Thistle Smarts…….

…..And other vaca….I mean adventures in community gardening.

So to begin with, this week has been amazing. Working in the dirt with a published author, retired EPA-worker, environmental film documenter, co-housing pioneer and seasoned gardener of 25 years in a beautiful and well-established acre of garden beds, an orchard and solar-powered water pumps has proven to be a little fairyland Mecca of Colorado gardening.

4-chambered cold frame

I crossed an invisible boundary line when I drove across western Kansas last week. In his book, The Zen of Gardening in the High and Arid West, Dave Wann highlights the incredible differences that the soil and climate hold here in this western region of the country a mile above sea level.

For starters, they almost never have to amend the soil with lime (to alkalinize it) because it’s so rich in rocks and mineral-matter that it’s naturally above 6.5pH (considered “sweet,” or alkaline by many veggie standards) most of the time. What he has spent the last 10 years amending the soil with is well-rotted compost to build up the organic matter of the clayey-type ground under foot, as well as add some acidity. (Of course, all farmers/gardeners would benefit immensely from adding organic matter in the form of compost since it also offers a host of macro – worms, red wigglers – and micro – good bacteria! and beneficial microbes and fungi – organisms to the soil that help break down nutrients for plant use, aerate the soil, provide carbon matter that helps the soil hold onto water like a sponge, and keep some diseases at bay. Think of it as probiotics for your garden.)

The way we incorporate it into the soil is by placing a thin coating over the top of the area to be “bedded,” and then turning it under in a semi double-digging fashion (look up “biointesive gardening” as practiced by John Jeavons in Willits, CA. His book is: How to Grow More Vegetables (And Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine) Dig a slice with your shovel, turn it over an place it right next to the spot from whence it came, move on to the other side of the hole and procure another slice and place it all topsy-turvy into the first hole; continue on down the bed and around until you’ve hit every shovel-sized space. You can then go over the entire bed with a hoe to break up any large clumps, and then rake it over to smooth the top. At this point the bed is dark and rich-smelling from all the compost and slightly “raised” due to freshly-incorporated air space. It’s also neat to think of the microbes in your compost and soil acting as the “yeast that makes the soil rise.”

Hoop houses with lettuces, spinach and arugula coming up

“When we grow crops but don’t regenerate the soil, it’s like milking a cow but not feeding it.” -Dave Wann/John Jeavons


Carrots, nasturtiums, sweet basil and radishes and a few strategically placed onions were sown into the first raised bed I tilled. Everything was seed except for the onions which had been started in flats a month or so ago and housed in the cold frames on the West side of the garden. Lettuces, spinach, broccoli and some herbs also live in there right now. We’ve been closing it up at night (and stuffing blankets in the crack-spaces due to the wood warping over the years,) and re-opening it in the morning as soon as the chill is out of the air and the sun is adamant that she’ll be seeing us through another bright blue Colorado day.

Covering the hoop houses at night with plastic secured with rocks and logs

And what would gardening be without some weeding? Hand weeding is actually one of my favorite things to do in the garden. Want some instant gratification? Work down a row of salad mix lettuce pulling out lamb’s quarters or shepherd’s purse, or a row of tiny, helpless carrot seedlings facing the giants of fescue, Timothy or pigweed and you’ll receive immediate satisfaction in having done a major ‘clean up’ job, gotten a little sunshine, exercise and some well-deserved dirt under those fingernails! The raspberry patch next to the stream is a case in point. Along with all the goodies the alpaca manure Dave got from a local farm provided, thistle seed must have been hiding in the mix because it had sprouted up, settled in and called all its friends and relatives telling them what a wonderful spot it had found. Enter WWOOFing Weeder extraordinare – give me a tap-root prying tool and some gloves and I’m ready to go to town on some thistle. Getting it in this stage (early and little, that is, and WAY before going to seed) is the best time for such an endeavor. Also – after a rain or watering is a great time to try to pull weeds as the ground is a bit looser, especially for those plants with long taproots such as dock, thistle and dandelion.

