Last year around this time, I embarked on my first ever foray into gardening. I started with pretty low expectations since I’ve never been able to keep a house plant alive, but I wanted so badly to give it a try and see if I could make it work. We built raised beds, we filled them up with a variety of seedlings, and we started to watch it grow. By the end of the summer I had a bustling veggie garden with some big successes (more tomatoes, lettuce, and jalapeños than we knew what to do with), and some failures (basil that bolted, cucumbers that were stunted, and squash that never produced). More than anything, I grew a totally new, bustling love for the garden and an eagerness to do it all over again bigger and better this year.My favorite resource for figuring out what do to next in our garden is Mary Buri of @MarsKitchenGarden. I was first introduced to Mary’s wealth of vegetable gardening knowledge through my cousin and I instantly became hooked on the treasure trove of tips and tricks she shares on her page. Mary recently launched a garden coaching and design service, on top of being a mom to 4 kids, and somehow also managed to say yes when I asked to her to do this interview! I’m constantly learning from the information she shares in her instagram stories, and am so inspired by watching her business and garden grow — I hope this interview helps spark the same excitement in future veggie gardeners:
K: Mary, thanks so much for chatting with me! Let’s start at the beginning, tell me a little bit about your background with gardening.
MB: I’m the fifth of eleven children and we were raised on an 80-acre potato farm my father ran in Upstate New York. I suppose, when you look at it that way, my vegetable gardening thing isn’t a shocker. When we moved to northern Connecticut, my dad toned his plot down to a modest half-acre kitchen garden. Which, almost forty years later, still teems with all the vegetables. From my father, I’ve inherited a drive to start things from scratch in order to get them right. He’s an engineer, an innovator, a meticulous researcher, and my absolute inspiration. And I know he doesn’t mind having at least one of his eleven kids share his love of gardening.
K: I love that! I remember my mom having a small flower garden when we were kids, and that memory totally sparked an interest in starting something that I could work on with my daughter. Tell me, how did you get started on your own kitchen garden?
MB: I started a garden on the first grass I owned—after years of aching for one in backyard-free Brooklyn. I think the drive to grow my own food lines right up with my obsession with cooking and my forever love of vegetables. But it must really have started with Morrissey. At sixteen, I fell hard for him and became a vegetarian in solidarity; for fourteen years I held strong as I got really into cooking. Out of college, I worked in children’s publishing and cooked from scratch in the evenings with my boyfriend, now husband, Chad—an adventurous cook and happy pseudo-vegetarian. There was lots of experimenting, and we cooked our way through Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone with veneration for the vegetable bible it is. After the crazy cravings of my second pregnancy finally broke my vegetarian streak, my cooking skills broadened to the world of meat—and homemade chicken broth! But I’m grateful that my formative cooking years were vegetarian. I got really good at preparing veggies. Next step? Grow my own. When we moved out of the city, I finally got my garden. It’s been seven years of joyful planting, relentless research, trial and error, bug battles, and juicy ripe victories. Vegetable gardening is a never-ending study—and a sometimes tedious one at that—and I love it to bits.
K: Okay, as a side note, your chicken broth recipe you share on Instagram stories has inspired several roasted chickens turned broth-making sessions at my house recently. I love that you describe gardening as a never-ending study. As we move into year-two of our garden I totally feel that way. Now, after seven years of expanding your own kitchen garden you have started to evolve your expertise into a business! What motivated your kitchen garden consulting business? Can you share a little bit about how you work with clients?
MB: Mars really started with an Instagram! In late 2018, I began sharing my cooking and gardening adventures on my personal page. At the time, I was in kind of a create-or-die place. So much mothering. So much giving of myself for so many years. I wanted to tap further into my creativity, and I put myself out there to see what would stick. A quite vulnerable time for me and not easy, but the writing and photography ignited me, and leaning into my love of cooking and growing food fueled me. My ambition grew. I began freelance writing and editing as well. 2019 became a turning point for me, and I particularly loved sharing the ins and outs of growing vegetables. I truly love every bit of the growing process, and my tips and video tutorials seemed to be touching a nerve amongst my itty-bitty following.
I’ve had lots of happy teaching moments with friends this past year. But I can point to one in particular, last May, as the moment I decided to start this garden-coaching business. A friend asked me for help planting her garden. During our visit, I found myself offering, “You know what? I’ll just go home and draw you a garden map. Then you’ll know where to plant which veggies, who next to, how many can fit—all of that.” Later, staring down at my yellow legal pad covered with planted garden beds, I thought, this is it. This is a business. This is it the thing that will stick. I can teach people to grow their own food.
Many planning months later, and with my husband by my side not only in full, enthusiastic support, but as my co-founder, we launched Mars Kitchen Garden this late February. We dig and build gardens for people starting from scratch and I coach growers through every stage—from seed to plate. We had some quick interest—which was exciting. But since the coronavirus pandemic broke, there’s been a surge. And it makes so much sense. What a productive and mentally uplifting way to spend our family time together at home this spring. A victory garden for everyone! Now I’m endlessly busy project managing several ground-up garden builds and well as developing coaching relationships as the growing season gets underway.
