The approach down Onteora Boulevard passes yard after yard of typical suburban landscaping: wide, green swaths of close-cropped grass, most with a mulched tree or two and perhaps a few low bushes flanking the doorways. That regularity makes the first glimpse of Megan Riley’s M R Gardens even more striking by contrast. Her 2 acres in Oakley are a riot of colors, textures and heights — native goldenrod sways in the breeze, tomatoes glisten red and green on the vine, and a tangle of hops crawls up a trellis beside her house.
It wasn’t always this way. “When I first bought the property in 2009, it was basically a blank slate,” says Riley. Through ecologically minded planning and a devotion to building the soil, she transformed her land into a beautiful, productive plot. Beginning on Tuesday, Oct. 24, Riley will provide others with the chance to learn her approach through two yearlong programs based in the garden she created.
Although Riley has worked in edible landscape design and consulting in Asheville since 2012, this is her first time offering long-term education. She explains that the new programs aim to bridge several gaps she identified while working with clients. “I kept noticing there was a need for people to learn more in-depth, more than I could do at their individual sites,” Riley says. “I also found people who didn’t yet have land but still really wanted to be part of growing their own food.”
Riley’s first program, Grow, is designed for home gardeners looking for a sustainable model of food production. Participants will meet as a group roughly three afternoons a month to gain hands-on experience in the gardens, practicing skills such as vegetable bed preparation, fruit orchard planting and beneficial native plant identification. Additional one-on-one sessions with Riley during the winter will cover other useful techniques such as seed starting and solar greenhouse design.
Caitlin Johnson, one of Riley’s design and garden coaching clients, says that she and her husband, Patrick, gained new self-assurance in their yard thanks to Riley’s attentive teaching. “Megan taught us how to amend our soil, what to plant where and why, and how to care for our plants,” she says. “Everything we planted before working with Megan died or looked awful, but we now feel confident in our ability to plant so our yard thrives with beautiful native plants.”
The second program, Emergence, is a more intensive course for growers seeking to start consulting and design services of their own. In addition to attending the Grow classes, students on this track will meet with Riley for individual coaching every week to learn landscape installation and client interaction in greater detail. “There are clients of mine who really want a native and edible landscape but don’t have time to maintain it,” she says. “I can’t physically do everybody’s properties, but I can train others to do the work.”
Students in both programs will reap tangible rewards from their learning: At the end of every meeting, they can harvest in-season produce from the gardens, including unusual crops such as jujube berries and chokeberries. Riley will also cover medicinal herbs as part of her landscaping. “If a student forms a relationship with the land by using it medicinally, there’s a switch from just looking at the landscape to getting the most out of it,” she says.
Riley says her students can expect a lot of learning, a good deal of work — and help from the microorganisms she sees as the key to successful gardening. “Our red clay soil is actually full of nutrients; all we have to do is add organic matter and create a soil ecosystem,” she says. “When you create a home for those beneficial microbes, they do all the work for you.”
WHAT: Grow and Emergence gardening programs
WHERE: M R Gardens, 441 Onteora Blvd.
WHEN: Begins Tuesday, Oct. 24. Visit mretcllc-mrgardens.blogspot.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.