bumblebees, worms, beetles and spiders on my balcony.

Plus, having the balcony outside my office window (I work from home) meant that I got to keep an eye on this activity throughout the day, as well as have a slice of nature right outside my window, through which I would otherwise just be seeing the backside of an old house and a dreary parking lot. My neighbors and friends who visited the apartment also commented that the flowers and herbs added a nice touch of color to an otherwise blank brick wall on the back of my building.

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The third thing I learned from my balcony garden is that growing your own food is incredibly satisfying. I knew this already from my forays into cooking and baking: For example, I started baking my own bread in February and have continued to do so every week since. It’s an immensely satisfying and surprisingly easy pursuit, and in the end, the bread tastes better, is better for you, and is probably cheaper (if you don’t factor in labor costs) than what you’d get at the store.

Gardening has been the same. Instead of running to the grocery store and buying a $3 box of basil that I’ll probably only use 1/3 of before it goes bad, now I just open my window, snip off some leaves and add it to my recipe. I get excited each time a new tomato blooms or a new stalk of rosemary shoots out of the dirt.

And the food just tastes better. My tiny tomato harvest was definitely more flavorful than the overly-plumped store tomatoes (even if I’ve so far only picked 4 ripe tomatoes). The basil became a delicious, fresh topping for several homemade pizzas and pastas. The rosemary made its way onto some roasted potatoes. The cilantro went in tacos. Combined with produce from the farmers market and other homemade items, I was able to eat an almost entirely local meal.

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The final thing I learned from my balcony garden was a greater value for food. With produce I purchased at the grocery store, I might’ve been okay throwing out a piece of basil that fell on the floor during the cooking process, or tossing a tomato that had a begun to rot in one corner. But with the food from my garden, I didn’t want to waste a single bite: A leaf that fell on the floor would be washed and put back in my salad. A tomato would simply have its rotten chunk cut out and the rest would be consumed.

By growing my own food, I felt a renewed sense of value for it, and for not discarding anything that wasn’t clearly inedible. I resolved to use produce clippings (the tops of carrots, potato peels, zucchini ends, etc.) to make vegetable stock. I’ve got a bag in my freezer where I’m saving it. This garden experiment has given me a greater appreciation for all the food I eat—no matter the source—as well as the people who grow it.

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This summer for my birthday, I spent a lovely evening on a farm with my fiancé eating an incredible dinner prepared by a local restaurant, with food from the farm. Truly a "farm to table" experience (and also every bit as hipster as it sounds). Talking to one of the farmers beforehand, my fiancé brought up the challenges of organic growing and the arguments against it: that it’s costly, that we should prioritize feeding the masses over feeding a select few who can afford to buy organic. That farmer responded swiftly that we actually can feed the whole world, and with organic food to boot. The problem of hunger is not a problem of supply, it’s a problem of distribution and waste. Indeed, approximately one third of all food grown and produced throughout the world is wasted and never eaten. A large percentage of that is fruits and vegetables.

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He might be the #1 fan of my garden

How does this all tie in with Strong Towns? I think that just as we aim to invest our cities’ time and money into projects that will be worthwhile investments—that won’t go to waste and sit empty or be insolvent in a decade—so too should we ensure that our investments in food production and purchasing are not wasted. This is important on an individual level (don’t buy or cook food you’re not going to complete consume), but also on a larger scale: Educate yourself on food systems; choose to buy from farms and restaurants that work to avoid waste; if you work for a food-related organization, advocate for better waste practices like reusing, donating, composting, or reassessing purchasing in the first place.

Or grow some of your own food and experience this for yourself.

(All photos by the author)

Rachel Quednau

Rachel Quednau serves as Communications Director for Strong Towns, has been a regular contributor and podcast host for Strong Towns since 2015. Previously, she worked for several organizations fighting to end homelessness at the federal and local levels. Rachel is a Midwesterner currently living in Milwaukee, WI with her husband, Jack. She draws from her experiences living in New York City, Washington, DC, Walla Walla, WA and Minneapolis, MN to help her build better places wherever she is. You can find her musings on Twitter @rquednau. One of her favorite ways to get to know a new city is by going for a run in it.

Tags: building resilient food systems, gardening, transforming food culture