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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Off-site gardening: Factors to consider before starting roots away from home

Joining a community garden or using extra space in a friend's yard is a great way to grow crops when you don't have room at your own home. You may also know a business or school willing to loan you an area for the summer. Another option is to do as reader Dave Bentz did and purchase vacant lots in his city to convert to gardens. 

I have done three different gardens away from home: a community garden plot offered to university students; part of my husband's grandma's yard, which we shared with his brother; and, most recently, a section next to our friend's cow pasture in our town. My kids called this the "cow garden". We lived in an apartment for the first two gardens, but raised a home garden at the same time we had space near the cow pasture. 

No matter what kind of off-site garden you pursue, maximize the experience by considering these factors:

1. Time. 

This is the single most important factor. Be realistic with how much time you can devote. Include travel time. We dedicated Mondays to take our children to the cow garden and work together. Without a scheduled commitment it is far too easy to say, "Eh, we'll just get to the garden later." Such was the case with our first off-site garden, the university one. Although I was super excited for the plot, the garden fell by the wayside behind our busy jobs and school, fatigue from my first pregnancy and the fact we had only one car. The garden was too far for me to walk when my husband used the vehicle on his job. Excuses, excuses. 

2. Location. 

Go close! If that's not feasible, find a spot that you pass during your regular commutes and routines so you can keep an eye on the garden beyond your scheduled days to work there. Use the same criteria as you would siting a home garden: Does it get adequate light? Fences, trees or other structures that cast shade should be north of a garden area. Afternoon sun (from the west) is harsher than morning light.

3. Space.

There is a space/time relationship just like there is a location/time connection. The bigger the space, the more time it will require to set up and maintain. If you are using a space larger than your home garden you may need to expand your thinking, too. For example, our first summer at the cow garden we planted veggies as close together as we do at home in their grow boxes. If we had known how ferocious the weeds would become, we would have allowed space between plants for a rototiller. 

4. Water

Does the plot have access to water? This is a must in dry climates. Will you pay for water? Is it a sprinkler system, hoses or both? If it is sprinklers, do you have a contact person readily available if something goes wrong with the pipes? (Another reason to check your garden regularly.) One of the biggest contrasts between my home garden and the off-site cow garden (raised simultaneously) was in the watering method. At home I use soaker hoses, drip lines or water plants by hand with a watering can. I seldom get weeds because the ground between plants is not watered. The cow garden's shooting sprinklers, however, watered EVERYTHING. The weeds went wild. The cow garden automatic sprinklers were high on stakes. This overhead water delivery, and the frequency of it, caused more powdery mildew and fungus problems in foliage than I ever had at home. Squash and tomato plants did not fare well, and the tomato skins frequently split.

5. Soil. 

Will it need extensive improvements? If the area has not been used for recent plantings, find out what was there in the past -- old leaky cars could suggest chemical leaching.  It may be worth your while to do a soil test first. At the cow garden, in spring our friend cleaned his barn and spread the manure into the plots. Since the cows had been feasting on weeds, those seeds simply got relocated. The weeds were bionic. 

6. Sharing.  

If you share the space with someone else discuss the division of duties at the beginning of the season. Maybe you work together to till the soil in the whole area and join forces again in fall to clean up. How will you set up traffic areas so that no one's plantings are trampled? Be courteous when planting your crops, remembering that tall ones, like corn, can cast shade or block sprinklers. Pumpkins, squashes and other vine crops will amble well past their boundaries. (There's a reason my kids called it the cow garden!)

Yum, banana squash. Moo.

7. Equipment.

Are tools, hoses and other implements on the property or will you need to bring your own each time you come to your garden? Consider keeping gloves, a spade and a harvest bucket in your trunk so you are ready for impromptu visits.

8. Commitment for the season.

Are you relatively certain the property where you garden won't change hands before the growing season ends? I appreciate that our cow garden friends didn't open up their property for gardening last spring, on the off chance they would need to sell. They didn't want someone to go to all that work without the harvest.

So there you have it. Off-site gardens can supplement your own backyard farm or give opportunities to people who have no space otherwise. I fear my disdain for the cow garden weeds and watering issues came through loud and clear in this post! Still, I am grateful for these new gardening lessons, and to have extra space to produce a harvest like the one above, all picked on a beautiful September morning.

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Bonnie Von Dohre said...

Love your harvest photo! I wish I could produce something like that. We are seriously lacking in the sunlight department because we're in the woods. I hadn't thought about an offsite garden, although I've thought about leasing land for livestock. I would definitely need to keep myself disciplined. I'm bad enough about maintaining my small onsite garden. LOL

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barbara judge said...

Excellent suggestions on community garden. -- barbara