At Home in the Garden


I grow plants for many reasons: to please my eye or to please my soul, to challenge the elements or to challenge my patience, for novelty or for nostalgia, but mostly for the joy in seeing them grow. –David Hobson

Growing up in Virginia, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, home gardens were everywhere. People had the space, time, and inclination to grow their own, and our front yard was large enough that my father kept a garden of considerable size. He grew everything from corn to jalapeños, and my mother canned a bumper crop of lush, red tomatoes every fall.

My adult life has been much more urban. From Spain to Boston, my twenties were all about charming little apartments in the heart of a city. When my husband and I finally bought a home of our own in Jamaica Plain, I knew that somehow, some way, I wanted to tend a garden in our small, urban patch of land.

So, two winters ago, on a dark February day, I ordered a Seed Savers catalog. When it arrived, I lay under a downy blanket, sipping a latte and savoring the delicious array of lyrical vegetables. Tommy Toe, Listadia, French Breakfast: tomatoes, eggplant, and radishes that would fill my garden. I imagined my three young children helping me to seed, weed, and harvest, their little fingers plunging deep into the warm, rich soil, our cedar plank box a place not just to nourish their growing bodies but also their curious minds. It would be a space for me to slow the relentless pace of a busy life. Nourishment. Peace. Contemplation. These were the seeds we would sow.

Such is the romance of the garden. The reality, as I discovered, was not quite so idyllic. Yes, we planted seeds. Yes, we harvested vegetables, especially herbs and eggplant, which grew wild and prolific as summer became fall. But my kale was devoured by fat green caterpillars, my lettuce overwhelmed by aphids and my tomatoes were untamed and blighted. There was so much that I didn’t know, so little time to learn it. I had no idea what books to read or what websites to trust. I have no friends who garden, no wise neighbors to advise me.

So, this spring, as I contemplated how to learn, harvest, and enjoy more this year, I turned to the growing cadre of home gardening consultants and companies ready to lend a hand and some expertise in times like these. I invited three of them into my garden to see what they had to say, and they were as lively, unique, and enriching as the gardens that they tend.

The first to visit is Renee Bolivar, of Gardens by Renee in Wayland, who comes through my door with a warm smile, a t-shirt reading Lettuce turnip the beet, and a little yellow violet in a sweet clay pot. “I like to bring all my clients a treat,” she says, but I soon suspect that the real treat is the woman herself. We connect immediately. Renee is talkative, high energy, and overflowing with a wealth of gardening knowledge. “I’m not just teaching people how to grow food,” she says, ”we’re growing together. It’s a relationship.” Perhaps she thinks of it this way because she learned much of what she knows from gardening with her mother as a child in Provincetown. “It’s the best memories I have,” she says.

As we step out back, Renee spots the chives that have regrown in the window box on the porch rail, running her fingers through them like a mother through a child’s hair. “They’ll come back every year,” she says, delivering my first lesson of the day. She also suggests I add nasturtiums to the box. “It cascades and is a gorgeous, spicy, peppery edible flower.” She strives to create gardens that are as beautiful as they are productive.

As we look over my 4’x4’ raised bed and the two large pots where I grew tomatoes last year, I tell her of my woes from the previous season: the bugs and grubs, my angst and anxieties. She listens, like a good therapist, then offers a wealth of enthusiastic advice. Hose off the aphids or deter them with homemade insecticidal soap, train your tomatoes to keep them in check, and spritz your brassicas—veggies like kale, broccoli, and cabbage—with BT (bacillus thuringiensis) every time you harvest. BT is a naturally occurring bacterium that is safe for people but will banish bugs. In just ten minutes, I have learned more than I had in the past year.

Intensive planting is Renee’s specialty, and she assures me it can be done, despite my lettuce jungle disaster from last year. And you don’t have to have a huge landscape to make it worthwhile. “If you grow just a little at your house, it’s huge. One bed can provide you lettuce from May until November,” she says, emphasizing that Massachusetts gardens can be productive well past the summer months. “You can set down carrots in the fall, put straw on them, and be picking carrots in December.” In addition to maximizing productivity, she emphasizes the environmental benefit, how we create ecosystems when we garden and the value of including edible and ornamental flowers that attract pollinators, luring in good bugs to keep the bad ones at bay.

As one mother talking to another, she advises me on vegetables that the kids will love. Ground cherries that come wrapped in a papery packet and taste like pineapples, purple amethyst beans whose bright green packaging reveals a violet interior, and sun gold cherry tomatoes. Does she know my kids, I wonder, thinking of the way they clamor for a pint of sun golds from the minute we arrive at the farmers market. “I only like summer tomatoes,” my oldest always says. What a dream it would be to have them ripe for the picking in our own back yard. By the time Renee and I are done, I am inspired and packed full of new information. She leaves with a hug, and texts me pictures in the coming days of new ideas for my space.

A few days later, just before my scheduled consultation with Family Farms Edible Landscaping, I receive a phone call. It’s Kurt Habel, the owner, and he’s turned around in the rotary-riddled roads of Jamaica Plain and unfamiliar with the GPS system in his wife’s car. It feels like a throwback to a time gone by, walking someone through directions in real time over the phone. He is a fast talker, and I pour another cup of coffee in hopes that I can keep up when he arrives.

