Wondolowski garden

By using the improv technique, “Yes, and…,” Mike Wondolowski was able to put aside his organized plans and enjoy and nurture the garden that was blossoming voluntarily.

Earlier this year, I used some of my “extra” time at home (courtesy of the Covid-19 shutdown) to take care of some overdue maintenance of the part of our backyard I use as a garden. I dug out a huge amount of rocky soil, worked in a lot of compost from the past year, added mulch on top, then watered it in preparation for planting. I had big plans for exactly what and where I would plant to optimize plant spacing, sun exposure and watering. This would be my best vegetable garden ever!

Within a week or two, before I had even planted the garden, I found seedlings popping up everywhere. A few were grasses and others weeds. But I watched dozens, maybe hundreds, of other little seedlings grow and begin to become recognizable as tomato, squash and basil. They were sprouting from our compost generated from produce scraps from 12 months of eating at home almost every meal of every day.

A volunteer garden was not my plan. The seedlings were not spaced right, some were growing too close to the wall, others were under bushes. I was about to start pulling everything and demand my garden comply with my original plan, whether it liked it or not.

But at just that point, I was inspired by my improv training (from pre-Covid improv workshops at the Alcazar Theatre) and decided instead to say, “Yes, and…”. In this case, it was something like, “Yes, I suppose I would like to grow some random type of squash from seeds I tossed in the compost pile last summer, and I will set up some trellises to help them grow.”

“Yes, apparently every single seed in one cherry tomato can germinate, and it will be interesting to see which seedling beats out its siblings.”

“Yes, even more tomato plants would be wonderful, and I will now get to use all my tomato cages.”

In the past few months, my volunteer garden has resulted in two or three types of tomatoes, two types of basil I grew last year plus a hybrid of them, zucchini and at least five different types of hard squashes, some of which we don’t even recognize – probably hybrids of squashes we grew last year or hybrids from cross-pollinated squash we bought. 

The result has been a remarkably entertaining spring that at times has been like participating in a new reality show of “Horticultural Survivor” where various plants get voted out of the garden when their time is up.

We are just now beginning to enjoy our harvest which, based on how things are looking, should continue well into the fall. 

This was not my plan, but I admit it ended up better. It has definitely been more entertaining. Each plant is less productive, but with more plants filling in all available space, I am getting more produce. I also found that as soon as the jungle of garden plants shaded all the soil, very few additional weeds sprouted – an added bonus!

As I snack on another cherry tomato and consider what else I can learn from this experience, what comes to mind are other times when I had a plan and wanted to convince others to buy into it. Sometimes I was successful and “won.” Other times, I “lost.” However, what is more interesting are the times I wasn’t fighting a win/lose battle, but instead was working with others to develop a new plan that was better than what I started with, and better than what anyone else originally had in mind.

This type of collaborative work sometimes occurs when a development proposal is submitted for consideration. The review process includes comprehensive analysis by staff and local governmental officials, as well as input from the public. Sometimes a proposal is just flat out wrong and should be rejected. However, in other cases, the proposal can be improved and become a positive for the community when modifications are made to address potential impacts, or to address concerns expressed by members of the public. 

This sounds easy, but it requires the applicant and the public all to be open to the possibility that a new or different plan might be better than what any of them originally conceived.

Being open minded and collaborative and saying, “Yes, and…” really can result in more than you expected… much like my collection of squashes and tomato sauce that may last us past Thanksgiving!




Mike Wondolowski is president of the Carpinteria Valley Association (CarpinteriaValleyAssociation.org), a local organization dedicated to maintaining the small beach town nature of our community. In his 30 years of involvement in planning issues, he has witnessed visionary successes, as well as decisions that were later widely regretted. When not stuck indoors, he can often be found enjoying Carpinteria’s treasures including kayaking and snorkeling along the coast, running or hiking on the bluffs or the Franklin Trail, or “vacationing” as a tent camper at the State Beach.

Mike Wondolowski writes CVN’s monthly “Lay of the Land” column. From 30+ years active in land use planning issues, he learned public participation matters. Look for him around town kayaking, tidepooling, running, or hiking when he can escape the indoors.

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