Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Garden Interview with Barbara, Part 1 of 2.

This post is part 1. of a lengthy interview that I did with a remarkable woman and friend named Barbara, who was recognized as one of the best gardeners in Boulder County while she lived here. I met Barbara when she and her husband’s one-acre farmette was open for a garden tour here in Boulder city limits, not far from where I live, on which she gardened extensively, had a low-tech greenhouse, a U-pick garden business, and raised free-range chickens and goats. After I met her, I started buying eggs from her, and in the spring, I’d stop by for some of her incredible heirloom and carefully selected varieties of herbs and vegetable spring starter plants from her greenhouse. She also made a reputation for herself with her “leaves wanted” sign in front of her property each fall, which she collected to use for winter garden layering cold mulch. Drivers-by would drop off hundreds of bags of leaves for her every year. The first time I met her and saw what she’d established, it reminded me of Vermont’s legendary Tasha Tudor. I think you will find her vegetable variety recommendations particularly valuable.

I have an enormous amount of respect for Barbara because of both her knowledge and her skill level in gardening, combined with the tireless energy in the form of hard work that she pours into it all. She simply has an instinctive and magical way with soil and plants and is one of those persons who can make it look easy, when we all know it’s not. The leading garden experts in my area looked to her for guidance and followed her lead, at times, and that’s no small thing because my county excels in good organic gardeners. Finally, Barbara also has that quality of generosity I’d seen in Midwestern women gardeners over the years, always offering free plants and precious time to share what Nature and hard work together reap. She now gardens in Washington State.

On my first visit to Barbara’s 1-acre farmette (not far from where I live) a few years ago, I jotted down the following notes to help myself remember the grounds.
"The small house’s front yard is fully ornamental with roses, mosses, and ground covers between stepping stone paths, water features and art. The back yard contains blue picnic tables and adirondak style yard chairs. Their own well, very shallow in this location near South Boulder Creek, provides ample water to keep the entire area lush and green. Fences with dog and chicken gates here and there all work together smartly. Dogs can enter the backyard at night to protect the fowl from foxes and danger. Two large goats live in the field farthest back.

There is a large area of bluegrass and a fenced-in vegetable garden with strawberries, vines, chard, brussel sprouts, and large blooming dahlias. Flowers are intermixed throughout the yards. A plastic covered greenhouse houses melons, tomatoes, and peppers. A composting chicken coop with 58 chickens free range the yard and pass through chicken gates. The kitchen looks like it is out of country home magazine with an island and utilitarian features oblivious to the modern designs of today."

Note that I took all of the included photos on Barbara’s property when she lived here in Boulder. This interview first appeared on my former site, Big Picture Agriculture in May 2013, but it is timeless.
Enjoy!--K.M.


The above photo is of Barbara in her Boulder backyard. You can see her free ranging chickens, her vegetable garden, greenhouse, and coop, all in the background.

Q: Barbara, please tell us how long you have been a gardener, and what made you become a gardener. Was there something you can look back to in your childhood that highly influenced you? Are you from a long line of gardeners?

A: I’ve been gardening since I was a little kid, maybe 5 or so — that would make it around 65 years. Of course I skipped the college years and working after that in Manhattan meant gardening took a back seat but even during those times I grew lots of plants in pots. My family has gardeners/farmers going back forever, I suppose. My dad was my biggest influence for he inspired me to take a small plot of strawberries when I was very young and cultivate, water, weed and then eat. It was so much fun that the space expanded and I started making money selling berries to neighbors and then the local small grocer.

It was empowering for a kid and I learned to love getting in the dirt and making the miracle of planting a seed or a start which grows into a powerful producing plant. My dad did me a wonderful favor when he taught me that. Mother always grew flowers, lots and lots, but the edibles were what really appealed to me when young. Dad had such a huge and abundant garden in Pennslvania – he could grow amazing amounts of food. I basically garden the way he did except that I’ve learned not to till the soil. He tilled every spring and it really distressed me to see the aftermath of cut-up writhing worms. When I would protest, he assured me that they felt no pain — but I’ve learned better and would never do that now to my micro herd of critters that dwell in a healthy garden. It’s interesting that, as a child, I knew that way was wrong.

