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This garden, created by The Edible Apartment, takes advantage of underused space in front of an apartment building.

What better way to begin the New Year than with a planting (or at least dreaming about) a new garden? Maybe you’re ready to revamp an existing garden. Or, maybe it’s simple: Plant some new, colorful pots on a patio or balcony to enjoy with a morning cup of tea.

Whether your project costs $50, or $50,000 we can apply some of the same principles:

1. Know your site. Take note of sunlight hours, irrigation sources and potential pest infestations before you begin. This should inform the kinds of plants you choose. If you are unsure, ask a neighbor whose garden you admire what worked for them, or visit a website or nursery where experts can direct you. For more inspiration and guidance, you can hire a designer, but that is not always necessary.

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Envision a beautiful garden instead of a scraggly lawn.

2. Know yourself! How much time do you want to spend on the project? This includes the design, the installation and the maintenance. How much time do you want to spend in the garden tending, weeding and watering? If garden chores are not your idea of fun or relaxation, make sure your new garden is designed for less maintenance. If the project is large or complex, it may be worth your while to pay someone else to do the “dirty work” so you can enjoy the final product when you get home from a long day at work. If you are honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do, you can outsource as needed. I’ve seen it so many times – a garden is only as good as its maintenance. It is no fun to go to the trouble and expense of creating something beautiful only to see it deteriorate because no one thought about long-term watering, weeding and trimming.

3. Know your budget. This is important. As a landscape designer for the past 15 years, people’s dreams often outpace their budgets. It’s wonderful to look at fancy magazines to get ideas, but keep it real. That way, you won’t be disappointed with the result, or worse, have a project that remains unfinished. If resources are limited, consider doing the project in stages, over a period of months or even years. More than anything, a garden teaches patience.

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Zinnias, snapdragons and cosmos thrive in a planting of kale.

4. Consider a “mixed” garden. Don’t limit yourself to one type of garden. Plant both ornamentals and edibles. Here at The Edible Apartment (TEA), we grow dozens of vegetables, greens and herbs alongside flowering plants that are native to our zone. That way we can grow food and enjoy beautiful blooms. You hardly need to go to the market when you have a grocery store of organic, just-picked produce right outside your front door.

5. Employ low-impact installation and maintenance methods. At The Edible Apartment, we use a special mulching technique before planting. To start, we cover the ground (typically an underutilized lawn) with overlapping sheets of cardboard (given to us for free by nearby stores). Then we water the cardboard and cover it with organic soil and compost. After that, we plant. It’s low impact and actually improves your soil’s health because once the cardboard decomposes, it adds organic matter (and carbon) the soil.
To keep the garden watered, I suggest using rain barrels to collect and re-use rain water. For larger areas, use drip irrigation or soaker systems and mulch the top of the soil to prevent evaporation. These are some of the methods we employ here in Los Angeles, where water is scarce, but our desire for beauty and fresh produce is not.

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It’s satisfying to harvest crops just outside the front door.

6. Compost. For the novice (or even experienced) gardener, this may seem like some “out there” science experiment, but trust me, it works. Composting is easy and fun. Get a large container to put all of your kitchen scraps, grass cuttings and brown leaves into, and turn it with a fork or shovel a couple times a week. In no time, last season’s banana peel will be next month’s handful of “black gold,” aka the most nutrient dense (homemade and free!) soil on the planet.

I hope that whatever the style and scale of your landscape, you’ll give a little thought to your project so that you can enjoy it for years to come. Gardening can be a bit intimidating if you are just starting out, but it doesn’t have to be. I once heard a talented and seasoned landscaper say. “The best gardeners are the ones that have killed the most plants because they weren’t afraid to go through a bit of trial-and-error to find out what works.” I suppose this is true of life both in and out of the garden.

Jill Volat

wp-jill-volatJill Volat is the founding executive director of The Edible Apartment, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that re-purposes underutilized land, especially around apartment buildings. TEA transforms these plots into organic urban farms, with the purpose of creating a sustainable food source, building community and promoting health. The mission of the organization is also to partner with veterans, teens and rehabilitation facilities to share the healing benefits and optimism that gardening brings. For more information, read Jill’s blog.