Lessons from nurturing asparagus on my allotment for my startup ventures

February, my thoughts to Spring. Despite the cold, wet weather, it’s time to get my boots on and do some digging down at the allotment. I signed up for a third of an acre some years ago. I‘m of that age when I’m just as happy growing cabbages as anything else, and get the same degree of pleasure from a bumper crop of courgettes as I used to do with the release of a new Radiohead album.

Why do I do it? Well, it’s for all the beauty of the fresh air, growing my own food,  and the camaraderie with fellow gardeners. Despite the show-offy-ness of having the best spring onions, the thing that matters most is the humanity. On the surface, tending an allotment is about making something beautiful or useful with nature, but there is much more to it. It’s really quite simple, pure and lovely growing your own stuff from scratch. Like a startup.

There is nothing quite like a morning spent with soil under your fingernails. In the physical work of planting seeds, caring for plants, adapting to seasons and weather, I find something truly cathartic. Having my own third of an acre calms me. Enthuses. Uplifts. Invigorates. Granted, a hot soak in the bath, a good bar of soap, and cheese on toast afterwards makes that day perfect, but the real impact comes from the toiling and daydreaming amongst the plants.

Like any startup, my plot is a constant work-in-progress, always moving. It never reaches anywhere other than this moment. There is always work to be done, heavy lifting of some kind. And just like a startup, I come to understand some things work some don’t. This is perhaps the most important advice I was given by Goronwy, aged 105, who’s had his allotment for 55 years. He said to me  Don’t get lost in what your neighbour is doing. There are always different ways of doing the same thing. If you have success with what you’re doing, keep doing it and don’t worry what anyone says.

My plot is at the bottom of the field next to the gate and I’m surrounded by people who have had their plots for a really long time, so know what they are doing and I often turn to them for advice. It’s like a startup incubator community, I was given roots of beetroot and rhubarb in the first few weeks when I started, as I think they felt bad I was working so hard but not seeing anything grow!

The time at my allotment is just really nourishing, both physically and mentally, and then when you actually eat what you’ve grown, so rewarding. There is something wonderful about pottering around the plot, and then sitting down tired, and seeing the results of your efforts. I rarely think about anything else when I’m there and I’m definitely not on my mobile phone. Like a startup, your plot is your own space. Choose your plants and plan. Raise seeds and propagate cuttings.

Just now, I am finding more comfort in the hours I spend outdoors than anywhere else. It’s a mix of meditation, therapy and exercise. Clearing the weeds to make Plot 35 the perfect place to grow vegetables, I am filled with eternal optimism as I look forward to the weeding, watering and hoeing to grow vegetables with the alluring names of Lady Balfour (potatoes), Bull’s Blood (beetroot) and Hurst Green Shaft (peas).

Although its bitterly cold at present, and I have to choose my time so as not to get frostbite, my mind is tangled and I feel overwhelmed by all the podcasts, live streaming and zoom meetings, so I have turned to my allotment to relax and clear my head.  There is peace and tranquillity, solace with just the breath in front of your face from your efforts. Until you wipe the sweat off your brow and put soil in your eyes. I feel alert and desperate for signs of life in the soil, although the green shoots we all want to see after the last twelve months are a couple of months away yet.

It’s a community. We all keep a safe social distance on the allotment when there are five or six of us at work. And there is silence, apart from the sound of spades entering the earth, a few grunts of human effort, singing of the birds, and the sound of Amazon delivery vans passing by. The church bells ring on the hour, and every siren sounds ominous. When it’s time for a rest, getting the tea flask out is the best feeling of achievement that morning. I’m fortunate that I have this space, and in months to come, hopefully a full fridge of produce.

Yesterday, I found myself stagnating in the house, so I put on my boots and headed outside with the dog. There might be a slight manic quality to all this. I push the broad beans into the damp earth, knowing that soon they will push their way back out, curling up towards the light like Jack and the  beanstalk.

Susan took a photo of me at the allotment the other day, and it made me laugh out loud.  She took it without my knowledge, and it captured me not digging, or planting, or doing anything at all, but standing with my knees bent, crouching down staring at the soil. Ok, I’m impatient, willing for the stuff to grow and how fabulous the plot will look come summer.

So much of my allotment happens inside my head where I have created my own idealised, imaginary Monty Don playground. I read my Gardens Illustrated magazines, watch Gardeners’ World, which are pure horticultural porn, filled with pictures of vast vegetable beds, and I try to work out how I can come up with something comparable in my not-vast north Wales patch.