Q: Where have you gardened?

A: I’ve gardened first in Pennsylvania for about 12 years or so but left there in 1960. Then with our first house in New Jersey (the garden state), I began really growing on my own. We had an acre and 3 kids and the garden was my creative outlet as I was a stay at home mom. That was 1969 and I gardened there for 13 years or so. As is the case with every garden I’ve done, my growing space just kept increasing. At one time I had 75 tomato plants producing and I was a canning fool. We had a creek running through the back of the property and that area was where I created a wild garden of grasses and wildflowers with paths running through it. All the neighborhood kids loved to play there, especially after the tree-house was built. Every day they could, the kids spent out in the yard and I did the same. I planted the front half of the acre with vegetables and flower gardens and many, many trees.

Then M was transferred to Florida and it was a really great job and we were eager to go. But we soon learned that Orlando was not a great place to be in summer and the lifestyle just didn’t suit us. I would be outside gardening and the neighbor ladies kept suggesting I hire “a boy” to do that job. Nice women didn’t wear shorts and bend over in the yard getting dirty – they had someone do it for them. Gardening there was a learning experience – we had orange trees, good grief! The bugs were voracious, lots of creepy crawly things. Well, our kids were getting to be snobs in private school and we got fed up with the south so M wangled a transfer back to the home office after a year.

There we bought a home in a red oak forest in Bernardsville, NJ. Very posh and beautiful, our biggest house and largest yard. But I really had no sunlight for veggies. Lots of flowers though, and I learned a lot about growing shade perennials. The entire north yard became my zen garden of moss and rocks. A moss garden takes a lot of work – although it doesn’t look like it would. We cut an oak a year for firewood and got a bit more sun that way. It was a very calm place and a total contrast to any garden I’ve had before or since. We lived there about 6 years and got our boys through high school before we decided to ditch the corporate world and head west.

We settled in Eugene as M wanted to get another degree but we moved around a lot, first in rentals and then buying three houses, living in them while we fixed them up for resale. We were there about eleven years in all. I learned to do a fast and easy garden. I began layering to kill grass and create garden space. Each house was a unique problem and had a unique solution — the garden always became a selling point. M began to appreciate the work I did. Until then, it was my hobby but he began to see that buyers really wanted an established garden with “no work” to create. We were there about eight years and gardening was easy in Eugene, the perfect environment if you discount the slugs and horrendous weeds.

I met bindweed for the first time, much to my dismay. If you’ve never had bindweed, you don’t appreciate its capacity to overtake any space. At one house we had bindweed growing happily out of the middle of an asphalt driveway five inches thick. The Master Gardener program was fairly new and I joined the training and became certified. I only stuck with it the first year for at that time, their policy was set by the state Ag schools and the master gardeners were recommending all sorts of noxious practices regarding chemicals. The answer to all garden problems came in a can or bottle. I’d never done chemicals and was pretty disgusted by that. My gardens were great – I had the city deliver entire truckloads of leaves in the fall. I got manure from a goat farm. The last 2 gardens were on alluvial soil, down by the Willamette River, famous for its flooding. Well, I learned that is the garden ideal – you can really work with alluvial soil.

We decided to move to Boulder when our first grandchild was born there. So we bought an old house, just for the alluvial soil – a floodplain of the South Boulder Creek. We stayed there for twelve years and I certainly enjoyed creating another garden from nothing. We tamed the weedy yard and grew enough veggies to feed several families. The goats were a natural addition and the chickens came later. Both contributed to the gardens fertility. I continued to follow my practice of layering mulch to convert weeds and grass to growing space and encouraged other gardeners to do the same. This was the first place I encountered a really active group of organic culinary gardeners and it was such fun to be part of that community.

