At the Morven Kitchen Garden farm, Fiona Flynn helps students and volunteers with little or no experience learn sustainable agriculture practices. (Photos by Dan Addison, University Communications)
From their lanes under the grow shelter, kale and lettuce fan up from the soil. Outside, Egyptian walking onions stretch their legs. Industrious bees from the cultivated hive nearby explore dead nettle, the ground cover of choice here. Happy clusters of daffodils look on.
Signs of spring are everywhere at the Morven Kitchen Garden farm, the 1.25-acre plot that the UVA Morven Sustainability Lab uses for teaching, and to some extent, feeding, UVA students and community members.
The plants growing at Morven, though, got their start over the winter. So what should this year’s would-be gardeners be thinking about now? UVA Today asked Fiona Flynn, the kitchen garden coordinator, for her best advice about getting started, or getting better at, making those incredible edibles grow.
Even on the small scale, agriculture can be aggravating. Weather, water, soil and sun all have to come together just right. And it’s not just newbies who make mistakes.
“Everybody does,” Flynn said. “I still experience crop failures every single year, multiple times a year. So don’t feel bad about that. It’s just try, try again.”
When one of Flynn’s student interns, economics and public policy major Jayna Mallon, began learning at the garden last spring, she didn’t know purple spinach from beets. These days, her thumb is much greener. She even gardens at home, too.
“It’s about being experimental with stuff and resilient, because sometimes you try something and it just doesn’t work,” Mallon said.
So now that you know it’s OK to fail, here are six tips Flynn says can help as you strive for gardening greatness.
“When you’re planning a garden for the first time, I say the No. 1 thing is access to your home,” Flynn said. “You’re gonna weed a spot that you walk by every day more often than you’re going to weed a spot that’s hard to get to. But the second thing is sunlight. You can change the soil and you can change the water to a certain extent, but if the sun’s not there, it’s not there.”
Flynn, the garden coordinator, shows off some of the green leafy goodness she harvested.
For people trying to make location decisions right now, she noted that the trees “haven’t leafed out yet.”
“You might see a spot that you think is really sunny, but look at where the trees are located, because once the leaves are out, they could shade over that spot,” she said.
Of course, some plants need more sunshine than others. Fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and peppers need at least six to eight hours of sunlight per day to bear substantial fruit. However, 10 hours of sun per day is preferred, she said, in order to get the best quality flavor.
2. Spring Has Sprung, But Check the Weather
On average in the Charlottesville area, the last frost tends to hit around April 15. That’s important because those tomatoes and peppers, and many other plants, can’t tolerate the extreme cold.
“Farmers and gardeners always have their eye on the weather,” Flynn said. “Some things like kale and lettuce, cabbage and carrots and onions, are actually great to go in now before the last frost.”
She noted that although some people like to take a break during colder weather, with Virginia’s relatively gentle climate, gardening can be a year-round affair.
“I like to eat 365 days a year. So I also like to garden 365 days a year, so that I always have something fresh to eat,” Flynn said. “I’m eating things like pea tendrils right now, which are a delicacy that you often don’t find in grocery stores. It overwinters with no protection.”
3. Amend the Soil Without Losing Nutrients
So you think you’re ready to dig in?
First, the garden coordinator said, you should work to avoid those clumpy lumps of prolific Virginia red clay: “Not only will you break your back trying to shovel it, but it is also hard for plants roots to get into. But with the addition of lots of organic matter, it will be much less compact.”
Next, when you’re prepping an area, use a tool that will loosen the soil without losing the nutrients.
Shovels can work, if you’re careful, but Flynn recommends an old-school tool called a broad fork. (Picture what the farmer is holding in the painting “American Gothic,” though more robust.) The long metal tines are spread far apart at the base, so as to penetrate deeply without completely disrupting the soil.
Flynn said compost should be added for further nutrients, but digging no deeper than six inches is needed.
“Disturbing the soil too much can do more harm than good,” she said. “That makes all the helpful earthworms and all the soil ecology that was living there run for the hills, because you're destroying their home.”
4. Learn To ID Plants Before You Weed
Sometimes food doesn’t look like food right away. Sometimes it looks scruffy, wild and misplaced.
In other words, like weeds.
“My interns come to me with very little experience,” Flynn said. “And there’s always at least one time where somebody starts weeding out something that they think is a weed, and it turns out that it was an economic crop that was planted in that area.”
John Luecke, an environmental thought and practice major from Virginia Beach, and Jayna Mallon, an economics and public policy major from Cranford, New Jersey, chat as they wash vegetables.
She said looking closely at every plant in the garden as it’s growing will help with future identifications.
“You know what things like kale and lettuce look like from the store. But what do they look like when they’re very, very young and you’re trying to weed around that to make space for that plant? And then also, on the other side, learn to identify your common weeds that you experience. Things like mugwort and dead nettle are super common this time of year.”
5. Monitor pH if You Wish, But Don’t Fret Too Much
Maybe you’re wondering at this point how much you should know about the makeup of your soil.
For some people, monitoring acidity and composition sounds like a lot of fun. For others, it all seems too much.
“I think it’s fine if people really get into this,” Flynn said. “But if you’re just starting, you shouldn’t feel like you have to go too crazy with measurements and buying. It depends on how big of a garden you have, and how much time and effort you want to spend on it.”
She said there are relatively inexpensive pH meters for those who wish to try them out. For most vegetables, though, a soil range of 5 to 7 pH works out just fine.
Some plants, like blueberries, however, have strong preferences for where they like to live.
“If you have a large garden, I do recommend getting a soil test once a year before spring so that you have time to work in amendments,” she added.
The areas of soil that often change are ones that either have had several plantings of the same type before, or ones that have suffered erosion, such as hilltop gardens.
6. Keep Trying – the Weather is Great!
No matter what, Flynn stresses, keep experimenting and persevering.
Flynn was born and raised in California’s Bay Area. She went to school in Iowa, where she farmed for a couple years. Then she farmed in upstate New York for a year.
Of all the terrains in which she has lived, she said, Charlottesville’s is perhaps the most forgiving. She said that should give local gardeners hope.
“Here I find it’s a happy medium,” she said. “We have a winter that is likely to kill most pests and other problems that we deal with in California, and we definitely have more water than California, which is really nice. There’s really only two months out of the year that you have to focus on irrigation. That’s July and August. But outside of that range, the water just falls from the sky; it’s amazing!
“And the winter is not terrible. In New York, I was buried under feet of snow all winter. Here in Charlottesville, we may have a few snows, but it doesn’t last too long. And we can get started gardening early in the season, which is great.”
Morven Kitchen Garden, a program of the Morven Sustainability Lab, provides more than 40 different fruits and vegetables to UVA students through UVA Dine, as well as to the general public through its community supported agriculture, or “CSA,” food subscription service.
Internships are available to UVA students taking at least 12 credit hours.
Morven Summer Institute students interested in food equity and sustainability founded the garden in 2011. The garden was recently incorporated into the Sustainability Lab. Led by faculty director Elizabeth K. Meyer, the lab will build upon the garden’s successful collaborations with students, faculty, local schools and nonprofits.