Inground gardens are what most people think of when they hear the word “garden.” Crops are planted directly into the ground, after the soil has been loosened by a tiller or broadfork. Far and away the most versatile and scalable way of growing food, inground gardens and farms are only limited by the space and resources you have available to you.

INGROUND GARDENS AT A GLANCE: Standard outdoor gardening in the soil.

  • Setup Time: Medium
  • Overall Cost: Low to Medium
  • Maintenance Time: Medium to High

When evaluating a potential inground garden plot, the two most important things to consider are the site topography and soil. Unless your location is extremely flat, the land will possess a slight incline in one direction or another. Sunny, south-facing gentle slopes are ideal for gardens, as they allow plants to capture sun throughout the day. North-facing gardens, conversely, get the least amount of light, and are generally wetter and colder.

After appraising the site’s direction and topography, you should turn your attention to the soil itself. A soil test can be obtained from your state university’s Agricultural Extension office, and will provide you with a wealth of information important to your campus farm’s success. Critically, you’ll know if the soil is safe to grow food in, and if the site possesses any structural, nutrient or mineral deficiencies that can remedied with widely available soil amendments. You may also want to reach out again to the grounds or facilities department at your company and determine if any pesticides have been sprayed on the soil recently. If so, contact your Extension office and determine if the presence of these pesticides is potentially hazardous.  

As you talk with stakeholders at your corporate campus about the location of the new garden, keep in mind factors such as landscape aesthetics and transportation to and from your space. Unlike a manicured lawn, a garden will evolve throughout the seasons and may not look lush or neat and tidy all of the time. While a high-profile location on campus may maximize the number of people who see and interact with the garden, having the garden be centrally positioned may also come with constraints.

It is essential to understand how a garden fits into the corporate campus’s overall look and feel before breaking ground. In addition, consider how people and produce will get to and from the garden. If the food service team is managing the space, the closer you can locate it to the kitchen the better. When the garden is constantly in sight, the culinary team will be more likely to remember to harvest that mesclun mix for the salad bar at lunch.

Another important factor to keep in mind when picking out a site for the garden is your access to water. Water needs and access differ greatly between gardens, depending on factors such as the size of the garden, the area climate, and proximity to running water. For example, along with some hand watering when necessary, relying on rain to water your garden can be an option in some climates. In dry climates, though, you’ll need to water the garden yourself. Depending on the garden’s size, watering by hand may be an option. If the plot is larger, you will want to consider other methods. The Old Farmer’s Almanac details how often specific plants should be watered. The Pennsylvania State University Extension walks you through setting up irrigation using a common hose spigot as your water source. Systems such as rainwater catchment can also be employed as a water source if your garden is in relatively close to a building.

Now that you’ve selected a garden site, it’s time for an overview of how to establish a new inground garden. The method you use to turn idle green space into a garden plot is important. The easiest way to go from grass to workable soil is through tillage. You can rent a small walk-behind tiller at a Home Depot, United Rentals, or local rental company. But tillage is not without its drawbacks. Tilling leads to less healthy soil over time, as compacting it breaks up soil aggregates and kills beneficial microbial life.

If you’re interested in utilizing another, more ecologically friendly method, consider solarizing your garden at the beginning of the season to remove pests and unwanted vegetation, then use a broadfork to aerate and break up the soil. After broadforking, beds can be easily prepared using a wheeled hoe. After loosening the soil through tillage, or by using a broadfork and wheeled hoe, you’ll want to prepare your garden beds using a bed preparation rake, which can be equipped with plastic tubes to create straight rows. After removing any weed debris and getting rows in place with the bed prep rake, you’re all set to plant!

After creating the garden, check your plants regularly to see if they’re being nibbled on by deer or rabbits. If such animal pressures exist, consider installing a fence. Fence materials can be obtained from hardware and gardening stores, and can range from small metal posts wrapped in chicken wire, to wooden posts and professional grade metal mesh. If you do opt for wooden posts, it’s critical to ensure that the wood you are using is “untreated” or natural wood. Treated or “pressure treated” wood contains arsenic, chromium, or other chemicals, and is hazardous to human health.