Above is a view of Barbara's picture-perfect front yard garden in which you won’t find any grass. She is an artist with plants. The front yard is fully ornamental with roses, mosses and ground covers between stepping stone paths, water features and art.

M built me a beautiful huge greenhouse and I got into early season growing, especially plant starts. I gave up being a real estate broker and began to garden for pay. I designed several gardens in Boulder and Louisville and I maintained others. My most fabulous garden was a two acre estate owned by someone who could do anything she fancied and I was happy to assist. Professional gardening was strenuous work and I decided after three years of it I wanted to just put my energies into my own bit of land. I was getting old! So I dropped gardening for pay and it became a lot more fun again.

Now, I’m in yet another garden – we bought this house in White Salmon, Washington in mid-May and before the boxes were unpacked, I was laying out the garden. All the packing material went over the grass to be killed and within 6 weeks, we were eating nice veggies from a former side yard lawn. We’ve retired to a small place, one-third acre, but it will keep me busy. This is not great soil for we’re up on the top of a bluff with the massive Columbia River far below – I’ve got some soil improving to do, but that just means layering the mulch as so many times before. I’ve got it all in my head now, but to be built soon – nice garden shed, small greenhouse, huge grape arbor, front yard perennial bed, and double the size of the vegetable garden I’ve just created. Estimated time – two years to finish it all, but this is the house we’ll live in for the rest of our lives. No more gallivanting from garden to garden and it feels good!

Each garden has taught me something. I feel like it’s been quite a trip and I never regretted leaving any of my gardens to head to the next one. Creation and execution are such a kick. After I finally get this one done, I guess I’ll have to find a municipal space to convert to garden or some such thing, a volunteer project. The world needs more gardens!

THE BEST VEGETABLE VARIETIES...

Above: Nasturtiums, lettuces, and strawberries in Barbara’s garden.

Q: I have only known you when you had your acre here in Boulder. You were a regional expert on which varieties of vegetables and food-bearing plants to grow and also on soil. Can you name your favorite varieties of food bearing plants for us?

A: As to my garden in Boulder, I did have favorites, of course. As far as vigor/taste/ productivity, I think they are all VERY important and I won’t name any favorite variety that doesn’t excel in all of those categories.

In tomatoes, it was Sweet Seedless, a new Burpee hybrid that is very delicious but even more impressive for it’s disease resistance. In Boulder, there always seemed to be some tomato problem or another but Sweet Seedless was invincible. Now here, all my tomatoes are blight-free – it seems ridiculously easy to grow magnificent specimens here but I am a bit disappointed in Sweet Seedless’ flavor as it doesn’t seem such a rich taste. I know soil and amount of sun are both different and perhaps that is the key but I am really hoping that the flavor gets better as the season goes on.

Other favorites in Boulder were Sungold (everyone’s favorite, I know) and Cherokee Purple which is much like a Brandywine but easier to grow. I like its Indian history too. Last year I (and everyone else who tasted it) was blown away by the taste of an heirloom out of the Ukraine which is a new import offered by Baker Creek Heirlooms. It’s called Black Icicle and has yet to ripen here so I can’t compare the flavor in this region to last year’s. I always grow Juliet, my cooking tomato of choice – hugely prolific, lusty grower and indeterminate (unlike Roma). I am a sucker for indeterminate tomatoes – they are so much more beautiful. Those are the tomatoes that I want for sure, but each year it’s fun to try a new one or two. I’m only growing twelve this year, not like the 40 or so of the past, so less experimenting!

Lettuce – I swear by Sea of Red. It is very cold hardy and also stands forever before bolting in the heat. I like Winter Density and Winter Marvel for cold weather lettuce growing too.

Onions – should only be grown from seed, I believe, and my favorites are Varsity and Copra. So tasty and we ate those onions all winter from storage – yes, two whole cartons of onions made it onto the moving truck. And I still have four onions left — a year later! What amazing storage onions those two are. My new garden here wasn’t big enough to plant onions but I am greatly enlarging it so hopefully next year I’ll be back in the organic onion business.

