Friday, May 18, 2012

Vegetables for all

Local programs offer community gardening and advice on growing your own food

Express Staff Writer

Cynthia Carr and Dayle Ohalu plant kale, lettuce and broccoli at the new community garden in Hailey last weekend. The garden, managed by the Wood River Sustainability Center, offers prepared beds for local residents to try out their green thumbs. Photo by Willy Cook

Ask any Wood River Valley gardener and he or she will tell you that growing a vegetable garden in the Wood River Valley can lead you down a path to heartbreak. With a miniscule growing season, a climate that throws snow at you in June and delivers 80-degree weather in April, and mountains blocking out the sun, the valley is just not a vegetable gardener's paradise. But that doesn't stop many from trying. And the pure pleasure gained from biting into your own home-grown carrot, snapping off a juicy pea or plucking a raspberry from a thorny grip goes a long way in explaining the dogged dedication of the Wood River Valley gardener.

While those with seasoned green thumbs will already be well on their way to a brief but beautiful vegetable garden, for those just beginning there is still hope, and plenty of help available.

If space has been an issue in growing your own food, the Wood River Sustainability Center has a solution. Early last month, the center opened its first Community Garden. Located on Third Avenue and Carbonate in downtown Hailey, the garden is available for anyone to come and grow his or her own produce.

"Now individuals have the opportunity to go in and grab their own bed, and go to town with gardening," said Travis Komar, manager of the Sustainability Center. "It's specifically set up for people who might live in an apartment or condo. We provide the raised bed, soil, compost and water for an annual fee of $70."

Call 309-3360 to reserve a bed.

There are 12 raised beds on the property, which was donated by Craig Johnson, with room for expansion if the demand is there. Lack of horticultural acumen is not a barrier to ownership, as the center hosts free weekly gardening classes at the garden every Wednesday at 6 p.m.

Dick Springs, owner and founder of the center and an Idaho master gardener, leads the Wednesday classes.

"It's great camaraderie, especially for beginning gardeners," he said. "A lot of times when you start to garden you feel really overwhelmed and isolated, and this group embraces everybody and shares information."

According to Springs, anyone just starting to plant a garden should consider leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach.

"Spinach works very well in the springtime," he said. "Plant them from seed as soon as the soil temp gets to be about 50 degrees, as soon as you can plow.

"Broccoli, kale, cauliflower and cabbage also do really well here. They like a slightly alkaline soil, which our's is. You can start them inside in March or earlier, and then you can transplant them outside around the first of May."

But if you didn't plan ahead, don't despair—you can buy starts of produce such as tomatoes, cucumber, pepper, squash, eggplant and okra at local garden centers.

"They will all do relatively well here if you wait until around the sixth to 10th of June before planting," Springs said.

Whether you're just starting with starts or want to plan ahead for next spring, the first step in any successful vegetable garden is preparing the bed.

"The first thing you want to do is prepare your beds—make it as attractive as possible to the seed you're going to plant, put in fertilizer, soil amendments, get the proper PH," Springs said. "You want your soil to be absolutely perfect for the plant or the seed, so that when the plant goes in, it's in heaven!

"You want to get rid of any growth that's on the ground right now, and then you put compost and maybe some well-rotted manure on the bed. We make what's called a complete organic fertilizer and we put some of that on, mix all that up into a witch's potion and plant your vegetables.

"Then you want to pick out the plants that are really applicable to our short season. Look at days to maturity on a seed packet and read the fine print to see whether it means from transplanting or from seed. We have 65-85 days if we're lucky, so you want something that's going to mature in 70 days or less. Then you try to extend your season a little bit but using a row cover with a polyester material to protect the plants down to 25-28 degrees."

Springs' first rule of planting a vegetable garden, however, is to figure out what you want to eat.

"Do you really like carrots or salad greens?" he said. "Then go get that seed and come over to the garden and we'll be happy to show people how to plant it. It all starts with the eating!"

The biggest mistake he sees beginning gardeners make is planting seed too deep.

"A general rule is that when you plant a seed, you plant it at a depth which is the diameter of the seed," he said.

If you plant it too deeply, it will expend an unnecessary amount of energy pushing its way to the surface and the crop will be a weakened.

If the prospect of starting your own garden still seems to daunting, head over to the Hunger Coalition's Hope Garden on Walnut Street in Hailey. The organization is always looking for volunteers to help maintain its garden, which produces produce for its clients.

This year, the coalition is also offering free gardening classes. This Saturday, there will be an "Irrigation 101" class offered, and next Saturday, May 26, it will be "Gardening on a Dime." The classes run from 10-11:30 a.m. at the Hope Garden. Hallie Reikowsky, the coalition's garden education manager, will lead the classes, and plans to run two a month throughout the summer.

Reikowsky has been running the Hope Garden since it opened. Now in its third season, the garden has been an unqualified success.

"The garden has exceeded our expectations," she said. "It has been extremely well received by the community and we've made lots of great new partnerships through it."

Reikowsky has been able to grow an amazing array of produce, including melons, fruit trees, squashes, tomatoes, cilantro, garlic, beets, carrots, turnips and radishes. And while she doesn't suggest melons as the best starter plant for local gardeners, she does recommend garlic.

"If you can remember to get it in the fall, garlic is a fail-proof crop," she said. "It's a great easy crop—it deters bugs, rarely gets diseases, requires very little maintenance and really lends to that feeling of success a garden can give.

"We've also had a lot of success in the garden with fava bean. They seem to love this mountain climate, and are very low-maintenance. The picking is a bit tedious, but they're so big and beautiful, people would feel really successful growing them."

Reikowsky also advises that those planning to use starts to get their garden growing this year be sure to harden them off.

"A plant from a garden center may have been sitting in a warm greenhouse all spring, so it's important to put it out for 15 minutes for the first day, then an hour and then three hours, and so on."

The Hunger Coalition is also branching out its community gardening program this year. It's introducing a Grow Your Own program at the Hope Garden, through which qualified community members will be loaned private growing space. Only four plots will be available the first season. To apply for a plot or for more information about the gardening classes, call Reikowsky at 720-1521.

While there's a frost in the forecast for this weekend, there will still be enough time to ensure that home-grown tomatoes are on the menu this August.

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