The Creative Vegetable Gardener lends a helping hand and green thumb to aspiring growers

If you’ve been hoping to get a vegetable garden growing – either for fun and relaxation or simply to take the sting out of encroaching food bills – there’s a fair chance you feel a little lost right now.

Following an April deluge that would have likely made Noah blanch, Madison-area residents no doubt feel entitled to a spectacular growing season. Unfortunately, many greenhorn gardeners are still comparatively heavy on the sowing and light on the reaping, and rank newbies often don’t know their cress from a hole in the ground.

“I can help you skip over some of the most common mistakes that people make, and I’ve found that sometimes if you make too many of those mistakes that gardening isn’t very fun.” – Megan Cain, The Creative Vegetable Gardener

Well, Megan Cain can sympathize. As owner of a new start up called The Creative Vegetable Gardener, Cain has made it part of her mission to turn mild-mannered urbanites and suburbanites into lifelong gardeners. But she definitely didn’t start out as a gardening savant.

“I only learned how to garden about 12 years ago,” said Cain. “I grew up in Philadelphia in a really urban area, and I don’t think I ever saw a vegetable growing in the soil until I moved to a farm about 12 years ago.”

That changed when Cain grew weary of urban living and moved from the heart of San Francisco to an intentional community in Missouri that was focused on ecological living and sustainable farming.

Indeed, it was during her year and a half in that setting that Cain learned the nuances of growing food organically. And after moving to Madison, the idea for a new business venture began to germinate.

“Since then, I’ve done a lot of teaching of adults and kids, teaching people how to grow food, and over time I’ve started to learn what things people don’t know and what some of the obstacles are for people in gardening,” said Cain. “So my vision would be to have lots of beautiful gardens that produce a lot of food all throughout the city. Gardens have become a lot more popular in the last few years, and I think there’s a lot of information out there, but people are often overwhelmed and don’t know what information to follow and don’t know what to integrate into their gardens.

“So I’ve learned a lot over the last few years and what works, especially in this area, and decided I wanted to share it and help other people.”

A gardening resurgence

It appears that Cain has decided to break ground at just the right time. After the economy hit the skids in 2008, vegetable gardening experienced something of a renaissance. Add in the growing influence of the local food movement, a heightened interest in urban gardens in recent years, and a health food push from none other than the first family, which in 2009 planted the White House’s first vegetable garden since World War II, and you have an environment that may well be ripe for Cain’s service.

Of course, any savvy consumer who’s keen on trimming his or her monthly bills (rather than just puttering in a garden) would be interested in knowing the return on investment of a service like Cain’s.

While there are many variables involved in determining how much can be saved on grocery bills by planting a garden, one study, by the National Gardening Association (and sponsored by ScottsMiracle-Gro Co.) found that the average gardening family spends $70 on its garden and reaps approximately $600 of produce.

Considering the added premium that shoppers put on organic and farmers’ market fare, the value of a vegetable garden appears to have a fairly high ceiling.

That’s where Cain comes in. Her goal is to help gardeners avoid the painful trial and error that often comes with planting and get the most out of their gardens.

“You can bumble around on your own for years and then, yeah, eventually you’re going to figure a lot of things out,” said Cain. “There’s a lot of trial and error along the way, but I have installed lots of gardens and worked in lots of gardens, so I know what works, and that’s what I can offer my clients.”

More fun, more food

Cain, who designed and tended the demonstration garden at the Wisconsin State Capitol for the past four years, said she’s also interested in keeping people’s initial passion for gardening stoked.

“I can help you skip over some of the most common mistakes that people make,” said Cain, “and I’ve found that sometimes if you make too many of those mistakes that gardening isn’t very fun, and then you don’t stick with it. So we can skip over some of the mistakes that are elementary and sometimes hang you up, and you can move onto some of the more sophisticated mistakes [laughs].”

For those who aren’t quite sure how much they want to commit to a gardening consultant, Cain offers several entry points.

The most basic level of service is Cain’s free blog at creativevegetablegardener.com, where she seeks to educate people about the ins and outs of gardening. She also teaches classes around town, including at the Willy Street Co-op and Olbrich Gardens.

The next level of service includes her private gardening consultations.

“I will come to a property for an hour and you can ask me anything you want, and I can offer suggestions and help you come up with some action items to improve your garden,” said Cain. “Or once in a while, there are people who are thinking about starting a garden, and often it’s about just making sure they’re on the right track, or they have specific questions they need help with.”

 

Cain also offers garden designs and action plans for people who think they want to do all the work themselves but don’t know where to begin. Here, she maps the garden out for the client, figures out the design, and walks the client through the installation, giving him or her a plan that can be followed step by step. The custom garden design includes a map of sun exposure in the garden, suggested bed layout and measurements, and recommended crops with a planting schedule.

Finally, for people who want to spend less time getting their hands dirty, Cain can design and install the garden, and even take care of the planting, replanting, and harvesting throughout the season.

She also offers a service called the Grow Local Gardeners Project, which provides gardeners, via email, a list of tasks to perform and crops to plant each week. The service includes consultation sessions and access to The Creative Vegetable Gardener’s resources. In addition, she has an online shop featuring garden supplies, garden bed kits, T-shirts, posters, and more.

For Cain, all that is part of helping people make gardening a more pleasurable experience and getting the most out of their efforts.

“I spend a lot of time gardening, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time on what I see as inessential tasks like weeding for hours,” said Cain. “That’s something you can make sure doesn’t happen in your garden, by mulching your paths and mulching your beds. So, yeah, we talk a lot about increasing production and also setting yourself up so that you have a low-maintenance garden.”

Of course, few people will ever get serious enough about gardening to come close to feeding their families, but for Cain, anything that gets people thinking about eating more local food is a mark of progress.

“For me, it’s kind of another little vision of this larger vision,” said Cain. “I think when people start to grow their own food, they become even more appreciative of the farmers market and farms, and I think you understand more about how difficult it is to grow food, especially on a large scale. You battle the weather and you battle insects and pests, and people begin to see the value in local growers and supporting them.

“It’s very difficult to grow all the food you would need when you live in the city, so if everyone had a garden, probably more people would shop at the farmers market, because once you get a taste of homegrown food, you’re much less liable, I think, to buy something from China that has no taste.”

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