Peppers – for hot varieties, Big Bomb and Gusto Purple. Big Bomb is great for pickles and Gusto Purple puts out small sized green peppers on a well shaped bush which progress to dark purple quickly and then to bright red. Very attractive and good tasting too. I always grow other hot peppers for Morris but those are my favorites.

Peppers – for sweet peppers, Chocolate, Golden California (like Cal-Wonder but it turns bright gold quickly and is much sweeter), Pinot Noir (a great purple bell with a spicy sweetness) and Gypsy.

Cukes – always for years and years, it’s been Orient Express. Lately, I’m crazy about Salt and Pepper, an elongated pale yellow cuke which is absolutely sweet.

Beans – always Scarlet Runner beans. I can’t get enough of their beauty and neither can the hummers. The beans are okay, but have a short window for picking at the right stage. Better to let them mature completely and harvest them when dried for winter cooking. For green beans, Masai Haricot Verts, Red Noodle long beans for Oriental cooking and any kind of fava I can find – they are all great.

Kohlrabi – Gigante yields a whole heck of eating without getting woody even when as big as a softball.

Broccoli – I like Piracaciba for it’s tender little heads that just keep coming. Perfect for Oriental cooking.

Beets – Lutz Long Keeper which can be harvested all winter long. And also, Bull’s Blood for the beautiful beet leaves, striking red in your salad.

Carrots – Nelson which is a nice blunt carrot and doesn’t break off in the ground when you dig it. It can stand into the winter and gets sweeter in the cold.

Asparagus – Purple Passion. Raw, it has amazing flavor. And the color is pretty cool too.

Corn – never had much luck with it except for Painted Mountain Ornamental corn which was exquisitely beautiful in so many colors. After using it for decorations, I ground the kernels and it made fine flour for pancakes, etc. (ended up pink though).

Kale – White Siberian which is very tender and tasty.

Chard – for color and good eating, Bright Lights but for better flavor, Argentata, which is a boring all white stemmed variety.

Nasturtiums – always the climbing variety for beauty and for salads (flower and leaves). Pickle the green seeds for “capers”.

Garlic chives, no particular variety but wow, nice garlicky favor on baked potatoes and beautiful edible white flowers in summer.

The above photo shows the gate to enter the backyard. There are chickens around a small girl near the vegetable garden, and there are various signs on the fence instructing the many customers about the animals living on the property.

Q: Do you have any advice for people who start their own vegetables from seed? What are your favorite seed sources?

A: My favorite seed source is Fedco and I have loved that co-op for years. It would be an interesting interview to talk to CR Lawn there – but not now for it’s the busiest time of year for seed suppliers. It is a co-op in Maine that is fairly small but growing quickly and it has terrific low prices. Plus I always get others to go in on a group order and we get a good % off. There’s no shipping either! Their printed catalog reminds me of the old Farmer’s Almanac.

I never participated in seed saver programs but did save any open pollinated variety that I wanted to plant the next year. Usually tomatoes (as they don’t cross pollinate easily), annuals and perennials, herbs, beans and corn.

As to starting seeds, my advice is do it! Not only does it enable the grower to experiment with unusual varieties inexpensively, it closes the circle on growing when you go from spring birth to death as you pull up the plants in the fall. If you buy a pack of seeds for a few bucks, you have the most amazing investment!

Another piece of advice – grow only what you like to eat or look at. But do try new varieties – there are so many coming on the market. There’s a whole new wave of tomatoes out of Russia – and so many folks are still growing awful varieties like Early Girl and Roma just because they always have.

I have probably 40 pots of seeds going right now. I use several large cardboard boxes, lamps with an incandescent bulb (for heat) and later after sprouting, CFL bulbs in lamps with the big reflectors (the ones I used for the baby chick heaters) to provide enough light for healthy leaf development. Not having my greenhouse, they are perched in an alcolve of my living room but as they start growing taller, I’ll move them outside under temporary protection. Starting seeds satisfies the gardening itch in February and March.

