What My Garden Taught Me About Economic Development: A Season in Review

This is the first year I’ve had enough yard for a garden. It’s also the first year that the focus of my work has been economic development. Initially, I didn’t think these two things were related, but as I learned about how to foster a healthy and thriving garden, I in turn learned about how to foster a healthy and thriving economy. The overlap has surprised me. Here are my biggest takeaways from my first season as a gardener:

Healthy soil equals happy plants. In a garden, healthy soil is the foundation that all future success will rely upon. This meant a major investment into the soil mix, mulch, and fertilizer that went in my raised beds. There was a moment driving home from the nursery with 150 pounds of cow dung in the back of my car when I really wondered if this would be worth it. Spoiler, it was. In order to grow a thriving economy, especially in the small towns we work with, preparing the ground is equally as important. Significant investment must happen up-front to create an entrepreneurial and business-friendly environment, as well as a community where people want to live and work. Economic development strategies like Economic Gardening and Place Value show us that investment in small businesses, placemaking, foundational infrastructure like broadband, and incubators all foster an ecosystem where existing and future businesses can succeed. 

Account for the climate. Living in a high-elevation, semi-arid desert (USDA Hardiness Zone 6a to be precise), I can’t grow tropical fruit. Unfortunate, but not unexpected. Climate suitability was the first checkpoint in every planting decision I made. Just as important for economic development is accounting for the local economic and political climates in which we operate. What may be eagerly cultivated for one community is a political non-starter in others. Unlike my open-air garden however, communities have the power to improve their climate. Honest, intentional, and targeted conversations with local officials and other stakeholders can help pave the way for the types of programs and investment that grow economies from within, like those noted above, rather than focusing on the more traditional method of external industry attraction. Following the metaphor, this is like a greenhouse; high-effort but with the payoff of a more stable climate for growth.

The importance of place. There is no backyard in the world that is exactly like mine. It is unique in the make-up of the soil, placement of the fence, positioning of the sun, and the bugs and critters that come to visit. This is equally true for communities; no two are identical. Each garden and each community comes with a specific set of assets and challenges to consider. For example, in my garden the back fence creates a section that’s almost always shaded. Rather than force a sun-loving tomato plant there, it became home to my lettuce patch, which thrives in the reprieve from the heat. Similarly, a crucial first step in economic development is to inventory the assets and challenges, matching them with opportunities. When the Town of Eagle took their assets into consideration, the outcome was the creation of a riverfront park that has become a focal point of the community and provided far more value than the uphill challenge of attracting a traditional big-box store could have.

A small crop can have a big impact. As much as my partner likes to tease me by referring to my new hobby as “farming,” my garden is pretty small, just a handful of tomato, pepper, and cucumber plants. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of yield, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the literal hundreds of cherry tomatoes that ripened almost simultaneously this August. Four batches of salsa, bruschetta, and a lot of salads later, I’m all-in on what one of the communities we work with calls the “base-hits” strategy. To mix metaphors a bit, the effort I put into those little tomatoes yielded so much more payoff than if I had tried to grow one state-fair-sized heirloom home-run. Rather than going after one large manufacturer or mall, an often expensive and risky process, investing in local businesses, entrepreneurs, and small-scale creators will yield self-sustaining growth that’s rooted-in and dedicated to your community.

Patience is key. Perhaps the biggest difference between gardening and economic development is the time scale. The microcosm of my backyard allowed me to plant the seeds, nourish the sprouts, and harvest my crop within one season. But community leaders must have patience, diligence, persistence, and a little bit of faith that with the right inputs the economy will grow. I have hope that the work our partner communities are doing in rural western places will produce the economic equivalent of my bounty of cherry tomatoes; that with the proper groundwork and investment, the seeds planted today will help these communities thrive.

  • Civic Health
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  • Community
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  • Economy
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  • Environment
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  • Placemaking

One response to “What My Garden Taught Me About Economic Development: A Season in Review

  1. Thank you for the brilliant connection drawn between the development of a garden and that of a community.
    Foundation, of course, is key for any further progress. Once that is attained, the intimate understanding of what the plants and the citizens want and need is a step towards fruition of dreams, both large and small.
    And then reality of each individual decision begins: what must be left in the shade and what can rise into the light of day, what is possible and/or practical and what isn’t.
    Everyday, we have opportunities to listen and learn from Mother Nature. Everyday we can make U-turns if our original decisions fail to harmonize with the individual circumstances.
    Indeed, it takes patience, flexibility and humility to work with a garden full of cherry tomatoes and a community full of people. The harvest, no matter how small or large, is in finding harmony and unity that nurtures and supports all of us.
    Chief Seattle of the Suquamish said “All things are connected. We did not weave the web of life. We are merely a strand in it”.

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