K: Okay, admittedly I had a bit of a “black thumb” reputation before I started our first raised bed garden last year. My husband totally thought I couldn’t do it (he had every reason to think that, I had a long track record of being a plant killer!) and that definitely motivated me to prove him wrong, ha! So I’m curious, what advice do you have for people like me that assume they have the black thumb curse? Any advice on where to start?
MB: I love that you just went for it! I think it’s that kind of confidence that’s lacking sometimes. We don’t belong to the generations that simply knew how to sew clothes or fix a broken chair or make pie crust from scratch. Starting and maintaining a kitchen garden in order to grow our own food is an ambitious endeavor today! If you didn’t grow up watching your parents garden, it’s as new as if you wanted to take up a new language…if that language were alive. It’s a study, a very hands-on study! And you just have to sort of dig in and get started. I’ve learned so much from my own father—who has tended vast and meticulous gardens most of his life—and I’ve gone on to teach myself so much more. Many research rabbit holes later, it’s clear to me that learning to grow food is an endless and beautiful endeavor. And a very coachable one.
K: I think my real success in the first year of our kitchen garden was that I found my daughter Jane really enjoyed being involved in it. We had so much fun doing it together. Any advice or ideas about how to get your kids involved in the garden?
MB: Plant cucumbers and carrots! No, seriously. Show me a child that plucks a cucumber off a vine, to eat right there in the garden, that doesn’t think it’s the best veggie she’s ever had. Or wiggles and pulls her own carrot out of the earth, and simply shakes the dirt off before devouring it, that doesn’t want MORE. That’s my own memory as a child, and it’s what I’m seeing with my own kids—and my neighbors’ kids!
All four of my kids enjoy working with me in the garden. I mean, they have limited patience out there, for sure. But, in turns, one will want to come out and sprinkle spinach seeds with me. Another will happily flick squash beetles into a cup of soapy water. My own little Jane loves to weed (not that there are many in raised beds!) And they all love to harvest. Pulling beets, chopping cabbage heads, snapping kale leaves, and plucking tomatoes—even if they don’t like to eat tomatoes yet (I didn’t as a child, either). And beyond the adventures that children can find in the garden, I think it’s being out there side-by-side with Mom or Dad that pumps them up the most. It’s just the best thing. And to any parents of kiddos who are reluctant, I’d say, just keep inviting them to join you in the garden. Eventually, they’ll bite. And that’ll be it!
K: I have been learning so much from your simple explanations and tutorials when I started following you, and I feel like a lot of gardening is about sharing what worked and what didn’t with fellow gardeners. I’m curious, where do you look for inspiration and tips?
MB: Thanks for that, Kate! I truly love sharing all of it—what works and what doesn’t. Challenges I can predict and the ones that pop up and need conquering. If I’m stuck, I research. Right now, I’ll confess, I’m struggling with many seedlings under grow lights that seem to have stopped growing. I have a sinking feeling it’s the new medium I tried this year. And I’m plotting to pot them up to better soil to try to save them this week. My fingers tightly crossed! It’s how gardening goes. Some things work. Some things fail. You’ve got to roll with it and learn. I look to gardening blogs and videos, books, and my dad. And more and more, my fellow gardeners on Instagram. There are so many fabulous accounts to follow right now. People learning as they go, just like me. It’s really inspiring!
K: What’s your favorite thing to grow?
MB: It’s so hard to choose! Lettuce is up there because it’s so quick and easy to grow, and from one plant you can harvest over and over before it finally poops out and needs to head to its afterlife in the compost bin. Tomatoes because homegrown have made me a tomato snob, and mine are the only tomatoes I eat. And cucumbers because they make my kids so stinking happy. And when you grow your own, they’re somehow crunchier and sweeter than you could imagine a cucumber could even be. Also don’t get me started on kale. Wait, beets! Ugh, I cannot choose. Next question.
K: What’s one thing that’s always a challenge for you to grow?
MB: The ones that the bugs find. I’ve gotten pretty good at safe, organic pest control. But sometimes the bugs just win. Last year, for example, it seemed that every squash and zucchini plant in town—mine included—eventually got taken down by the dreaded vine borer. I did some badass surgery on the main stems and managed to prolong the plants’ lives a bit. But in the end, they succumbed. When this happens, I say goodbye to my plant and hold on to the knowledge I‘ve gained.
K: What are you most excited about in your garden this year?
MB: Strawberries! I can’t believe I haven’t grown them before. Also, this will be my second year with an eight-foot wide vine tunnel. Vertical growing is a fabulous way to get so much extra square footage out of your garden space. The string beans and cucumbers thrived and provided for us for months. This year I’ve made some space for green peas too.