Conscious Gardener Series: Natalie Carver

For episode 4 of the Conscious Gardener Series, Jimbo had the pleasure of chatting with Natalie Carver of Love & Carrots (well, at least until their phone connections eventually failed them)! Luckily, we were able to learn a lot about urban farming in the time we had! The majority of the interview is transcribed below, or you can listen here!

Jimbo: So I'd love to now introduce Natalie Carver. She's the director of horticulture and a garden coach with Love & Carrots. As I'm sure many of you - anybody in the DMV - know them very well. They’re a woman-owned, DC-based organic gardening company, they specialize in urban gardening - urban vegetable gardening, specifically.

Natalie: That was such a complete introduction! I guess I can fill in with what I do specifically with Love & Carrots as horticulture director. Basically, I run our greenhouse. So we propagate all of our plants for our gardens in the thousand square-foot greenhouse, and we have a team of urban farmers - so there's five of us - and we're going to three or four gardens a day, doing all the maintenance, coaching clients on how to grow their own space, and, yeah! That’s the basic parts of my job, growing plants and helping our team grow food, and teaching folks how to grow their own food, too.

Jimbo: Awesome, and so the whole staff, is it five? Well, you plus five?

Natalie: Our numbers are always in flux - right now there's about twelve of us and about half the team is our garden builders, half the team are farmers, and we have a few folks in the office keeping all of us organized.

Jimbo: Right! Now, you all must be so busy. I mean, so how many gardens do you have in a normal season? How many are you taking care of?

Natalie: Well, since we started in 2011, we've built over a thousand gardens in the DMV. So we're really making some - carving out some growing space all through the city. In any given season will install about one hundred gardens, and they can range from little patio gardens, herb gardens to full scale urban farms. And we maintain about a hundred and twenty gardens currently.

Jimbo: Wow. So you're going - you said three or four gardens a day, and it's just kind of a rotating schedule, and I'm guessing when you install a garden, the client can either opt in to have a maintenance plan with you all, or kind of take it over themselves. Is that right?

Natalie: Yeah, and a lot of folks just have us come in and build the garden. You know, we'll do the design of the installation, set everything up with irrigation, you know, do any landscaping. We'll come back to kind of our approach to native landscaping. And a lot of folks just want to do it themselves. Some people like a more hands off approach, so that's why we have our team of farmers to maintain gardens. You know, there's a lot of pests and disease management that goes into gardening, and our farmers are pros at that. And then some folks really want the coaching experience. So we kind of pitch it as a two year commitment, because you don't see everything you're going to encounter in the first year, so garden with us shoulder to shoulder for a couple of years. We do everything from seed to harvest, and it's a great way for people to build confidence and, you know, learn how to garden plan and maintain a garden.

Jimbo: Wow, that's really awesome. And so let's talk a little bit about urban gardening. I mean, it's becoming such a popular thing - especially with this pandemic - I mean, I'm guessing that you all had a bit of an influx and people wanting to learn more and become more self-sufficient, you know, be able to grow their own food, rely on themselves a little bit more. And it's such a - you really need to be able to adapt to these really unique small spaces, the sun conditions, you know, you don't have as many options. When I saw Meredith talk back in the wintertime, at Rooted D.C., that was one of her big talking points was talking about the sun. So when you go in and you're meeting a client for the first time, what is your process like to kind of set them up for success?

Natalie: Yeah. So every garden starts with a consultation, and we do some light reading - which is probably the most important part of the consultation - to figure out how much sun do you actually have and what doors does that open for growing. So, full sun garden, you can grow all of your tomatoes, peppers - they need eight hours of direct sun contact to really maximize productivity. A lot of gardens in the city, they're next to a big building, they’re on the north side of the street and may only get four to six hours of sunlight. So to those folks, we would say, you know, stick with your leafy greens, your kale, chard, leafy herbs like basil, cilantro - they don't need quite as much solar energy to make big fruit, they just need to focus on their leaves. So, yeah, we always start with sunlight reading and also to get a sense of what folks want. Some people want to grow as much food as possible. They want to grow all their own food and have enough to share. And some folks want an outdoor space to, you know, spend time in, host small gatherings, and maybe they want a patio instead of filling the space with raised beds. So it's all custom depending on the person and depending on the space.

Jimbo: Right. And so would you say there are a lot of people that opt for a raised bed or more of a container garden situation, given the space they have? I mean, is it difficult to work with the ground, you know, if it is even existing in some of these places? Are you bringing in a lot of topsoil or soil amendments to make it fertile?

Natalie: Yeah, that's definitely why we do raised beds. Urban gardens have terrible soil. A lot of times these yards are just back - what was dug up from the foundation before the house went in, and it might have lead contaminants, or could just be pure clay. So we also do a soil test to see if it has any contamination. But yeah, that's why we build raised beds. We do incorporate some of the native clay, you know, at the base of the bed, if it's lead-free. Native clay has a lot of minerals and nutrients - it's not all bad. It just needs some compost and things to lighten it up and make, you know, make a productive garden. We do bring in a lot of materials to make these gardens productive. And in the urban garden you need to.

Jimbo: And so what are your normal materials for a raised bed? I know Meredith spoke about cattle wells, like what cattle would drink out of, or you're going to build it up with wood. I mean, people have - that was something I had never thought of, and I really loved that idea that you don't necessarily have to go out and build it with wood, if you prefer other options.

Natalie: Yeah, there are a lot of container options, especially for people with limited amount of space. Those animal troughs are really great, they come in lots of sizes and you can grow a lot of food out of them. They have - anytime you're starting a garden at home, you want to have at least a soil depth of 12 to 18 inches. Most root vegetable plants, their roots will spread 12 to 18 inches under the ground, so you want to find something at least that deep. Two feet is ideal.

