by: Dustin Heron Urban
I swung the pick axe toward the ground, connecting with the hard-packed glacial sand and stone. Sparks flew as steel and granite collided and the impact reverberated up the axe handle, through my arms and back. This was the scene last spring as my wife Katie and I literally carved out an arable patch of ground in our South Main home’s backyard. In retrospect, an excavator of some sort would have made an awful lot of sense, but I doubt our tomatoes, carrots and peas would taste so sweet now had we gone that route. Instead, after hours of hard labor, we had ourselves 250 square feet of earth amended to a depth of two feet just in time for growing season.
And what we have now is a harvest that has far exceeded our expectations; a variety of vegetables, canned, frozen, refrigerated and otherwise preserved now stashed about our house.
It is common to hear that growing food here in Buena Vista is no small feat. And while the growing season is as brief as the autumn frosts are hard, our first adventure in high altitude organic home gardening was full of success stories.
It all began with the arrival of a small shipping envelope full of seed from the High Altitude Gardens catalog, published by Seeds Trust of Idaho’s high country. All the varieties we purchased were purported to have frost-tolerant traits suitable to high country such as ours.
Cold season varieties did particularly well in our postage stamp garden. Purple Top White Globe turnips grew beautifully (see picture at right of Katie holding these beauties), as did our Scarlet Nantes carrots, Bloomsdale Long Standing spinach, Early Wonder Tall Top beets, Snap and Snow Peas, Rocquette Arugula and several varieties of lettuce.
Even more exciting was the success we had with warm season crops such as peppers and tomatoes, which are notoriously hard to grow here. We started from seed a handful of Seeds Trust’s Siberian tomato varieties as well as a smattering of tomato starts from Buena Vista’s Pleasant Avenue Nursery (check out our article featuring this fine local business. Some of our favorite varieties include Seeds Trust’s Urbikany and Galinas and Pleasant Avenue’s Buck’s County and their yellow cherry variety, Taxi.
We attribute our tomato success primarily to the fact that we chose for our tomato bed a location against the south-facing wall of our house, which was well-protected and acted as a heat sink, feeding the tomato plants extra heat during the day and moderating the cooler nighttime temperatures. We also highly recommend using a row cover on your tomatoes as it accelerates ripening. In addition, we integrated into our tomato bed a small plot for hot peppers, which also surprised us with a good crop. Basil did well in this plot as well.
The ultimate result of our success with these warm weather varieties is a freezer full of pesto and October dinners centered on the best fresh salsa I have tasted. All we do is throw in a food processor a few pounds of tomatoes we have been ripening indoors, three or four hot peppers, some cilantro, onion, lime juice and salt (admittedly store bought), and we have in front of us a huge bowl of the best salsa this side of the divide.
Now before you conclude that organic gardening in South Main sounds like a walk through the river park, I should point out that we also had some fabulous failures. Our cucumbers never exceeded one inch in height, we had zero germination on our Parsnip crop, our Kale refused to grow more than five inches tall, and our biggest pumpkin was the size of a softball. But all in all we are thrilled with the success of this first-year garden, especially considering the fact that we had to import every last nutrient in the soil. But we have a compost bin full of black gold ready to be added to our garden, and our small plot will only get richer in nutrients as the years go by.
Our first season on this agricultural adventure has been a true joy, and we are extremely fortunate to have the support of local farmers like Seth and Caitlin Roberts of Buena Vista’s Weathervane Farm who have extensive experience with organic gardening at high altitude. South Main may not be located on the most fertile of soil, but with a little commitment and love, you too can make your yard a source of the healthiest and best-tasting produce around. If you are considering such an undertaking, however, might I suggest a backhoe?
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