In opting for an inground garden, you have the freedom to grow any number of varieties of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. You are truly only limited by the amount of space available and the length of the local growing season. When looking for seeds, seek out local seed companies and gardening stores near you. If you’re unable to find any, consider purchasing USDA Certified Organic and/or Non-GMO seeds from High Mowing, or Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which are both widely regarded as industry leaders. Before purchasing seed, determine the kinds of crops you can grow in your climate, using the last frost date and USDA Zone map linked below in the Resources section. Compare your findings with the hardiness of the plants as described on seed packets or seed company websites (i.e. hardy in Zone 7 or warmer).

After you have an idea of the varieties of produce you can grow, get strategic. Depending on where you intend your food to go, you may want to consider growing the most amount of food a small space can support. For this strategy, leafy greens and herbs are a perfect fit, and can be used creatively in dishes, smoothies, and aguas fresca. Alternatively, you could grow lesser-known vegetables like kohlrabi and chicory. If you have a significant quantity of excess produce, consider donating it to a local food bank or charity.

As you near winter and the garden starts to slow down, make plans for what you’ll do to protect your soil from fall and spring rains, and erosion as snow melts over the winter. Leaving your soil bare after the summer growing season is one of the worst things you can do for your garden. Doing so allows key nutrients your plants need to run off, often into bodies of water that suffer from excess nutrient accumulation. Cover your garden with straw, or plant a cover crop! Cover crops are planted in late summer and early fall, and build soil throughout the winter, leaving you with a rich garden bed to plant in come spring. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has an entire page dedicated to cover crops, which you can find here. Johnny’s, and High Mowing both carry cover crops, as should local seed sellers and garden stores near you.

You’ve put in the work of establishing and maintaining your garden, and now comes the fun of enjoying it! Campus farms are the perfect venues for lots of exciting events with folks in your community. Consider the following ideas:

  • Garden dinners or potlucks
  • Garden tours
  • Cooking classes using garden grown ingredients
  • Plant identification scavenger hunts
  • Volunteering opportunities (I.e. Spring planting, Fall harvest)
  • ‘Speed Weeding’ event for singles

Know that operating a campus farm is sometimes a challenging endeavor, and don’t get discouraged. Depending on your location, you may deal with any number of issues in the garden. These can come in the form of disease and weed pressures, intense rain or drought, early frosts, nutrient deficiencies in the soil, and more. You may also experience employee turnover both within your own team, and key community stakeholders within the Facilities and Grounds department. We’ve included resources below to help answer questions that might arise as you run into these challenges. And consider joining the Campus Farmers Facebook page [LINK] or list-serv [LINK], where you can ask question of gardening veterans.

USDA | Agricultural Zone map
Garden Tower Project | Last Frost Date Chart
University of California | Tarp Solarization
Oregon State University | Harvesting Rainwater For Use in the Garden
Pennsylvania State University | Building and Operating a Home Garden Irrigation System
The Old Farmers Almanac | Watering Guide
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Growers Library
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Winter Cover Crops
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Tools and Supplies Library
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Garden planning tools.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Hardiness zones.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Guide to making compost.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Guide to controlling pests and disease using IPM
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Weed management basics
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Basic information on soil health
Johnny’s Selected Seeds | Guide to Controlled Environment Growing
High Mowing | Resources Page
High Mowing | Controlling Japanese beetles
High Mowing | Fall soil amendments
High Mowing | Tomato blossom end drop
ATTRA | Publications
International Seed Saving Institute | Comprehensive guide to saving seeds
Book | The New Organic Grower: Eliot Coleman
Book | The Market Gardener: Jean Martin Fortier
Book | Four Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long by Elliot Coleman

Cultivate the City is a non-profit that maintains raised bed gardens throughout Washington D.C., working with schools to grow food and educate on their properties.
Farmscape is a company that installs and maintains gardens and farms at a wide variety of venues all over the country, including on corporate campuses. To date, Farmscape is the largest company of its kind providing this service, and has established 700 projects nationwide.