Today we’re looking at life as a gardener in Madison, Wisconsin, in the United States, with Megan of The Creative Vegetable Gardener.
This is part of a series on favourite garden influences which includes Carol Klein and Tasha Tudor.
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Life as a Gardener in Madison, Wisconsin
Megan Cain – The Creative Vegetable Gardener
- Madison, Wisconsin, USA
- First Frost: October 5 | Last Frost: May 15
- USDA hardiness zone: 5a
- Garden: I live in a mid-sized city on an urban lot about four miles from downtown. My corner lot is on a street busy with walkers and bikers. My garden is in my front and side yards, so highly visible to everyone who passes by my house. My passion is having a garden that produces a lot of food and is also gorgeous to look at!
1 Tell us where you’re from and how you ended up where you are now.
I grew up as a city girl in a row home in Philadelphia. We didn’t have a yard and I didn’t know anyone who gardened. When I was 26 and living in San Francisco, I started to think about growing my own food. I have no idea where those thoughts came from at the time.
I ended up applying for a gardening internship and moving to an ecovillage in a town of 100 people in rural Missouri. Rural living was completely foreign to me and a huge shock to my system. It took me a while to adjust, but I fell in love with gardening and my life shot in a completely unexpected and new direction.
Since then I’ve developed several gardening education programs at a non-profit here in my city, worked on CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms, wrote two gardening books (see Megan’s books here), and now teach thousands of gardeners how to get the most from their gardens every single season.
2 How did you become a gardener?
I think the above explains it pretty well!
3 Tell us about your garden. What are the perks and challenges of gardening where you are?
I live in the very northern and cold climate of Wisconsin. We get temps in the 90’s F in the summer and below freezing in winter. For me, the gardening season is a bit too short! I’m always ready to get back out into my garden about 4-6 weeks before it’s time. So, over the past few years I’ve been focusing on season extension and have been able to harvest from my garden for 10-11 months of the year, even in intense cold and deep snow. I encourage all cold climate gardeners to experiment with season extension. Here are a few easy vegetables to start with.
But, in a lot of ways Wisconsin is a great place to grow food because we experience all of the seasons. I can grow just about any vegetable here. Our Midwest soils are deep and full of nutrients and we get regular rainfall throughout the spring, summer, and fall.
This is my first front yard garden and I’m now a huge proponent of them! I’ve met so many of my neighbors since moving here several years ago. Almost every day that I’m out in my garden someone stops by to say something kind about my yard. It’s been such a fun experience to share my garden with my neighborhood and hopefully make people’s day a little brighter by the beauty I’m creating.
4 How has gardening changed you?
Falling in love with gardening in my mid-20’s shot my life in a completely different direction. I had no idea I loved plants and growing food so much until I tried it. I had a wonderful childhood, but my family wasn’t very interested in food beyond the basics. I barely ate any vegetables until I started to grow them myself.
When I started gardening I had no idea how to cook, what vegetables looked and tasted like when they were homegrown, and how food could be such an immense pleasure in life. Not only did I fall in love with gardening, but I fell in love with food as a whole—growing it, cooking it, preserving it, and sharing it with friends and family. It’s totally transformed my life. Gardening is my passion, my creativity, my joy, my spiritual practice, and my connection to nature. I can’t imagine my life without it!
5 Any fabulous gardening or DIY mistakes to share?
One day when I was out in my garden I started thinking about all of the gardening mistakes I’ve made over the years—plenty! I even have a talk I give to garden groups titled “10 Mistakes I Made in My Garden So You Don’t Have To”. And of course, it’s been way more than ten.
I used to design and install vegetable gardens for clients for several years. I was so excited and nervous to get my first customer. I spent the day installing a new garden, planting seeds and plants, and mulching it all in so it looked neat and tidy. There was only one thing I didn’t do, install a fence. The next day the client called me and said, “I think a groundhog ate the entire garden. There’s nothing left.” I was mortified and quickly returned to put up a fence and replant. I learned an important lesson that day—never create a new garden without a fence around it. Especially in other people’s yards!
6 What are you exploring in gardening these days?
I’m a lifelong learner and I love delving into the details of gardening. I’m always reading new gardening books and listening to gardening podcasts. I experiment with new techniques, varieties, and planting methods each season. This year I’m growing cilantro and salad mix under shade cloth to see if I can keep them going through the hot summer months and growing half of my peppers in black plastic in an attempt to increase their yield.
My biggest multi-year experiment has been cold season gardening. I keep trying to push the limits of how many months of the year I can have food coming from my garden, which is no small feat in Wisconsin’s winter. So far, my record is 11 months, without any fancy greenhouses or supplemental heat. It’s a thrill to try and cheat the season and harvest fresh veggies in the snow! My neighbors must think I’m crazy though, when they see me out in my garden in December. I always recommend that gardeners start their season extension experiments with spinach.
7 What do you hope visitors to your site experience?
My mission with my business is to inspire people to have fun and try something new in their gardens each season. For many of us who have gardened for a long time it’s easy to get into a rut and just do the same things over and over again every year, even if they’re not working! I want to help people get the most joy and satisfaction possible from growing beautiful and healthful food for their families.
8 Can you share a good tip or advice for new gardeners?
One secret that advanced gardeners know is that what varieties you plant very much matter! They’re not all created equal and which ones you pick can make or break a garden harvest.
That’s why I encourage beginning gardeners not to buy vegetable plants from their local big box stores or neighborhood hardware store unless they’re selling plants grown by local farms. There is no guarantee that they’ve picked varieties that are known to do well in your area. The best place to buy seedlings is from a farmer’s market. My favorite people to purchase from are CSA farmers who are growing and testing the plant they’re selling in their own fields.
9 Have you got some DIY projects for a rainy afternoon?
- I’m a minimalist and love to keep things simple in the garden. That’s why I love this easy to build DIY trellis made from a cattle panel. I now have three in my garden and they add height and interest for very little expense.
- Most of the commercial tomato cages out there are way too wimpy for indeterminate tomatoes. I see a lot of tomato plants that have tipped over their cages and are flopped on the ground. That’s why I like to make my own from concrete reinforcing wire. They’re strong, taller than the average cage, and last many, many years.
- I usually take the excuse of a rainy day to do some quick and easy food preserving for winter. We try to eat as much of our food as possible all year round, but I don’t love canning, so I opt for more simple methods to stock my pantry instead.
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Thank you, Megan!
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
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