Get Your Hands Dirty

Jul 11th, 2017 | By | Category: Commentary

By Janna Graham/Commentary

Janna Graham

Janna Graham

With the mild days of summer stretching in front of us, local gardeners are hard at work, cultivating well-known culinary rewards:  From vine-ripened tomatoes, to carrots and cucumbers and tiny new potatoes, a personal garden plot can provide freshness and flavor unmatched by any supermarket.  Tending a garden offers intangible benefits as well.  Nancy Goodman, who has been gardening since she moved to Idaho in 1998, considers it to be “a creative art in many ways.  I find it completely relaxing and love being part of nature’s process all year round.”
“It seems a natural part of what I do,” says Sonja Launspach, a Pocatello resident who has gardened all of her adult life.  “For me, it’s meditative, and it gives me a physical break from my other work.”  Anders Johnson, who maintains raised beds in most of his yard, grew tired of maintaining the “expensive, fruitless aesthetics” of a grass lawn in our dry desert climate.  He gardens “to be connected with where our food comes from.  There’s something marvelous and inspiring watching the process of a seed sprouting, growing, then reaching the table.”  The self-sufficiency afforded by gardening is a gratifying bonus.
For the inexperienced, starting a garden can seem unrealistic, unnecessary, or just plain difficult.  After all, farmers markets and generous friends can supplement our summer tables with the colorful produce of the season, allowing us to tune in to the rhythms of nature and enjoy the taste and nutrition of locally-grown food.  It is also easy to be intimidated by neighbors with enormous and demanding garden plots, or to feel discouraged by a “yard” that consists of only a few squares of concrete.  If gardening only required showing up, then more of us would do it!
Gardening in southeast Idaho presents its own challenges.  As Nancy points out, “Anyone can garden in areas with lots of rain.  I feel very accomplished when gardening in a desert climate and short growing season.”  The lack of adequate precipitation makes irrigation mandatory, and the low humidity calls for moisture preservation techniques, such as mulch cover and timed watering.  Many find that the sudden fluctuations in local temperature can also cause problems.  “One day it’s 80 degrees, the next day it’s 48.  That can confuse plants,” Sonja points out.  “I am for sure guilty of getting overzealous when spring rolls around – I do it every year – and planting a whole bunch of summer-season plants that get hit by that last frost or snowstorm,” Anders admits.  Nancy agrees.  “This year I learned that more plants should be kept indoors until late May.  Hard frost killed my eggplant and new corn and squash plants.”  With our relatively short growing season, it is wise to start plants indoors, put them outside only after Memorial Day, and stick to varieties that will be ready to harvest before the danger of fall frosts.
Often, these challenges just make the process more interesting for avid local gardeners, who pay close attention to what works and what doesn’t and strive to maximize their harvest each year (and enjoy their gardens in the meantime).  This year, Nancy is expanding her “gourd tunnel” by reinforcing it with cattle fence panels and fence stakes from a local ranch store.  The tunnel saves space by lifting vines off the ground, and it can support the weight of several bean, squash, and pumpkin plants.  Anders is practicing “self-control” by curtailing overcrowding in an effort to increase yields.  He and his wife also planted brussels sprouts and okra for the first time and have added more flowers to attract pollinators to their yard.  Sonja dug out two new beds this year, replaced a few plants she didn’t like, and planted new varieties of kale and summer squash.
If you’re interested in gardening but have a brown thumb (or limited time and space), start small.  Herbs grow well in pots, but with a little care, so do tomatoes, broccoli, and greens such as chard and kale.  It’s not too late to get a useful harvest this year.  Many plants, such as radishes, take well to multiple plantings in a season.  Some varieties of carrots, snap peas, kale, and chard do better when planted in the fall.  Learn all you can by reading and asking questions of more experienced gardeners.  Gardeners in more forgiving climates or areas with richer soil may find that nearly every vegetable thrives with minimal care, but you will increase your chances of success if you seek out plants that are adapted to our climate and soil, particularly those that can handle the extremely dry conditions.  For help, connect with a regional seed company such as Snake River Seeds, which offers varieties uniquely adapted to the Intermountain West and encourages gardeners to save the seeds from their strongest plants, further perfecting the variety.
Truly successful gardeners understand that a garden is never really finished, and even the most thoughtful plans can go awry.  “Be patient and be prepared to make some mistakes,” advises Nancy.  Conditions are rarely perfect; learning to accept uncertainty may be gardening’s greatest gift.  “This isn’t the 1850s, and you’re not placing all of your eggs in this garden basket for winter survival,” says Anders.  “Don’t be afraid to experiment and get your hands dirty.”

 Janna Graham is outreach coordinator for the Pocatello Co-op. She’s at outreach@pocatellocoop.com.

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