Nurturing gardeners: Food garden coaches are helping homeowners get out of the gates
OK, who out there has aspired to plant an organic vegetable garden but has no idea how to start?
Four gardening tips
Here is some gardening advice from Rita Bachmann of Rita’s Roots Backyard Harvest:1. Start with the soil: “You want really good soil with lots of live compost, not from bags. It’s my opinion, but I don’t think being housed in plastic for a long time has a lot of life in it,” Bachmann says.2. Keep it simple: “Don’t try to overwhelm yourself at the beginning. Pick a couple of vegetables you’re interested in and learn about them. Each vegetable is a little different. Some you start from seeds, some you plant in January, February or March.”3. Visit your garden every day: “Even spend time hand watering it because you really get to look at the plants and keep an eye on them, identify bugs, see if they turn yellow.” 4. Get high-quality seeds and plants: “I always think it’s better to order seeds from a commercial catalog. Johnny’s and Baker Creek are my favorites. They sell heirloom varieties. They sell to commercial growers, so their seeds are very high quality..”
Or actually planted one and failed miserably?
Probably a significant portion of readers would raise their hands in the affirmative to one of those questions.
Having a vegetable garden, and perhaps a few fruit trees or bushes, seems so simple, right? Grandpa reaped harvests. Hipster adults are starting community gardens.
Why not you?
Because it’s not as easy getting started as it may seem.
Help has arrived in what appears to be an offshoot of the local food movement: garden coaches.
While professional gardeners have been making a living in Charleston for decades, if not centuries, they have focused primarily on nonedible ornamentals and are more like hired help. Coaches offer their expertise to help you get started and, ideally, want you and your family helping out.
Think of the old saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Rita to the rescue
Thirty-year-old Rita Bachmann is among the local experts who has been food garden coach for a year.
Rita to the rescue
Despite being relatively young, Bachmann brings a decade of experience to the table, er garden, and developed quite a loyal local following with Rita’s Roots CSA (community supported agriculture) before moving to Virginia in 2010 for a year.
With the CSA, Bachmann had a knack for communicating with customers, who often asked her questions about gardening. After moving back in 2011 and working part-time for Sweet Bay Produce, a hydroponic lettuce farm, she and her father conjured up the idea for a business being a residential garden coach.
Seizing on the recognition of Rita’s Roots, she called the business “Rita’s Roots Backyard Harvest,” but jokes that she considered calling it, “The Garden Fairy.”
“I sent out an email to my old CSA customers that I was going to do garden coaching and to set up organic gardens in people’s yards. The responses were good enough that I was able to quit the job with the steady paycheck and do Rita’s Roots Backyard Gardens.”
Bachmann, who also works part time as a mentor at Lowcountry Local First’s Dirt Works Incubator Farm, is working with 15 families across the Charleston area from the Isle of Palms to Folly Beach. Her going rate is $50 an hour, but includes a lot of planning, planting and preparation off the clock.
The process starts with a meeting with homeowners in the yard and talking about what they want and where so that Bachmann can diagram a plan and then prepare beds. She takes them through the steps from soil preparation to watering properly, weeding, staking and pruning.
“We go through the whole growing season together, so they can understand,” Bachmann says.
She adds that her coaching also reflects the distinct growing environment of the Lowcountry.
“The seasons are so tricky down here. It’s taken nine years of learning to get where I am today. We live in a microclimate on the coast. We’re in between (U.S. Department of Agriculture planting) zones ... and our season usually starts early and goes fast. You have to get plants in before temperatures heat up too fast,” says Bachmann, adding that July and August are “so sweltering that nothing wants to grow.”
One family that she’s worked with for a year already is the Walldorfs of Sullivan’s Island.
“We’re trying to grow our own stuff and eat our own food, but we were struggling,” recalls Jena Walldorf, noting that she found out about Bachmann through Mickey Brennan at The Sprout in Mount Pleasant.
On a cool spring afternoon two weeks ago, the Walldorf garden was brimming with sweet peas, carrots, kale, strawberries and other seasonal produce. Besides the food, another benefit for parents and Bachmann herself is that she encourages involving children in the process.
Walldorf’s young daughters, Kate and Evie, love when “Miss Rita” comes over, usually once every two weeks. As some studies are starting to show, children who garden also tend to be more likely to eat vegetables and fruits.
“If they grow it, they will eat it,” Walldorf says. “They will pick stuff right out of the garden and eat it. They ate carrots before, but they love the purple carrots out of the garden ... and they will drink anything that I juice — kale, whatever — that I get out of the garden.”
Bachmann has become such a part of the girl’s life that their teacher wants her to come back and talk to their classes at Ashley Hall School.
“Rita ... not only helps us, but teaches us what we’re supposed to be doing. My hope is that when I get older I’ll be the gardening grandma,” Walldorf says.
Meanwhile, one of Bachmann’s newest clients, Anne Bennett, lives just two doors away from the Walldorfs.
“I’ve been thinking about doing a garden and kept putting it off,” says Bennett, recalling a nightmarish failed attempt six years ago. “When I heard about Rita, I thought, ‘This is my chance.’ Rita came out, and we consulted and came up with a plan. I’m really, really excited.”
Bachmann isn’t alone in her endeavor. But just like every CSA is a tad different, garden coaches are, too.
Nate Davis, 33, is taking his experience on farms from the past four years, including Thornhill Farms in McClellanville, and applying it not only in organic fruit and vegetable gardens, but mobile livestock housing, soil and pasture fertility, grazing management and composting.
Like Bachmann, he strongly believes his role is in teaching others to do for themselves.
“When I tell people that they can grow more food in their suburban backyard than they can eat in a season, it excites them, but most just don’t know how to get started,” Davis says.
“For societal and economic reasons, folks want to eat better and want to know where their food comes from. Having a backyard garden is a big part of that.”
Germaine Jenkins of Urban Veggucation, who was featured on the cover of Saturday’s People section in The Post and Courier, is focused on helping teach people gardening techniques, including methods used in permaculture, and connecting them with resources for free or inexpensive seeds, plants and tools.
The new wave
Elizabeth Beak of Crop Up does limited coaching for home gardens, focusing more efforts on community garden projects, but says food gardens in yards are an emerging and important part of the local food movement.
The new wave
“Not since the victory garden movement in the 1940s have people been this interested in growing their own,” says Beak, noting that the Palmetto State has an even longer heritage of homeowners growing their own food.
She pointed to a guidebook called “The Southern Gardener,” published in 1871 by Dr. Henry Ravenel.
“This was used to help homeowners grow their own food after the Civil War, because many of the plantations and farms had been destroyed. In the 1940s, some 215,000 ‘victory gardens’ were planted in South Carolina cities and towns in response to food shortages and transportation issues during World War II.
“Today, with rising health care costs, we see a renewed interest and need for good, clean, and fair food.”