Jimbo: So let's talk a little bit about your introduction into gardening and also how you grew to come to find Love & Carrots and start working there. What's your background?

Natalie: I went to college out in Vancouver, British Columbia, and I studied anthropology, and did a lot of cool stuff in my young 20s. You know, I was a kayak tour guide and a yoga teacher, I worked at the Anthropology Museum. But my favorite part of the day was getting up in the morning and watering my little backyard garden. And I decided to pursue that. I thought, you know, if I love doing this so much, maybe I'll leave the city and try farming and doing this full time. So I found a farm in rural British Columbia - there's a great apprenticeship program called SOIL. It's in Canada, stands for Stewards of Irreplaceable Land. And it's kind of like WWOOFing, but they match farmers and apprentices for a whole season, and there's usually a stipend involved, so it's a little more sustainable and not quite like traveling. And yeah, I moved to the middle of nowhere and farmed for a couple of years and it was total immersion. But I felt like I was kind of hiding and was too young to be living out there, and made my way back to D.C. At that point, Meredith had just started Love & Carrots a couple of years earlier and, you know, it was like joining a startup that happened to be gardening. We just worked really hard building gardens, maintaining gardens, building relationships and word of mouth started, you know, just kind of carried us from one thing to the next. And yeah, now we're gardening for amazing restaurants, with community groups, and apartment buildings. And it's, you know, we've grown tremendously.

Jimbo: Wow. And so speaking of restaurants, are you usually building those gardens at the restaurants, or do you have any kind of offsite remote locations that you'll build on a bigger plot of land that can support either these community groups or restaurants?

Calico in Blagden Alley, D.C.

Natalie: Yeah, we have a couple gardens that are off-site for restaurants where we grow just specialty vegetables. But most of our restaurant work is - we make the patio, we make the kind of the jungle vibe setting, so, you know, in Blagden Alley we do Calico and Columbia Room. Those are kind of some of our more public restaurant gardens - those are both great bars, can't wait to start going back to them. Yeah, but because of the pandemic that, actually, that part of our business has been on pause just because the restaurants have been closed. So we miss our restaurant friends and look forward to getting back to it when they're in full operation.

Jimbo: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. What a time that will be. So let's talk about some of the most common challenges that gardeners and Love & Carrots faces when planting urban gardens. Obviously, sunlight is one of the biggest, pests are probably another big one. Can you just talk broadly - and maybe we can get into some specific pest management methods that you all have found?

Natalie: Yeah, I mean, pests are definitely the biggest challenge to growing here in D.C., especially with climate change. You know, as winters are more unpredictable, certain pest populations aren’t dying off, like aphids - instead of kind of subsiding, they just continue living through the winter and back up in the spring. And, you know, a lot of beginning gardeners just throw their hands up and say, “I don't know what's eating this” and, you know, kind of let things go. But organic gardening takes a lot of attention. And gardeners shouldn't be afraid to use sprays. We use sprays regularly, you know, always look for OMRI labeling, but organic doesn't mean no spray - it just means be mindful of what you're using. OMRI is the organic certification for pesticides and herbicides. It's like the organic label for garden products. As if you were shopping at the grocery store, you see the USDA organic logo - it's the equivalent for garden products. So, you know, I guess my advice to gardeners would be if something's eating your tomato, ask Google, you know, don't throw your hands up. Sometimes these problems have easy solutions and just a little bit of intervention will go a long way. And I'd also recommend row cover. So there's an agricultural fabric called row cover or Reemay. There's also different insect netting, and that's a great way to put a physical barrier between your plants and bugs that want to eat them - and you rely less on spraying. So if, a lot of folks, if you're growing kale or broccoli, collard greens, these are all in the brassica family and they just get devoured by lots of pests.

[We got disconnected for a few minutes at this point.]

Jimbo: Can you talk a little bit about your Adopt a Hive program? That's pretty exciting - I saw that on your website. You know, we're all about bees, so talk to us a little bit about that.

Natalie: Yeah, so we have a really fantastic beekeeper on staff. His name is Bill Bellhorn and he has an apiary with dozens of hives. And as a way to support this pollinator project, we've invited people to adopt a hive, so there's different tiers of involvement from twenty-five to seventy-five dollars. But you get to name a queen, named the hive. You know, we're not doing in-person tours, but Bill will give you a virtual tour of your hive, mail you some honey. So it's a great way to, you know, support a local apiary and support your hive.

Jimbo: Oh, that's so cool! That's really awesome. So one of our big things that I talked about is native plants. Now, I know you all specialize in vegetable gardening, but we've had a lot of success in personal gardens with companion planting. You know, we talked about - one of the viewers asked about ladybugs. So bringing beneficial insects to control the bad bugs and planting natives can be a great source for bringing in those beneficial insects. Do you all do any of that in your gardens, if there’s space?

Natalie: Yeah, absolutely. We usually plant just vegetables in the raised beds because they need that high compost soil. But in the surrounding borders, in the ground, we often incorporate a little native landscape and perennial garden. So there are some classics that we like to plant, you know, echinacea, yarro, milkweed. Those are all, you know, butterfly and bee magnets. And, you know, they're also just enjoyable - they make for a really nice space. And it's amazing, they do work. You plant the smallest patch of perennial flowers and the bugs, the beneficials will find them. And yeah, even just a small space, it's worth giving the beneficials some something to forage. And it's good for the vegetable garden, too, you know, a lot of crops like zucchini and cucumbers, they need to be pollinated by insects. So the more beneficials you have, the more you know - you'll have more successful [crops], specifically those two, squashes and cucumbers.

[Unfortunately at this point we lost connection with Natalie.]

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