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Tips From Olympic Legend Natalie Coughlin On Starting Your Own Garden

By Lisa Costantini | April 27, 2017, 2:44 p.m. (ET)

Natalie Coughlin began gardening while in college at the University of California, Berkeley and now grows much of her own food.


If Natalie Coughlin didn’t pursue the Olympic track growing up, it’s safe to assume she would have probably gone after a career in food. The 12-time Olympic swimming medalist — who has appeared on hit TV cooking shows “Iron Chef America” and “Chopped” — started gardening in college as a competitive swimmer with a big appetite on a small budget.

“I got my first apartment right after my freshman year [at University of California, Berkeley] and started cooking a lot. I quickly realized how expensive it was to buy herbs” Coughlin remembered. “So I started a small herb garden on my fire escape. I had thyme, basil and parsley — and over the years I just added more and more.”

Now, in a house with her husband in Lafayette, California, her outdoor gardening space has grown along with her green thumb — she grows everything from citrus trees to any type of fruit and vegetable imaginable.

In honor of April being National Garden Month, we asked the urban farmer and home cook to share her secrets to growing a successful garden.

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How did you go about learning to garden?

I’ve learned a lot through magazines and books. And also YouTube is such a fantastic resource. There are a lot of gardening channels that I watch that are pretty informative.

"Love coming home to a bunch of ripe blueberries. This weekend's heat did my plants some good!"

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

There is really no wrong way. You just have to try it and see what works because everyone’s yard is different. It’s just trial and error.

Is there such a thing as a gardening mistake?

One time I actually mistook mustard greens for kale. I made a green smoothie with mustard greens and I tried to choke it down. But I couldn’t even get past the smell. It smelled like horseradish. It was pretty strong. So now I know the difference.

What is the easiest thing to grow?

Probably tree collards. They’re also one of my favorite things to grow. It’s a hybrid between a collard green and a kale. Sometimes it’s referred to as tree kale because it gets so tall. As someone who has a green smoothie habit, it’s pretty much always in my daily green smoothie.

What is the hardest thing to grow?

Asparagus. It’s not hard. The hardest thing is the patience it requires. You plant crowns and it takes years for it to produce shoots that you eat. I think next year will be the first harvest for my asparagus.

What do you do with all the food?

I do a pretty good job of eating a lot of the food. But anything that I don’t eat, or that isn’t of the best quality, I’ll give to the chickens.

You have chickens?

"Colorful harvest today"

We have eight chickens. The oldest ones I’ve had since 2010.

And this time of year we have more eggs than we know what to do with. In the spring, chickens tend to go crazy producing. Right now I have about four dozen eggs, so I will be making deliveries to friends.

Any tips for someone wanting to start a garden?

If you’re going to start indoors — or even on your patio — start with container gardening. And get a much larger container than you think you need. A lot of times I see people who want to grow something like basil or parsley and they’ll get this tiny little pot. Not only does this tiny little pot not leave space for much root growth, but it also doesn’t hold much water, so it stunts your plants.

What about for someone who doesn’t have a lot of space?

You’d be amazed at what you can grow in your windowsill. If you just take store-bought basil and stick it in a jar of water in a sunny windowsill it will start to root on its own. There are a lot of things you can grow indoors — or on a sunny windowsill. You really don’t need much space.

Is there anything that doesn’t do well in California that you wish you could grow?

There are a lot of things that don’t do well in my yard that do well in California.

Because my house faces an eastern-facing slope, I don’t get really long hours of sun. So that can be challenging — like I can’t grow watermelon. Watermelon takes a lot of space and a lot of sun. So I have to be thoughtful in the sun and heat requirements.

But my biggest challenge because I live in a pretty rural area is critters: squirrels, rats, birds and raccoons. They love to come into my garden and help themselves to the buffet.

What about bugs?

"I'm [harvesting] in the rain, [harvesting] in the rain! 🎶 "

I’ve actually found that with bugs if you plant a lot of complimentary plants it will attract the good bugs if you just leave it.

Right now I am in my garden and these past few weeks there were a ton of aphids [also known as plant lice]. But because I just left it, all the ladybugs have moved in and they’re feasting on the aphids. So that’s not as big a problem as the raccoons and squirrels. I think I just need to have cats.

So you don’t mind bugs?

I hate spiders! But I do know you’re supposed to like spiders in the garden. As long as they’re in the garden, I’m OK with them. But as soon as they come in the house, I freak out!

How much time do you invest in your garden?

Some days it’s hours and some days it’s zero minutes. It’s really as much as I want to spend out here. Harvest is what takes so long, so when you’re cutting all your greens and all your lettuce. That probably takes the most time. Planting everything really doesn’t take too much time. And that’s not something that you do every single day.

What is your favorite thing about your garden?

I love being able to grow things that you can’t buy in stores. For instance, one of my citrus trees is a rangpur lime and I have never once seen that in a farmers market or at a store. It’s the most beautiful, lovely tasting little lime. It’s orange and it looks little jewels on the tree.

I also have a type of strawberries that are too delicate to sell in stores. The only way to get them is to grow them yourself.

"Meeting some of the students at Saint Mary's Primary School in Nakapiripirit. The @worldfoodprogramme_official provides the food for the school meals. #ZeroHunger"

I also love my cutting garden. The cutting garden is where I have all my flowers. I have some edible flowers in there, too, such as Echinacea and bread poppy. I never thought I would appreciate growing flowers because I always had the attitude that if it’s not giving me food, then what’s the point? But they do actually give you food, but in an indirect way. The flowers attract a lot of pollinators to the garden, like hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. And as a result I always have beautiful bouquets in my house.

You recently went to Uganda with World Food Programme USA as their Zero Hunger Ambassador. What was that like?

They got in touch with me knowing how interested I am in food and nutrition and farming, and I jumped at the chance to go to Uganda with them. It was one of those life-changing trips. I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to go.

One of the many things we did was meet with farmers and learn how WFP provides farmers with metal silos to preserve their food. In the past, the farmers had these hand-woven straw silos and they would lose 40 percent of their crop to either thefts or rodents or mold. So WFP provides them with metal silos that preserve over ninety percent of their harvest.

If people want to check out what WFP does or donate, they can go to wfpusa.org/natalieagainsthunger. Every little bit makes a big difference. It’s about 25 cents per child per school meal, so it’s very, very little.

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Natalie Coughlin