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How much space counts as a garden?

Potted BasilA story on NPR in January focused on a study of urban gardening in Chicago, the purpose of which was to discover the amount of space being used for growing food. The researchers tried to verify the community garden projects from compiled lists and found them inaccurate and not comprehensive. They turned to Google Earth to examine satellite imagery of the city and, over a period of eight months, found 4,648 sites of food production or a total of 65 acres. They counted everything– backyard gardens, vacant lot gardens, rows of plants.

The definition of what makes a “garden” has to be a flexible and generous one. Although some grand gardens may require a staff to care for them, a garden is basically a plot of land for growing flowers, vegetables or fruits. A garden can be any shape or size, depending on the time, energy, space, desire and dedication of the gardener.

Sometimes the “ideal garden” that exists in a person’s mind sabotages the garden that could have been. I know people who have been overly ambitious in planting a first garden, motivated by the idea of having some of “everything.” By mid-summer those gardens are usually a bitter disappointment, their upkeep exceeding the time or energy the gardener had to spend. Those gardens are usually one-hit wonders that quickly fade into history and back into lawn.

The winter gardening season — the time of dreams and plans — seems to be the best time to assess how much space to devote to a garden. A gardener needs to make decisions based on available time, space and energy. Is summer going to be busier than usual or less busy? Was last year’s garden too big, too small or just right? Now is the time to make plans and choices– not when standing in front of the seed display tempted by colorful packages, not when filling one’s arms with seedlings.

For the new gardener, these questions of garden size are harder to answer. My advice is to start small. A 4’ x 4’ garden, for example, of favorite vegetables will not feed a family all summer long, but it can be the first step in the adventure of gardening. Growing a couple of potted tomato plants or herbs on the patio may be all the gardening a person can do this summer, but it’s a fine place to start with growing food to enjoy. A successful garden is more fun than an abandoned bed overwhelmed with weeds. Starting a garden with reasonable expectations and commitments is the surest way to succeed.

The answer to the question of how much space counts as a garden can be as small or large as a gardener wishes. The wise gardener is the one who knows how much garden fits in one’s life rather than how much garden fits in one’s yard.

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