Thoughts on gardening in the high desert

Patches of nature provide nourishment for body and soul

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Why have gardens?

“It is well for us to analyze just why we risk sprained backs, blistered hands and depleted pocketbooks to have gardens,” wrote George Kelly. “Gardening brings us closer to Nature and supplies part of our craving for beauty. We all have a craving for beauty ... After a frustrating day trying to get along with hordes of unreasonable people, nothing calms one more than an hour in the garden ... Those who learn their lessons from the garden are the calmest, wisest and healthiest of all people.”

When we moved to Littleton in 1956, it was from Ames, Iowa, where everything would grow happily in that black, rich soil, with just very minimal encouragement. A patch behind our barracks-style student housing provided enough tomatoes, salad greens and other veggies to feed the two of us and several neighbors.

We bought a Littleton home, near Marathon Oil, where my former husband had a job and moved into a house with lots of room to grow plants and a family. (I soon found myself passing a petition to annex Aberdeen Village into the City of Littleton and in another year, a petition to pave the clay streets, which were slick and difficult after rain.)

We purchased a shovel and found clay really tough to dig! We learned about “winter kill” the result of the drying effect of the hot winter sun. As well as the alkaline condition of the soil.

The folks at the newly open research center told us about Cottonwood Garden Shop on Santa Fe Drive and the wonderful proprietors, George and Sue Kelly, who had designed Marathon’s grounds, and they set a path towards green things that has lasted.

Readers who can find a used copy of George Kelly’s first book, “How to Have Good Gardens in the Sunshine State” or the follow-up, “Rocky Mountain Horticulture,” (Pruett Press, Boulder, 1957), would probably still find it useful, although we have a much greater range of plant materials to choose from, thanks to growers who adapted many native Western plants and learned from Kelly and others how to reproduce quantities of them reliably. His guidelines for choosing basic trees and plants are based on this place, rather than trying to grow a garden like we did back East.

Still, many years later, it’s a joy to contemplate my now-small balcony container garden and to read about National Wildlife Federation magazine’s suggestions in an article, “Homegrown for Good” about an organic garden in Minnesota that is based on biodiversity. And another at Sweden’s Lund University encouraging a great variety of pollen-enhanced plants and fruit “which provide egg-laying sites for many species of butterflies.” The whole pitch is a switch in thinking (from eliminating that caterpillar eyeing the cabbage to letting it exist as food for a hungry bird which will want to visit).

Ecologist Henrik Smith of Sweden’s Lund University says of gardens, “Their conservation value may be particularly important in cities, where surrounding landscape may be intensely developed.” Blossoms of fruits and vegetables provide pollen and nectar for native bees, butterflies and flies, as well as the fat bumblebees we see. (In fact, native bees — more than 100 varieties in Colorado — are a new interest here.)

To increase a home food garden’s wildlife benefits, one can interplant with native plants that provide some “wildlife-friendly weediness.” Songbirds and other predators will feast on aphids, scales, whiteflies, cutworms, stinkbugs and slugs. Native asters, goldenrods, wild roses and berry bushes will attract “garden helpers.”

Of course, avoid pesticides and increase the diversity instead to attract other wildlife. And find some little people one can encourage to “really look!”

The article “Homegrown for Good” by Jessica Snyder Sachs, opens with a wonderful photo of a hoary squash bee wallowing in a golden squash blossom’s pollen and talks about attracting butterflies; “from plain cabbage whites to dramatic long-tailed skippers and black swallowtails, whose caterpillars nurture songbirds” ... Think biodiversity ...

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