Q: You made your garden beautiful by combining attractive flowering plants with your vegetables and I saw how you let some of your favorite plants reseed into the next year’s garden. Please name those favorites and comment on mixing flowers with vegetables and any beneficial or symbiotic relationships those plant combinations may have had.

I am too casual about placement to really work on effective plant combinations but I did rotate my crops so that heavy feeders like tomatoes or brassicas are followed by a crop that replenishes the soil, ideally a legume like nitrogen fixing beans or peas. I mixed the flowers in because feeding the soul is just as important as feeding the soil! And of course, many flowers entice insects which are valuable as pollinators. Favorite crops that fulfill the beauty + utility formula are fennel, broccoli, garlic chives, mustards, kale, scallions and rosemary. I always let those crops go to flower and often self-seed although they sometimes try to dominate the garden.

Some plants, grown for beauty, often have edible blooms as well: climbing nasturtium, sweet peas, lavender, and marigolds. Then sometimes I just plant frivolous flowers and my dahlias were prime examples, as well as zinnias, snapdragons, tithonia, sunflowers (aka goldfinch food). I like the improbability of clumps of showy flowers in the midst of the crops and I’ll never have a vegetable garden in straight rows, way too regimented!

Q: Please explain your soil practices. What was your annual routine and did you you see your productivity change as time went on and your soil improved?

A: My soil practice was never to till, just to feed the soil life and that meant tons and tons (literally) of rottable material over the years. I began with cardboard over the grass and weeds, vast quantities of grass clippings from landscape maintenance folks and manure from local horses. All was piled up into large sheet compost blankets to rot down. The goat manure and chicken manure went on selected areas – it was perfect for the lawn and some heavy feeders in the garden plus the potted plants. I do miss the animals and their manure now!

Annually, I put down the same materials whenever I could get them but the biggest annual push was the leaf bags in autumn. I trundled over 1000 bags from the front drop off zone to the back garden most years. Sometimes a bit less and occasionally a bit more. They all disappeared into the soil thanks to my faithful worm workers. The productivity did improve but it was a great gardening area to start with since it’s in the alluvial floodplain of South Boulder Creek. However, I found over time that digging and planting became much easier in the resulting enriched layer. It became several feet deep in the oldest garden areas.

Q: Did you ever use compost tea, and if so, describe how you made it.

A: Yes, I tried it in the greenhouse but found it was such a bother. The only benefit is to foliar feed with it and it seemed much easier to mix up liquid fish fertilizer or kelp fertilizer with a bucket of water for that. I tried it with manure + water and then again with alfalfa pellets + water before abandoning the idea. As to the aerated tea – way too much fuss for me although I know others swear by it.

Q: Have you gardened with soil Mycorrhiza in mind? If so, explain techniques that you think enhance soil Mycorrhiza and how much does that stimulate garden growth?

A: Mycorrhiza will save the world – yes I believe that indeed. I read Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running years ago and believed it completely. So in Boulder, with all my leaves and hay, the mycorrhiza and other fauna had a smorgasbord to eat and I found fungal strands all through the soil. Here in Washington it was pretty barren and I bought a mycorrhiza starter last spring which I used to inoculate the entire vegetable garden and was overjoyed when small mushrooms sprouted up everywhere. I think the biggest problem with keeping them happy after feeding them is not letting the soil dry out. Mulch helps a lot. By the way, I’m growing Blue Oysters from Fungi Perfecta on several logs here – they are small still but we anticipate some good eating.

Above, is Barbara’s backyard garden during a garden tour. See how she uses companion plant combinations of flowers and vegetables which help with pest control and perhaps flavor enhancement, too.

Q: You always advertised to people driving by your property in the fall to leave their leaves with you. How many bags of leaves did you add to your garden each year and please explain how harvesting large quantities of leaves played a role in your garden?

