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How Does Your Garden Grow?

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Gardening tips from the experts

Although I’m not one of them, I know people with wonderful vegetable gardens: Christine at Huckleberry Tent and Breakfast, Boots’ wife Becky, Jim & Sandii Mellen, and pretty much everyone who works out at All Seasons Garden Center for starters. But that doesn’t stop me from finding more. Just like ripe tomatoes on a vine, you can never know too many good gardeners, because you can never tell when you’ll come across one with a tip or trick that solves exactly the problem you’ve been having, or with an idea of something to grow you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.

I visited two such gardeners right here in Clark Fork: Roland Derr and Jeanne Weatherford. Roland and his wife, Pat, live just down the block from me so I pass his garden every single time I leave my house; often, it leaves me green with envy. What stands out to me particularly is his sweet corn. One day there is no corn in his garden, and seemingly the next day, his corn is ten feet tall. (I’m not exaggerating by much.) Given that I’ve never managed to get sweet corn over four feet (nor with a mature ear), I wanted to know his technique.

“Hard work,” he told me. “Gardening is hard work.” Anyone who’s spent a little time digging up dirt knows that’s the truth, and Roland knows it more than most. At 87, and a Clark Fork native, he’s probably dug up enough garden beds over the years to match the size of the town—and maybe more than once.

“My mom always had a garden, and she was a hard worker,” he said, so the apple obviously doesn’t fall far from the tree. Roland estimates he’s had a garden of his own since at least his teenage years.

It’s not just hard work that grows that corn, however. Roland waits until the ground is warm enough for planting; in fact, as of this writing, he hasn’t even planted his corn yet. “Soak your corn for a day before you plant, and a week later, if the soil’s warm enough, it’ll be coming up,” he told me. He also emphasized the quality of the soil the corn will be growing in, pointing out their need for nitrogen. “Get some 16/16/16, or some good aged manure and really till it in,” he said. “And then just get some corn and plant it.”

Jeanne Weatherford, who owns ArrowWorks in Clark Fork with her husband, Pete, bought an old house in Clark Fork 20 years ago and began working on the gardens. Although her vegetable garden is amazing, the entire property is a joy to walk through, with fruit trees, berries, succulents, grasses, and flowers everywhere you look. Mutual friends look to Jeanne as a tomato goddess, of sorts. “We love salsa,” she said, so tomatoes and onions are big crops for her.

Jeanne’s big tomato “secrets” are red plastic mulch, which she says makes the fruit ripen more quickly, and plenty of regular mulch. When planting, she digs a furrow in the mulch, lays the red plastic over it, then creates holes in the plastic for planting the tomatoes. She includes a cup of oatmeal, 1/2 cup of epsom salts, and as many egg shells as she can find in the bottom of the hole.

She has tips for a lot of edibles—coffee grounds for raspberries, ash for carrots and peas (“It’s lime, and it sweetens the soil.”), pine needles for blueberries, tinfoil for eggplants and peppers, plus cayenne pepper, tea bags and more egg shells to keep slugs away from the food. 

Her biggest garden “trick,” however, is to work less. “You can get consumed, growing things,” she explained, so she’s made an effort to keep down the work as much as possible. She relies heavily on mulch, not just on the plants but on her paths as well—all of her grass clippings go onto her pathways. Mulch not only reduces the need for water, but does the yeoman’s work of keeping down weeds. When weeds do begin to appear, she just takes a stirrup hoe, runs it over the ground, and throws down more grass clippings. “Don’t try to dig up the root of the weed,” she said. “Just loosen it up and throw the grass clippings down. They’re pure nitrogen.” Grass clippings are a “hot” fertilizer, and will do the job, she says, of killing the weeds.

Both Roland and Jeanne have shared their gardens through the years with area wildlife; Roland has a very tall fence around his, while Jeanne this year put electric fencing above her existing fence.

Interestingly, both Roland and Jeanne grow a lot of food that they don’t just eat themselves. Roland says that he and Pat, as they get older, “tend to eat out a lot,” so a lot of their garden produce is given away. Jeanne says her garden manages to feed five to ten families. While a love of good food might lead one to plant a garden, the enjoyment of doing so is obviously enough to continue doing it throughout the years. Even if it is hard work!

-Trish Gannon

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Landon Otis

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gardening, Roland Derr, Jeanne Weatherford, Pete Weatherford, Arrowworks

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