The garden site was brand new; fortunately, the gardeners weren't.
This season at Our Garden, the demonstration garden jointly operated by the Contra Costa Master Gardeners and Bay Area News Group, was both the busiest and the most bountiful in the four years the garden has been operating.
Not only did the gardeners have to start from scratch on a parcel of land that had grown nothing but oak trees and wild mustard for decades, they also had to build an infrastructure to support the garden.
The proof, however, would be in the pudding -- or in this case, the production. Would previously untilled soil prove fertile? Apparently so. Thanks to dressings of composted horse manure and a top-notch drip irrigation system, the garden produced a stunning 10,284 pounds of vegetables that were donated to the Monument Crisis Center.
"What the garden achieved this year is beyond any expectations that we had," Master Gardener Coordinator Emma Connery says.
Our Garden was planted at the Contra Costa Times building in 2009. The modest garden quickly grew under the care of the master gardeners and was thriving; in 2011, the owners of the Times announced that they were putting the building and property up for sale, meaning Our Garden would have to close or relocate.
The city of Walnut Creek stepped in with an offer to host Our Garden on a large, empty parcel just a block away, at N. Wiget Lane and Shadelands Drive in Walnut Creek. A $30,000 grant from Home Depot and volunteer labor allowed the gardeners to fence the area as well as create a secure storage area and purchase new equipment. Offers from others poured in, and soon Our Garden had two greenhouses and an abundance of fruit trees.
The gardeners had one final season at the original site while they worked to install the new garden. This past winter, cover crops of fava beans, rye, vetch and wheat filled the garden beds; in April, the new garden and classes were launched with a massive tomato plant sale that drew hundreds of shoppers.
The community also is a big part of the Our Garden mission. In addition to the demonstration garden and helping to feed the hungry, Our Garden has been about growing a community of gardeners.
Every Wednesday from April through October, the garden gates swing open, and scores of people stroll through the garden, purchase seedlings cultivated by the master gardeners and attend classes on a variety of topics, from basic garden know-how to canning food and processing olives.
"I'm also pleased," Connery says, "that the community has continued to embrace us. Our new location has given us better visibility. Often people just drive by and drop in to see what's going on."
Our Garden and its visitors have a symbiotic relationship. The site provides a very vivid display of how to grow a thriving garden, and the master gardeners dispense their knowledge while the visitors support the garden by attending the free classes and buying plants. All of the money earned during the season goes right back into the garden, Connery says.
Master Gardener Janet Miller, Our Garden's project manager, says that she, too, is thrilled by this year's success.
"We succeeded beyond our wildest expectations," she says. "We grew healthy soil, had an amazing harvest and had so many people coming out to the classes. We wanted this to be a gathering spot for people -- and it has been."
Although official attendance numbers aren't available, anecdotal evidence indicates that more people attended classes this year than ever before. And the gardeners aren't resting on their compost piles. Miller says plans already are in the works for next year.
Although the garden was a success, Miller says there are things that could have been done better, such as making some changes in the annual tomato and vegetable seedling sale to make it less chaotic. The gardeners also learned that next season, it would be wise to stake the eggplants and peppers so they don't topple over. The tomato cages also will need additional support.
The new season will bring some new crops. A small vineyard planted this year should start producing grapes, and the orchard should be more bountiful, meaning the food donations to the crisis center will include fresh fruits. The artichokes and asparagus planted this year also should start producing.
In the next few weeks, the master gardeners will pull out the remaining summer plants and sow the beds with a cover crop. In February, gardeners will start peppers, eggplants and tomatoes in preparation for the plant sale and to plant in the garden. In March, they will focus on starting cucumbers, squash and pumpkins.
Some work still needs to be done at the garden, including running irrigation lines to the fruit trees and electrical lines to the greenhouses. In late winter, the cover crop will need to be pulled out and composted, and the beds prepped for the next crop of spring and summer vegetables.
The 2014 season will start in April with the plant sale and the resumption of classes.
Work at Our Garden may slow, but it never stops.