"There are several ways to lay out a little garden; the best way is to get a gardener."
This extremely good advice comes from Czech playwright Karel Capek's charming 1929 book The Gardener's Year.
Slate has a guide for the beginning gardener to encourage novices to grow some flowers on their own. But it's much easier learning from an actual helpful human being.
We can all agree that it's pretty sad to look at bare earth in front of or behind your house when it could be pretty and productive. Yet many homeowners fear to begin, worried that plants will die, money will be wasted, and they will be mocked by their neighbors for their pathetic efforts.
There are two excellent and relatively inexpensive cures for this common horticultural neurosis. First, several lucky U.S. cities have new services that will give you an instant backyard vegetable farm.
Second, many cities have a new species of helper—the garden coach—who will do much of the initial hard work and then teach you how to maintain your new ornamental garden.
Both these alternatives are inexpensive compared with hiring a landscape architect who will probably recommend a scheme involving boulders, spectacular nighttime lighting, dramatic beds of many plants of the same beige ornamental grass, and a fire pit or two.
A less expensive and more common solution is to hire a landscaping company. Quality varies, but too often the underpaid crew will roll out the sod, plant a skinny tree in the new lawn, and stick a few evergreens next to the house before rushing on to their next project of the day. Your landscape job won't offend the neighbors, but you won't have much to look at or anything to eat.
These places have a nearly year-round growing season. Seattle and Portland can freeze (right now, Seattle has snow); the deal would be different for Buffalo. As their entertaining video demonstrates, My Farm can put in a vegetable garden in one day. The cost: $500 to $1,800 for the installation, $50 to $250 per week for maintenance. The gardeners come on bikes, one pulling a trailer full of tools up the hills. Gasoline is consumed only by the truck that delivers a mix of compost and topsoil. The service includes a weekly visit for weeding, irrigation, and pest control. The client, if so minded, need never touch the soil: My Farm gardeners will harvest the little garden's vegetables and put them in a box on the doorstep.
The founder of the San Francisco company, Trevor Paque, is a one-man embodiment of our changing economy. He left his job as a mortgage broker to become an urban farm creator. He has plenty of clients with an interest in locally grown food, not to mention fresh arugula for the prosciutto sandwich, lemongrass for the stir-fry, and cilantro for the fajitas—but no experience. The Portland and Seattle companies both have waiting lists. Their cost is about the same. For this, you become the ultimate locavore; your food travels about 25 feet from garden to table, less if you eat outside. All that these superfarmers require from you is a source of water and that some part of your yard have at least six hours of sunlight.
The garden coach, by contrast, will rouse your enthusiasm so that you want to get your hands dirty. It's a jump-start, said Susan Harris, the Takoma Park, Md.-based doyenne of the national movement, for someone who doesn't want to take the time and make the mistakes. A few years ago, there were a handful of people calling themselves garden coaches; now many are getting organized.
There's no certificate or formal quality control for garden coaches, so it's advisable to interview the prospective gardener as carefully as you would a child care provider. Most bill $30 an hour or more. (Harris charges $80 an hour.) A garden coach wouldn't build you a patio or install irrigation or the trendy fire pit. Rather, you'd get appropriate plants for your climate and site, maybe some stepping stones, and advice about which plants need a long soaking from your hose.
An experienced garden coach is particularly useful for someone moving into a place with an existing garden. He or she would tell you what to keep, what to prune, and what to get rid of.
Both of these forms of garden help—the instant farm and the coach—give you the advantage of having an adviser knowledgable about local conditions. Further, if you sign up for the continuing help, they provide the single most important factor in a successful garden—steady attention. They're people with a stake in the success of your personal victory garden. If these catch on in a big way, we might look down from a plane flying over American cities and see a gorgeous patchwork of vegetable plots and flower gardens.
Of course, since no interest group can resist giving advice to the new president, there is a movement from the Pollan-istos to persuade the Obamas to pull up the lawn on some portion of the White House's 18 acres and plant vegetables. Alice Waters, founder of the Bay Area's Chez Panisse restaurant and of the organic vegetable garden at Berkeley High School, nagged the Clintons about this for years. The president was on the verge of starting his vegetable plot when along came Monica Lewinsky. How different the history of the Clinton administration might have been if that energy had been put into beets and Brussels sprouts.
Should the Obamas wish to have a vegetable plot, my advice is to smart small and get plenty of help. One could do worse, in the help department, than to hire Trevor Paque or Donna Smith and Robyn Streeter of Portland's Your Backyard Farmer. They would need assistance from someone who understands the sticky summer climate of Washington, D.C.
What you really don't want, at home or in the capital, is a victory garden that gets defeated. That's almost as sad as the memorial tree that dies. There will, however, always be a White House lawn. It wouldn't work for those prettily dressed children to be rolling their Easter eggs around the asparagus and over the okra.