If I’ve learned anything from growing my own food, it’s that you have to work with what you’ve got. For me, that means working with heavy rains, extreme heat, and high humidity that are common here in central Florida, as well as planning my garden out strategically so my backyard still has space for a fire pit, chicken coop, and room for my kiddos to play!
Consequently, I’m always on the hunt for garden inspiration from those who’ve utilized their space well and work with their local climate. That’s why today I want to introduce you to Nicole Burke—a backyard gardener from Houston who is definitely an inspiration when it comes to designing a strategic backyard garden that is incredibly abundant despite the Texas heat!
Nicole has lots of great advice for those who want to start growing their own food, but worry that their space + local climate may not be ideal. Let’s give her a warm welcome as she gives us a tour of her beautiful backyard garden!
Hi everyone, and welcome to Houston! I’m so excited to give you a tour of my backyard garden today, and hope it helps inspire anyone who wants to start growing their own food, regardless of where you live or what space you have!
To give you a little info about me—my husband, Jason, and I have been growing food in our backyard in Houston for the past 4 years. In addition to tending our garden, we also have four wild children (three girls and one boy) who are currently ages 5, 6, 8 and 9. It’s seriously crazy around here, but getting to dig in the dirt most days helps me keep my sanity!
Aside from being a wife + mama, I’m also the founder of Rooted Garden—a company that helps clients design, install and maintain their own kitchen gardens. I wasn’t always the gardening expert though! In fact, as you’ll read below, my path to flourishing backyard garden began with a lot of trial and error.
You have to start somewhere
Prior to starting my own backyard garden, I didn’t have much gardening experience. In fact, my first real experience with growing my own food began when we lived in Nashville, TN. All our children were four years and under and I wanted something to do besides laundry. So, when my oldest daughter kept asking for a garden and I saw the magic of picking tomatoes at my parent’s home, I decided to give it a go. Even though we were renting at the time and busy holding babies + changing diapers, my husband dug a little patch in the backyard and we started. That year we only succeeded growing potatoes, beans, and zinnias, but once I had the opportunity to pick and serve dinner from the garden, I was hooked.
With a good bit of failure behind us, we started fresh when we relocated to Houston four years ago. We’d learned to go with raised gardens (instead of tilling) and to buy the very best soil possible. Our first season here was unbelievable with enough greens and salad to harvest daily (daily!!). Seriously, rawkstars, if I have learned anything, it’s that you have got to grow your own greens! These are the easiest and quickest crops to grow, and the taste and freshness is incomparable. Annual herbs, such as basil, cilantro, and parsley are quite simple, too, and the taste of a freshly cut herb is far superior to one that’s bagged in the store.
For my kids, I plant things that grow underground and high overhead. They love pulling carrots, potatoes, and sugar snap peas (the peas never even make it to the kitchen—the kids pick and eat them on the spot!).
Aside from working with the space we have, we’ve also had to work with the climate. In Houston, we have extreme summer heat, floods, and droughts, so we grow the typical summer garden in spring and fall and then (brutal) heat tolerant plants in summer like okra, eggplant and sweet potatoes. One aspect of gardening is coming to terms with your locale and adjusting to its limitations. I don’t love the Houston heat, but gardening year-round helps me cope.
Work with what you have
We have a small backyard with a cement driveway running through it. Sounds so beautiful, right? Well, we make the most of it! When we first started here in Houston, we used the patch of grass that sits against the fence to initially build three 4’ x 10’ x 1’ cedar beds. Last fall, when I started my business, we split the beds and turned them so we could fit six 4’ x 10’ beds in the space.
The other side of the yard is actually more ideal because it’s southern facing and receives more winter sun, but we needed to offer the kids some space for play. And the good news is that lettuce can thrive in shade so we still have a great winter garden! Beyond the backyard, I’ve tucked fruit trees and herbs into the front landscape, and even planted kale by the curb!
Advice to first-time gardeners
1. Be okay with failure.
Growing organically is not for the faint of heart. So, prepare yourself that some plants will be harmed in the making of garden expertise. Look at garden disappointments as soft failures that prepare you for challenges in life that aren’t quite as compostable as a dead tomato plant. Then get back out there and try, try again.
2. Start with salad.
Lettuce and kale are the easiest crops to grow. You can harvest them within a month of planting and they grow back! Seriously, if you are a Simple Green Smoothie fan, you should be growing some (or all) of your own greens. (P.S. You can download my free Salad Gardening book when you sign up at www.rootedgarden.com)
3. Automate the water (if you can!)
Your garden needs a drink and if Mother Nature isn’t consistent (and when is it?), the chances are that you’ll forget or not have time. So install a drip system, hook into your existing irrigation, use ollas, a plant nanny or any other contraption to be sure that your garden stays hydrated, even on the days when you oversleep.
4. Spend all your money on the dirt!
My grandfather said to plant a 50 cent plant in a $50 hole. Prioritize the soil every season and your plants will thank you for it. I love compost, fully cured manure, sandy loam and topsoil mixes. Find what’s locally available and the best in your area. Spend the money on the brown stuff and the green stuff will taste like a million dollars.
5. Don’t forget the flowers.
Many new gardeners don’t know that most fruiting vegetables need bees and butterflies to help with pollination. Flowers welcome the pollinators. And also, they make you happy.
6. Make it kid friendly.
If you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, don’t plan on a picturesque garden that the kids can’t touch. Plant extras for them to pull and play with and welcome them into the space. Pay them quarters for every caterpillar they find, send them on grub treasure hunts, and have them help you turn the soil, start seeds, or pull weeds. The kids love it, and when you see them with a mouth full of kale, the crooked rows won’t bother you.
7. Have fun!
The garden is a place to stretch out, feel the sun, and explore. It really is amazing to watch a seed become food; so enjoy each moment. Don’t get so caught up in what did or didn’t work that you miss the fact that this is actual magical fun. It’s like recess for adults. So get out there and start growing. You got this.
CONNECT WITH NICOLE: To see more photos of Nicole’s beautiful backyard garden, be sure to follow her on Instagram @rootedgarden.
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