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Can I be a successful gardener?

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

Expert gardener Michael Ismail shares insights, inspiration, and helpful resources for the home gardener

Let me share with you a belief I have. Anyone can become a successful gardener. When I started Thrive and Grow Gardens, I was motivated by what I most commonly witnessed in people. I call it the “brown thumb” mentality. The basic belief that one just doesn’t have what it takes to be able to successfully grow plants. So in 2014, I set out to discover just what it would take to help people break through their limiting beliefs, take action, and produce the results I truly believed could be possible for the average gardener.

A Simple Start: Born in Tucson, I grew up on a small homestead outside of Benson, Arizona where I lived with my parents and two older siblings. We grew A LOT of food. There were 50 fruit trees and large vegetable gardens surrounding a unique rammed earth home my family built. It was there in the high desert of Southeastern Arizona that I would learn about and fall in love with vegetable and fruit production.

Michael and his older siblings in their home garden

Transitioning into adulthood for me included a 12 year hiatus from gardening. As my interest began to resurface, echoing in my mind were the countless statements I had heard over the years from people who’s mindset was that they were incapable of growing food. This lead to a profound realization:

It wasn’t the specific knowledge I gained as a child that was so valuable. By “specific knowledge”, I am talking about things like, how to make a great batch of compost or harvesting methods that give a better quality and quantity of produce. I discovered that it was a simple belief that I COULD grow food that was something to cherish.

This brought to the surface for me something that I have seen repeatedly through life. If you believe with certainty that you can’t, the most logical conclusion is to not even try.

In 2013, when I started what was my first solo garden as an adult, I didn’t worry about whether it would be a success or a failure. I simply knew I could do it. “This… this is what is valuable", I thought. It is so often one's belief in what they are capable of that dictates their actions and outcomes.

This garden of mine in the backyard of my home in Tucson, Arizona generated not only an abundance of vegetables, but also, joy, contentment, and an overwhelming sense of pride. I felt activated in me something I believe has been passed down from countless generations before me. It's a baser need that when satisfied generates a feeling of bliss from the endorphins generated by creating food security for oneself.

This experience was a taste so to speak. An inspiration that I needed to help others experience this first hand, and that it would be a tragedy if they never did.

2013: produce from Michael's first home garden as an adult

These epiphanies which would lead to a new life path for me also led me to these questions; could my background and personal belief about what people are capable of equip me with the tools I need to make a difference in people's lives? What if I could impart a combination of inspiration and encouragement, information and guidance; and turn people back into the gardeners their relatives were just a few generations ago?

Teaching a hands on workshop in a local community garden

What I know from the experience of my upbringing is that the science of agriculture is not some deep mystery. It isn't an ethereal, sacred practice made up of secrets, too faint a whisper for most to hear. There are some simple causes and effects taking place and I thought I could help people to understand them.

I see the practice of gardening as a valuable metaphor for our everyday lives. The results we produce have a direct correlation to our habits, actions, and how well we can adjust for the variables we encounter. Our practices produce our results, and if one person can consistently create a desirable result, then any other person likely can too. They just have to follow the same general steps.

It was these philosophies that I carried with me as I began to create this new business, one I would come to call Thrive and Grow Gardens.

Checking soil moisture level in a clients garden

In the field: In January of 2014 Thrive and Grow Gardens was born. The first couple of years offering vegetable gardening services such as consultation, design, raised garden bed construction, and educational classes was an incredibly valuable learning experience. It was a crash course in witnessing first hand the challenges people face starting a garden. Three major challenges stood out to me. They related to plant protection, soil improvement, and watering practices. There is so much a person can learn which can improve their gardening results, but these were the areas where I saw my clients struggle the most.

A redwood raised garden bed built by Michael in 2015

Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way.

Lesson #1 When you place a vegetable garden in the desert, everyone wants to come to the buffet. I learned early on that pest pressure from critters such as birds, insects, and rodents big and small is the number one cause of tears for a gardener. Other threats to the garden are winter frosts, and the intensity of the summer sun here in Tucson, Arizona. These insights led to innovations which I immediately began implementing into my designs. You can click on the picture below to see more examples of our luxury raised garden bed system with plant protection frame.

Problems in the garden have lead to many innovations such as this sleek enclosure system

Lesson #2 Finding a good bulk compost base here in the desert is important. A successful gardener's priority is to “grow” healthy soil. In order to do that, we need good quality compost. The bulk compost commercially available here in Tucson is unfinished and low in nitrogen, it is salty, and it is alkaline. All issues I had to learn how to deal with in order for my clients to get the most favorable results. Now, our customers enjoy fantastic first season results. Education we have created to help folks simplify their soil building process are as follows. You can click on any of these for more information:

Great soil smells oh so good!

Lesson #3 A common cause of stunted growth and overall unfavorable results are poor watering practices. People need a reliable form of irrigation for their gardens to see good growth in their plants. As you might expect, that is especially important here in the Sonoran Desert. Coming to understand this set me on a course towards becoming an irrigation expert. Now, a topic on which I regularly consult and teach classes. Showing people the most important impactful steps they can take with regard to their irrigation practices has effectively demystified irrigation for many. Here are some resources that can help. You can click on any these for more information:

Becoming a gardener is a journey filled with lessons, failures, and triumphs; all of which can contain seeds of joy and contentment if you will let them. As I continue to take this journey along with my fellow gardeners, I look back and reflect...

It is deeply fulfilling, watching something like an organization evolve and change over a period of 7 years which have now passed since I started Thrive and Grow Gardens. Much like the human I am, it has been defined by refinement and growth. The early inspirations for this business are ever present in our mission:

“To inspire, encourage, and motivate people through education and the convergence of art, ecology, and innovation to take steps toward growing their own food, bringing awareness to the importance of self reliance and food security.”

To fulfill this mission, Thrive and Grow Gardens is doing the following:

Whether you have already begun, or are yet to, we are here to help.

Happy gardening!

-Michael Ismail

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