In a short while, Kurt arrives and lays a stack of books and seed catalogues on my patio table, along with a vintage turquoise metal toolbox and a hand-drawn paper diagram for assessing where the sun falls. He wears a black hoodie and jeans and has close-cropped hair. Like Renee, he comes bearing gifts: seeds for dwarf curled kale and spotted trout lettuce, and a bag of wood ash from his own wood stove to fertilize my beds. “It’s a great source of potassium,” he says, offering a lesson in NPK—nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium—three garden soil essentials. The wood ash is K, he tells me.

Like Gardens by Renee, Family Farms was founded five years ago. Kurt has made his living restoring antique buildings, a career that still occupies much of his time, but he has always been interested in gardening—20 years ago he was writing articles on container gardening for the Boston Globe—and eventually decided that he wanted to plant more blueberries and paint fewer walls.

“More people call me to consult with them than anything else,” says Kurt, though he also loves to “put in the work,” installing beds or doing a “bust and feed,” turning over the soil and fertilizing in the spring so that home gardeners have a bed that’s ready to plant. He’s helped people with 20 years of experience get to the root of an outbreak of anthracnose—a fungal disease that affects tomatoes. He also created a 10-year growing plan for a young couple in Westford who wanted to create a sustainable farm on their property. They still e-mail him their progress and ask him for advice.

Kurt is a self-taught expert. He did not grow up gardening, but started in the mid-80s and soaked up information from books, workshops, and more experienced gardeners. He is a proponent of permaculture—introducing edible plants that will become a part of the landscape, preferably native species like blueberries or asparagus. His business letterhead reads: “Improving the North Shore one square foot at a time.”

Indeed, as we walk around the house, Kurt has an eye for squeezing things into small, unlikely places, maximizing on my minimal, urban space. He focuses on ways to expand beyond my bed and pots. A blueberry bush here, some pole beans there, even a long, skinny raised bed along the side of the house by our driveway. “That’s a lot of space,” he says, opening up a window of possibilities for strawberries, lettuce, and other greens. Through Kurt’s eyes, I see my yard in a whole new way, realizing that this little city lot holds untapped potential for real productivity.

My last consult is with Ben Barkan, who founded Home Harvest with a bike and a shovel in his hometown of Arlington, MA, when he was just eighteen. Now, seven years later, he arrives wearing a company t-shirt, bringing along his designer/operations manager, Adam Gray Monroy. As they step inside, Ben tells me they’ve already analyzed the microclimate in the front yard with their solar pathfinder. It is a deceptively simple gadget that takes into account latitude and longitude, different seasons, and allows you to see exactly what will block the sun through reflections on its plastic, domed top. It gives Ben and Adam the best possible sense of which areas get enough sun for gardening and what crops will do best where.

From the beginning—starting with an earlier phone call using Google maps street view—Ben has made the case that the front yard is going to be my most productive spot, and the solar pathfinder confirms it. My raised bed does get enough sun to grow in, but I can produce even more out front, he says. I am reluctant to plant vegetables on the edge of a Boston city sidewalk, but I have asked these people here to absorb their expertise, so I keep an open mind.

“The important thing is to hear about your goal. What would you be excited to grow? What would you want to see outside? What would your children be excited to harvest?” asks Ben. This idea of what clients want to produce as well as how they want their gardens to look is key at Home Harvest. Both Ben and Adam talk at length about holistic gardening, the importance of creating a physical space that is pleasing to the eye as well as productive, a place that draws you in. “Aesthetics is a pillar of sustainability,” says Adam. “The more beautiful it is, the more you value it, the more you’re going to keep it up, the longer it’s going to stick around.”

This is the heartfelt mission at Home Harvest: to create high-yield, inviting gardens that provide customers with fresh, healthy produce. They emphasize the importance of testing the soil before you plant, particularly in the city. Soil testing is the first step they take for any client, as is true for both Kurt and Renee, and its particularly important when children are eating from or working in the garden.

Together, they bring a wealth of formal training in sustainable agriculture, horticulture, landscape construction, and design, and they welcome the challenges that come with urban gardening. Ben’s staff includes stonemasons, carpenters, and educators that can tackle everything from custom patios, to chicken coops, to harvesting. They approach each job with a thoughtful and artistic perspective.

By the end of the consultation, I am completely ready to turn both sides of the front lot into raised beds. The idea is to fill the space completely, camouflaging the edibles with a mix of ornamentals, and surround it all with beautiful, blue-grey Goshen stone to match the walls of my next door neighbors. They emphasize how gardening out front can deepen the social fabric, and I envision warm summer evenings out front with my children, harvesting our dinner and chatting with the neighbors as they amble home from work, sending them home with a bowl of fresh greens or inviting them to join us.

Here, again, is the romance of the garden. And after so many inspiring, informative conversations, I feel a renewed sense of optimism that I can turn this vision into a reality. I may not have a gardening mentor in the house next door, but there is plenty of support to be had as I work to cultivate all my little plots of earth.

Follow all three companies on Facebook for seasonal tips, tricks, and planting timelines!

Gardens By Renee
Family Farms Edible Landscaping
Home Harvest

This story appeared in the Summer 2015 issue.