It is just like a startup. I like the DIY aspect of growing my own. I like its slightly solitary, independent spirit, the way no one can stop you doing what you want, the way that you don’t have to be an expert. I like the make-do-and-mend mentality, which has us planting seeds in used margarine tubs, starting herbs in cut up Amazon cardboard boxes, and using old tin cans to start my tomatoes off – making something out of nothing.

It’s just like a startup incubator, a valuable space for allotment holders to exercise, socialise, share ideas and generally find a wealth of good feelings. Everyone is there to grow their own produce, but everyone has a bit of advice to others.  A mix of people who perhaps ordinarily wouldn’t meet and mix together but share a common bond.

Whether you’ve been developing your own business or growing vegetables, you know what I’m talking about, and I’ve realised that these two pursuits have a lot in common that binds them together.

First, plant the seeds If you want customers for your business, you have to start by planting and nurturing seeds. Those seeds include networking, creating content for your web site to get your brand out there, going to meetups, blogs and podcasts. Some seeds will sprout quickly, others need time to germinate, others will simply not live. It’s all part of the startup process. You can’t just scatter a bunch of seeds around and then sit around doing nothing and expect a garden to appear one day. It takes time and effort, like a startup.

Figure out what works for your environment My first year at the allotment was trial and error, working out what grew well, what needed more attention. Anyone who has launched a startup understands this embryonic process of trial and error. No one ends up with a flourishing veg plot or startup venture on day one. Your startup venture is all about learning and testing, figuring out how to get product-market fit in your chosen domain.  

Pruning and cutting back is important Often unproductive, wandering, spindly offshoots can sap food and water from your runner beans, just as some customers take up your time and resources, detracting from your ability to service genuine, higher-value customers. You know them, they always want to ‘pick your brain over a cup of coffee’ when all they really want is just free consultancy. They make work for you that won’t move your business forward, so prune back to give yourself the best chance of success.

Timing is everything To everything, there is a season on the allotment, and you have to be organised to ensure you do the things when they need doing. There is a cycle of growth in nature, just as there is in business. Inevitably there will be times when it’s all planning and nothing to harvest – just like your startup, when you’re working hard but not generating revenue. Make a note of projects to do in these down times, like reviewing your web site content. Don’t stand still, there are always jobs to be done.

Get a routine Maintaining an allotment is a year-round project which requires planning, structure and process, and you need to get out there even when you’re not in the mood. Seeing a project through from start to finish or, in allotment terms, from planting to harvesting, is extremely rewarding, but ensure you have the required processes in your startup. Entrepreneurs have discipline in that they are relentlessly focused on moving their business forward in some way everyday, they just make it happen.

You have to get your hands dirty It’s obvious for the allotment, but metaphorically for your startup, you have to do some things you don’t want to do to reap the harvest. Not every project or customer will be fun, but the rewards should be worth it. If not, go back and prune and cut. And if your hands get dirty, a little soap and warm water will help.

Deal with the pests Invasive pests in the garden are annoying to say the least. If they become established and make communities for themselves, munching your produce, they can take up a lot of your time. It’s the same in your startup. If you make a bad hire, they can kill culture. The longer a pest is given free reign, the harder it will be to regain control, so prevent them or stop them early in their tracks before they do damage.

There will be failures Fennel is the one I’m most upset about as it is my favourite vegetable, and I would love to grow it successfully. I think I put it in too early last year, a victim of my ‘buy and seed straight away’ approach. I also lost 75% of my carrot crop overnight to rabbits. Mr McGregor was right. I took the nets up thinking they were strong enough – and carnage. An absolute massacre. What I am learning is the best gardeners do not work their plot simply to prosper from its produce, they do so to continually learn from the process so they may become better over time. Take this lesson into your startup.

This ragged, patch of land, complete with a shambolic, old dusty shed is my sanctuary. The elders are out again this year, ploughing their productive furrows and repairing their raised beds, but now there are others – people in their twenties, young families. No longer the province of ‘man in a flat cap’ gloating over his leeks, our allotment has become colourful, multi-cultural spaces. It’s the same for startups – anyone can have a go.

The simplicity of an allotment is the same as a startup: Dig. Plant. Weed. Feed. Watch. Prune. Yield. Enjoy. Ok, there won’t be the intransigent bloody brambles by the compost bin or the pesky couch weed. But I’m so looking forward to planting my asparagus crowns in March. You don’t harvest asparagus until year three, so it’s just like your startup: make investments today and enjoy some of the most peaceful and profitable times of your life.

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