Well, it varied from year to year but it was between 500 and 1000 big black plastic garbage bags of leaves. In the zone 5 garden, they were invaluable. I used them everywhere as normal mulch to keep the ground from drying in the winter winds and summer sun. I used crunchy dry ones as goat or chicken coop bedding (which made its way to the garden eventually), used them to protect my tender perennials like the dahlias which often lived through zone 5 winters in the ground under huge piles of leaves. I plopped the plastic bags full of leaves over the carrots, beets or parsnips and covered the patch so well that the ground didn’t freeze and we could harvest in the coldest months just by picking up a bag and digging.

The worms and other tiny critters absolutely thrive with lots and lots of leaves. I used leaves often covered by hay to demarcate paths through the garden and it was easy to change those pathways from year to year. A huge wall of leaves went up against the two long walls of the greenhouse every fall and stayed there through the winter as insulation against the cold. I always throw a few inches of leaves in the bottom of any decorative pot I plant – food for the worms that I make sure are included as well. Now I live in such a mild climate the leaves are not quite as critical. However I still am making my gardens with many sheets of overlapping cardboard (to kill the lawn without rototilling) and with a thick layer of leaves on top.

Q: In your experience, did the way in which you enhanced and mulched your soil greatly reduce your irrigation requirements here in Boulder where we, on average, get only 18 inches of rainfall per year? If so, could you please give us pointers on how to reduce water needs through good gardening practices?

Oh, improving and then maintaining the tilth is critical. A healthy soil with lots of humus keeps moisture down at the roots and of course the mulch minimizes evaporation. You want your soil to be a sponge, to encourage the millions of critters that live in a healthy garden. They will aerate and enrich the soil as they move through it, eating each other and rotting material (like your leaf mulch). They fertilize with their manure, they open channels for rain to permeate, they create tilth – they are essential to soil life. So the best gardening practice I know is to let them live their lives as undisturbed as possible — and mulch to keep them happy.

Above: The inside of Barbara's seasonal greenhouse. She sells some of her "extras".

Q: You had a lovely and simple low-tech greenhouse on your property here in Boulder where you started plants from seed. Please explain whether you think a greenhouse project is worthwhile and what did you use yours for?

A: I think a greenhouse is great for long season gardening – no frost from perhaps April through October and it’s possible to extend that if you are faithful in covering up on cold nights and days. Of course some crops don’t die off in freezing weather, so they are fairly easy. I loved being able to enter another growing zone by opening the door to the place and breathe in green growing smells.

I used it in winter for parsley, arugula, mustard, kale, lettuce (some like Winter Density, Winter Marvel and Sea of Red are pretty hardy) although the plants don’t actively grow through the low sunlight time of year and when you are snipping greens, you can’t take too much. Greens grown out of the stress of wind and extreme cold are really tender and sweet. There was a row of 9 (I think) 55 gallon drums filled with water on the north side that served as thermal mass, along with the damp ground. I also used that environment to overwinter my tender perennials like fuchsia, geranium, taro, etc. as buried in heaps of leaves, they never froze. They died back of course, but grew from the roots in spring. I loved being able to keep them alive year after year and that would never have been possible in our small house.

In spring, the greenhouse was my seed starting haven. The sun there was usually so bright that the tomatoes, peppers, etc. could be uncovered by day and then snugged under blankets of bubble wrap or floating row covers for cold nights or days. I loved growing plants “indoors” during that iffy spring season. The greens kept going strong.

In summer, the eggplant and peppers were planted in the ground to flourish in the quite hot environment under the greenhouse plastic. However the double doors at the east and west ends were opened plus the entire long south side plastic wall was rolled up 4’ from the ground so there was a good flow of air circulating. I had a big fan but never used it unless I needed to direct it at me to cool down. It NEVER got too hot for the plants there who love warmth. One summer I also grew melons and they liked it as well but they took up a lot of space.
In autumn, I continued to harvest peppers, and eggplant long after frost outside. I moved the tender perennials in for their vacation and sowed the winter greens. The greenhouse was in use 12 months a year.

(Part 2 of the interview can be found here.)

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