Each planting season, experienced Austin gardeners join forces with SFC’s Grow Local program to teach free introductory food gardening classes at schools, shelters, apartment complexes, recreation centers, and places of worship. They bring decades of experience as well as passion, patience and commitment. Colleen Dieter, a professional landscaper and gardener since childhood, has been teaching Grow Local classes for over a decade. Below, you can read about her story as well as her advice for new gardeners.
Q: When did you first start gardening?
A: I don't remember ever not gardening. A couple of my grandparents and great-grandparents were avid gardeners, and my parents always kept a garden in our Cleveland, Ohio backyard using the Square Foot Gardening method. I helped water the garden as a girl and often tended the compost pile. During the winter, my mom and I pored over seed catalogs. At some point, my mom put me in charge of planting flowers in the garden and in pots on our front porch. I loved this job and looked forward to each May. Our yard had a 'Niagara' grape vine and a cherry tree, and the annual arrival of sun-warmed fruit, and the juice and pies that followed, is a vivid memory for me.
Q: What brought you to SFC?
A: In summer of 2001, when I was living in an apartment, I started gardening at Sunshine Community Garden, which at the time was run by SFC. After September 11, I started looking for a way to serve my community. I also decided that I wanted to do something more meaningful with my career. I talked with SFC staff working at Sunshine and shortly thereafter became an Americorps Volunteer In Service To America (VISTA). I worked at SFC for my one-year post and after my year of service, I continued volunteering with SFC and teaching introductory organic gardening courses.
Q: What do you like best about teaching Grow Local’s gardening classes?
A: It's hard for me to choose one thing I like best about teaching gardening classes. I like meeting the people from all walks of life who attend the classes. I also like remembering how gardening connects all of us. It connects me to my great-grandparents who I never met. When we garden, we are participating in a practice that is the foundation of all civilizations. Introducing this powerful concept to others makes me fall in love with gardening over and over again.
The last class I taught was attended mainly by wounded military veterans. After the class, as I was gathering up my things, I saw attendees quietly planting seeds in their community garden plots, gently firming the soil around the seeds and carefully watering them in. The peaceful scene moved me because it starkly contrasted the violence that they had experienced. It reminded me how these small acts of nurturing can build a sense of empowerment and confidence in the nurturer.
Q: What is your home garden like?
A: I have a couple of small vegetable beds in my yard. One bed has a rain garden next to it so that the veggies can take advantage of extra water when it floods. The other bed is next to my larger herb garden so that it benefits from companion planting with herbs. Also, beneficial insects hang out near the herbs year-round and visit the vegetables when the season is right. A recent surprise of deer turning up in our somewhat urban Southeast Austin yard has set my vegetable garden back a bit this year. I'm probably going to build a fence, or I might take up bowhunting...
Q: What other gardening projects are you involved in?
A: I am a landscape consultant and designer. I help "Do it Yourselfers" figure out what to do with their yards and choose the right plants, and I give them advice about how to approach their projects. It's really, really fun. I also teach different classes and workshops at my home and for garden clubs. Occasionally, I volunteer with TreeFolks.
Q: What advice do you have for home gardeners?
A: Start small because it is easy to bite off more than you can chew. Locate your garden near your house if possible, so it is visible through a window. That way you will see it every day and know if it needs something. I also keep a little old mailbox near the garden where I store small tools, gloves, plant labels and such so that I can do little, everyday tasks without having to go to the garage to get tools. Gardening should be easy and fun. If it is too much of a chore then something is wrong.