OK Portlandia, so you buy only organic, but do you grow organic, too? Let Sandhya Tillotson, executive director of local nonprofit The Garden Project, help you put your money where your mouth is.
What challenges does the first-time gardener face in our area?It’s more challenging with our arid climate and short growing season. I built hoop houses with plastic sheets over the top for my garden. That helps warm up the soil this time of year so that I can plant a bit earlier and extend the season a little bit further into the fall. At our workshops with the community garden, we give all sorts of tips for what grows best in Southwest Colorado. CSU’s extension is also a great resource. They’re doing a Backyard Food series that starts in mid-May and goes throughout the summer growing season. That’s a great way to learn about the best ways to irrigate, organic pest control, mending soil. Lots of resources in the community.
Speaking of soil …Composting is huge, just to add more organic matter. We have a lot of clay [in Durango] that can get really compacted, so if you can start your own little backyard compost pile with your kitchen scraps, it can add so much to the life of your soil. I really focus on feeding the soil rather than feeding the plants. If you have worms and microbes and a living soil, you’ll have more living plants because they’ll have the nutrients they need, and those microbes and roots will be working in synergy.
What goes in to good compost?Egg shells, coffee grounds, carrot tops, lettuce that’s gone a little funky, potato peelings – any kind of fruit or vegetable scraps. You want to avoid dairy, meat, things that you scrape off of your plate after a meal, because it’ll be fats and oils, things that are hard to break down.
What about for renters and people who don’t own the land they live on?Make a container garden! Small pots with greens or tomatoes; herbs are easy to do. Microgreens are really fun. Put ’em on your windowsill and grow snap pea seeds, broccoli seeds, radish seeds. Let ’em grow several inches tall and you can just cut them and use them as a garnish for salads or sandwiches. They’re packed full of nutrients. Or join our community garden!
Let’s get even smaller: apartments, tiny houses …I would really like to see front yard gardens, rather than grass yards. Most yards [have] Kentucky Bluegrass that doesn’t belong here and is using water we don’t have, so let’s put vegetable gardens in front of people’s houses, or even in that little strip of land between the sidewalk and the street. In Palmer, Alaska, all of the downtown flower boxes are bursting with chard and kale and edible flowers. They have these signs that say, “Please pick what you need, and weed while you’re here.” They post pictures of common weeds and anyone can go by and use that food. It’s really cool. I would like to see gardens popping up wherever we have land or space.
Which plants do you recommend for beginners?Grow things that you actually like to eat. You don’t need to plant zucchini. [laughs] Tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, lettuces, kale – all pretty easy. Microgreens are really easy, as long as you keep them wet. Those are easy to do in a windowsill. Salad greens in a raised bed. You can also grow things that might be a little too expensive at the grocery store. Herbs, spices – those things are like 4 or 5 dollars! You can buy a plant for that and get way more.
What’s your advice for the beginning gardener?Start small, with something that you know you can manage. Be OK with some failures. I’ve never been able to successfully grow a carrot. Gardening is sort of like life. You’re going to have some successes and some failures, and it’s going to be different next year, so don’t give up. Having a green thumb or a black thumb does not exist. Everyone can be a gardener. It’s inherent and intrinsic to the human experience to be growing our own sustenance. What’s the worst that could happen? You spend a couple bucks on seeds and some materials and you get to dig in the dirt! Maybe even with your kids! I’m amazed at how many kids don’t even want to get their hands dirty, or touch the soil, or hold a worm. You say farming and they think of an app! Be OK with experimenting and trying new things, with learning in a really experiential way. You’ll start to tune in, “Oh, maybe this plant doesn’t like to grow here,” or “Hmmm, it may need a little less light.” If you slow down, notice and observe, it’ll be more successful.
Cyle Talley once grew a zucchini as long as his arm, and then had a nightmare about it taking over the world. If there’s something you’d like to Get Smart about, email him at: [email protected]