Gardening While Renting

Reader Contribution by Don Abbott
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An abundance of green beans from Snarky Acres

I’ve been a renter my whole adult life (and I’m pretty old). My gardening “career” started accidentally with a kind gesture from a previous landlord tilling up an unused piece of his yard. By the time I moved to my current rented house (aka Snarky Acres) in 2010, I was fully addicted the growing my own vegetables.

When moving to Snarky Acres, I knew my stay would be for a few years as I was going through my bankruptcy at the time. Two things made me choose that specific place: proximity to work (1.5 miles) and the 50-by-20-foot fenced backyard garden.

As I was negotiating with my future landlord, Colin, it was obvious to him I was more interested in the garden plot than the house itself. A good-sized fenced garden in a sunny spot sold me even though the 70-year-old bungalow is situated on a busy state route. Colin told me, “You can make the whole yard a garden if you want.” Quite a bold statement for a 0.91-acre plot and he’s kept to his word to this day.

Negotiate the Garden with Your Landlord

The takeaway here is to garden on a rented site, you must have the owner’s buy-in from the beginning. Getting the relationship established before you sign on the dotted line is of utmost importance. If you don’t see a garden, ask about putting one in. If you see one, ask about expanding.

It’s like any adult relationship — job, love, business, etc. You negotiate the important details before making the commitment, as it’s much harder to adjust later (just ask anyone who’s tried to get a raise or more vacation days after a few years with an employer). Decide ahead of time what your deal breakers are.

For instance, I loved the garden and closeness to work, but if Colin had said no to River, my little Toy Fox Terrier, I couldn’t do it. Instead, I agreed to pay $30 more a month for her and we moved right in.

River (my little Toy Fox Terrier) digging amongst the flowering turnips. Also, the wood Colin helped us bury for our hugelkultur bed is in the background.

The renter’s first instinct is to do nothing permanent since you could move anytime after your lease runs out. I decided instead to take the saying “bloom where you are planted” to heart.  I didn’t want to wait until I bought my own home to try out the gardening techniques I’d read about.

Practice makes perfect and in a way, making mistakes on somebody else’s property is freeing. Of course, you don’t want to invest too much money or time into a rental situation as there’s a chance you’d get your heart broken. Most of my decisions and designs are based on that tight-rope walk between temporary and permanent.

Permanent Changes to Rented Land

Here’s a little secret (don’t tell Colin): I didn’t ask the landlord explicitly if I could plant perennials (sage, thyme, strawberries, Egyptian walking onions, peppermint, lemon balm, oregano, and comfrey) or put in my original four hugelkultur beds.

Hugelkultur is a technique in which you dig a trench, drop in old rotted unused wood and compost, and then cover it back up with the removed soil. The result is raised beds (mounds actually) that hold water, self-fertilize with the decaying wood, and capture heat in the spring. The idea is that within a few years the logs will break down creating beautiful soil.

After building trust over the years (i.e. paying my rent on time and not being a big giant pain in the a**), I didn’t think these temporarily permanent “improvements” would be an issue. Besides, both can be eliminated with a little effort if necessary, though I would hope the next renters would know what they have.

Constraints for Gardening Renters

I’ve even thought about writing a letter to future tenants to let them know what’s on the property and how to reach me for questions (hint: Colin even mentioned putting in a peach or pear tree but as landlords do sometimes, he has bigger fish to fry and has never discussed it again. I’m sure if I wanted to initiate planting a tree (even offering to pay and/or assist with its planting), he would be all for it. Maybe that’s a subject to broach next year.

Being a renter does give you constraints you wouldn’t have with your own place (assuming you don’t have a homeowners’ association). For example, I grew up a 4-H member and was contemplating acquiring meat rabbits (otherwise known as second-hand vegetables) at my current residence. I would need to ask the landlord and then build up a temporary yet secure structure.

These constraints, and the fact that my nextdoor neighbors make a lot of noise – fireworks and loud parties which would literally scare the rabbits to death, made me decide against pursuing the project. Instead I put my efforts into expanding my garden from 1,500 to 2,500 square feet and producing as many staples — potatoes, dry beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and sunchokes — as I could.

I came across a quote that sums this situation up nicely:

“The more limitation and restrictions you put on a design, the more creative you become” – Geoff Lawton

And creative we have become. This spring, Colin was over on the property to fix the neighbor’s septic system and remove some old trees from our property. He rented a cool backhoe with a claw that we watched tear out trees like a giant iron hand ripping weeds from the ground.

The Snarky Girlfriend got Colin’s attention and had him dig a trench, move several rotting logs into the hole, and pat them down in place. To think a landlord would help us install our hugelkultur mound still blows my mind.

Hugelkultur beds showing off their built-in heat capturing capabilities. They are technically temporary as the buried wood will turn into beautiful soil in just a few years.

Another creative project we completed was a perennial shade herb garden in the front yard. The spot, next to the house, receives only a few hours of direct sunlight a day. After a little Internet research, I came up with a list of perennial herbs that would grow in the shade, choosing mint, lemon balm, chives, and thyme.

After several years, this bed is still producing with little or no maintenance. The site is blocked in on all sides, keeping the mint from spreading and taking over the world.

Other Gardening Options for Renters

So as you can hopefully tell from my ramblings, being a renter is not the death of your gardening dreams. Turn your problem (being a renter) into your solution (garden where you are).

If you can’t get your current landlord to let you dig up the front yard, ask about the backyard. If you can’t plant there, ask about pots and other temporary solutions. If they are a big no-no (what a jerk), rent a community garden plot, grow inside using a south facing window or grow lights, or buy a mushroom kit off the Internet.

If you get too much resistance or want a more productive solution, a more drastic relocation might be order. Remember every site, rented or purchased, has its constraints. Just be sure you move in with terms you can live with for the long-term.

Don Abbott (akaThe Snarky Gardener) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent, Ohio. Professionally, he’s a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented 0.91-acre urban farm. He is also the founder of the Kent, Ohio, chapter of Food Not Lawns and received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland-based Green Triangle.

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