Eating local is easy when it comes from your own backyard
by Allison Johnson
The olive oil sizzles in the pan as I drop in freshly picked sage leaves. Within moments they’ve darkened, curled and crisped. After drying them on a paper towel and sprinkling with sea salt, I stand by my stove and let them dissolve on my tongue— aromatic, lighter than air, perfect. This, I think to myself, is the reason I garden.
Thanks to five small raised beds totaling 315 square feet, I experience moments like this throughout the year. There’s the first spinach salad in June, the raspberries on ice cream in July, the cherry tomatoes of August. My family enjoys homemade butternut squash soup in January, apple butter in February, and fresh chives on egg omelets by March.
My raised beds (a style of gardening that yields the most produce from the least area and allows the soil to warm faster in the spring) hold tomatoes, onions, leeks, red peppers, sugar snap peas, carrots, beans, chard, spinach, broccoli, lettuce, cucumber, potatoes, garlic, zucchini, various herbs and assorted squash. Elsewhere in the backyard we have fruit trees, raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb—and it all sits on less than a quarter of an acre. When I grumble and moan about the watering, weeds or my farmer’s tan, my husband astutely replies,
“Yeah, but you love every minute of it.” He’s right. The payoff is having fragrant lavender to grace my windowsill, or gazpacho made almost entirely from my own backyard.
How hard is it to cultivate a home garden? Whether you’ve got two square feet for a tomato plant and some herbs or an acre, the learning curve is well worth the end result. The words of John Claudius Loudoun, who wrote An Encyclopaedia of Gardening in 1822, still ring true: “For all things produced in a garden, whether of salads or fruits, a poor man will eat better that has one of his own, than a rich man that has none.”
Tips for Home Gardening in the Roaring Fork Valley
Marjorie MacDonald, past-president of the local Pardon My Garden Club, which has more than 60 members in the Roaring Fork Valley, advises residents first to spend some time getting to know their environment.
“There are so many microclimates in this valley that you need to understand where you’re living,” she says. Living near a river like home gardener Kim Bock, who owns landscape healthcare company Prima Plant Services, for instance, might be colder than locations farther away. Bock suggests new gardeners “start small and do it well, rather than have your garden be too big and not well amended.” She recommends finding the sunniest spot available—one also sheltered from wind and fenced off from animals such as deer.
Once a suitable spot has been chosen, gardeners need to lay out what they want to grow. Jerome Osentowski of the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, for example, grows a perennial edible garden.
“Perennials are hardier and then you’re not starting from scratch each year,” he says. “You can fill in the gaps with annual vegetables.” He also employs an overall agroforestry strategy that ranges from fruit trees to gooseberry bushes to ground cover such as leafy greens.
Adding organic material to the garden each year is just as important as location. The regional soil tends to be too alkaline and filled with clay, which makes drainage and absorption of nutrients difficult. Bock adds CaCa LoCo seasoned manure (www.cacaloco. com), while Master Gardener Susan Mackin Dolan recommends ground sea kelp, which attracts worms and may help with cold tolerance. My garden benefits from home composting, which is an easy, affordable and convenient source of nutrients.
Frost dates as late as June 15 make it hard to establish a productive garden even if the soil is perfect. Various strategies to combat the cold include planting cold-resistant crops like spinach, broccoli, and sugar snap peas as opposed to tomatoes (which can fail to set fruit in overnight temperatures below 55 degrees) or picking seed varietals that take less time to mature. Osentowski recommends building or purchasing a greenhouse like those sold at www.growingspaces.com, while Mackin Dolan wards off the cold— especially for seedlings and tomatoes—with a Wall O’ Water. Bock often puts buckets over her young plants, and I use cotton frost blankets that are sold at most nurseries. Keeping an eye on the temperatures in spring and fall is critical. Bock, who lives near El Jebel, always monitors Aspen’s forecast so she’s never surprised by a frost.
Once the garden is planted, attentiveness is key to a successful yield. “It’s like the old saying, ‘If you don’t go shut in the chickens every night, the fox will get them,’” says Bock. “You’ve got to be diligent.” Some crops need extra attention. Squash benefit from pollination assistance in transferring pollen from male to female flowers. Others, such as, leeks, require extra nutrients. Mackin Dolan recommends consistent watering at the ground level by a soaker hose or similar system so that plants don’t dehydrate in the hot sun.
Weeds and insects are particular challenges in this area. Mackin Dolan uses landscaping fabric topped with grass clippings or mulch to keep the weeds at bay, while MacDonald is trying a new method that involves spreading three to five layers of unprinted newspaper and top dressing it with soil pep or mulch to smother the weeds and turn them into compost for the soil. Bock mulches using nonfertilized grass clippings, while I yank “weedlings” industriously in the first weeks of summer and mulch using an aged certified weed-free straw. Mulching adds extra nutrients to the soil and keeps it from drying out, but it can also lead to less frost-hardiness if the heat of the soil can’t penetrate upward at night.
As for insects, Bock picks them off by hand or uproots the entire plant if the infestation is severe. I practice companion planting, adding marigolds, garlic and nasturtiums to my beds to ward off some species and Osentowski recommends checking out the Department of Agriculture Insectary at Palisade, which focuses on introducing “good bugs” into garden landscapes.
Even when you do everything right, failure is a natural part of gardening. I’m still waiting for my four-year-old asparagus crop to yield more than one dinner, while my bell peppers suddenly took off one year when I inadvertently gave them shade. Keep a journal to remember what worked and what didn’t from year to year, and most of all, don’t be afraid to experiment. •
Allison Johnson planted her first seeds shortly after finishing this story. Naturally, the weather immediately dropped below freezing, which is par for the course in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Resources for home gardeners
Nursery staff can be a tremendous resource, so don’t be afraid to pick their brains. Eagle Crest Nursery, for instance, has 10 Colorado Certified Nursery Professionals on staff, along with organic seeds and plants for sale.
Favorites for local gardeners : www.planttalk.org
Colorado State University’s web site www.ext.colostate.edu
Mackin Dolan also recommends:
I return most frequently to:
All Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting
Insect, Disease, & Weed I.D. Guide:
Find it Fast Organic Solutions for Your Garden
Mackin Dolan recommends:
The Good Seed Company: www.goodseedco.net/heirloom.html
High Altitude Garden Seeds Trust: www.highaltitudegardens.com
International Seed Saving Institute: www.seedsave.org
The Pardon My Garden Club offers an annual plant sale and meets the first Friday of each month. If you join between October and April the annual $25 fee is half-off. (970) 927-6722.
Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute offers an edible nursery, permaculture workshops, landscaping consulting, a greenhouse and more. www.crmpi.org