Nicole Burke has believed in the power of growing your own food long before it became a pandemic pastime. After she quit her job at a philanthropic consulting firm in 2008, Burke says she started a garden in her backyard and it made her realize what was missing from her life.
Since then, she’s been convinced that everyone should have a space at home for growing fresh produce and herbs, or what she calls kitchen gardens. Burke founded Rooted Garden in 2015, which installs herb and vegetable gardens throughout Houston, Texas. Two years later she wanted to provide people with more accessible gardening education and launched Gardenary. The company has created a virtual network of gardeners and provides online gardening classes and pairing seasoned local growers, or gardening consultants, with newbies.
This week Burke spoke with Modern Farmer about how business has been taking off like never before. She told us what a garden consultant does and how she’s hopeful that the resurgence of home-grown food is here to stay.
Modern Farmer: You’ve talked about bringing back this idea of a “kitchen garden”. Can you explain what a kitchen garden is and how is it different from a regular vegetable garden?
Nicole Burke: It’s a place that’s tended to more. It’s often smaller and you grow things that are more prolific so that you can harvest them more often. It’s just kind of a constant traffic lane where you’re pulling things out and bringing them in. If you picture the harvest basket from the kitchen garden, on the outside, you’re going to have tons of herbs. And then you’re going to have like a big stack of greens and then you’re going to have like a little bowl of fruit.
MF: It seems that more people are gardening now because of the pandemic. How are you seeing that translate to your business? Have things picked up?
NB: With Gardenary, we have enrolled more than 300 new gardeners from all over the country in my gardening certification program since the pandemic hit. We also just signed up new ones from Australia and New Zealand.
Some of them have come out of COVID-19 and lost their job. We have a good number who we’re in the entertainment industry and that’s slowed down. They’re wondering “what’s next for me?” I dream of a time when the profession of gardening is profitable, and people could become garden consultants and support their family this way. I think that’s one of the exciting things that could come out of this.
MF: Part of Gardenary involves pairing people or helping them find experienced growers, or consultants in their area. Could you describe what exactly a gardening consultant does?
We try to do the heavy lifting for the client so that they can focus on learning how to grow rather than setting up a space. It’s tons of work to get started. It’s like redoing your house. Our job is to create a pathway of success for the client who is beginning their garden journey.
We help address problems like “I feel overwhelmed, I just went to Lowe’s and bought way too many plants that all died,” to “I go out to my garden and when I see pests, what do I do?” We take them through the process of first growing herbs and greens to growing and setting up a full kitchen garden with roots and fruits.
MF: What advice would you give to new or aspiring gardeners right now?
NB: Consumer culture has taught us the minute you want to start something, go buy something. But if you want to learn to garden don’t just go buy a bunch of plants, you’re going to disappoint yourself if you have no idea what you’re buying.
Our country also does a horrible job of explaining plant products and telling you the backstory. When you buy a plant from the store, it’s like adopting a child. You should be treating it the same way it was treated for months prior. Slow down, find a great teacher, surround yourself with people who are growing and learning the same thing that you want to learn. Then make a plan.
MF: Are there common gardening myths or misconceptions you or other consultants often run into with new clients?
NB: What I realized many years ago is there’s a gap here in knowledge and experience, because people just run out to buy Miracle Grow grown tomatoes. We still have a really huge misconception about production.
So many clients will say “I just want one pepper plant because I don’t like peppers that much. I just want to have like three or four a week.” And you’re like, “oh, you’re gonna need more than one plant.” Because we are so disconnected from our food source, we actually don’t have a good idea in our minds of how much space is required to grow the food we eat.
MF: Do you think this is a trend or is it here to stay?
NB: I think it will stay. I think that when we lose things that have distracted us, we wake up to the things we need most. I think that’s what’s happened this year. Gardening is one of those few things in the world that’s accessible to every single person. Every person, whether they’re rich or poor, white or Black, city or rural can find a little bit of dirt and put a seed in it. I want every American to know what it feels like to cut something and eat it right then and there.