Taproots are common root systems pretty much the country-over, but their prevalence is very apparent here in the mile-high foothills of the Rockies. It makes complete sense, being so high above sea-level, that for plants to survive and get enough to drink they’d have to have roots they can send downdowndown to reach some ground moisture. None of those wimpy, topsoil layer, lateral root systems in these harsh and high plains!

Another way we cover those precious babies! Inverted gallon pots

Actually, if you want to talk about some very-not-wimpy lateral root systems, you could bring up Johnson grass and send any experienced gardener running with their hands in the air. Johnson grass = the devil. It sends out branches and branches of side shoots about 2 inches beneath soil level and they are strong! And persistent; able to re-root themselves and send up more grass if you don’t get every last piece of the root clinging to the plant you pull up. Like the strawberry patch here in Golden, Pinwheel Farm in Kansas had some patches of Johnson grass and it was there that I was taught that it’s much better to pull the soil away from the roots than to pull the roots away from the soil, meaning; dig up a clump of grass with a spading fork or other tool and lash at the root ball until you loosen all the soil, sprinkling it back down into the bed. That way you know you’ve unearthed all the roots and shoots instead of breaking some off underneath the soil when grasping a clump of grass and pulling from above. This method also does wonders for soil tilth and aeration.

Besides weeding, we’ve been doing a lot of looking at what it would take to get a more permanent irrigation system set up inside the garden. Various connectors and lengths of hose, drip-tape, soaker hose and supply-line all give my head a whirl. It’s like mapping out a maze within a maze: Should the connector coming off the main line have 2 or 3 lead outs? Are we able to get drip-tape lines out to all the garden beds as they are currently set up? What about still being able to hand water as needed? And what portions of it would need to be trenched or left above-ground? It’s a exercise in systematic, logical thinking – not my forte’ admittedly, but a good exercise nonetheless.

Capturing run-away raspberries and potting them up in garden soil for a fellow gardener was a fun activity. Digging with a trowel to unearth shortened year-old cane with vibrant new leaves coming out of the base in promise of this year’s cane, I secured them in half gallon plant pots ¾ full of soil from a recently tilled bed. These got a good dose of water to settle them in and will be on their way to a new home shortly.

As another weed to highlight: shepherd’s purse is a wonderful edible, both for humans and animals (at least sheep, duh) alike. It’s growing rampant in and around some of the garden beds and paths, just starting to set seed, so I harvested a bit for my lunch, pulled the rest and sent them to the dumpster (composting plants you don’t want in the garden is fine as long as their seed heads haven’t formed.) Shepherd’s purse is a member of the mustard family (all members of which are edible) and resembles the “Tendersweet” variety of cultivated mustards.

Shepherd's Purse beginning to flower

 Its leaves can look somewhat like dandelion, but it soon bolts its way up from the ground, sends out staggered, oblong leaves along its stem and forms a pretty white flower on its tip top before setting small, flat, heart-shaped seed pods just under the blooms. It has a strong mustard flavor and is quite tender, especially when the plant isn’t more than 6 inches high. It therefore makes either for a great salad or potherb. (Potherbs are cooking greens that are too tough for raw consumption and benefit you most from a few boilings in different waters before the final cooking and flavoring to finish it up.) Shepherd’s purse doesn’t necessarily need multiple waters, in fact I just steamed it up real quick in an oil/water mix in a small sauce pan and it was good to go with a little salt.

Compost Tea is another solid piece of experience I’m walking away with. I’ve heard of it and know it in theory, but have never had the priveledge to work under someone who used it. Dave simply takes a 5-gallon bucket, fills it half full with compost then fills it the rest of the way with water. After some simple stirring he leaves it to soak in the sun for a couple of days, then pours off the water into a pitcher or watering can to then distribute around the sides of some of the babies in the beds. He uses the same compost to make 3 batches of Tea, then incorporates the brewed matter into the soil for conditioning. I’ve heard tell of some people using oxygenaters in large drums or vats of water and letting the compost steep up to a week before straining and distributing it – but this is a much more simple, straightforward process. And makes the plants just as happy.

As my last gardening contribution for my time here at Harmony, I transplanted cilantro babies into 2″ square pots to store in the cold frames til ready to plant more permanently in garden beds. Some seed from last year’s cilantro over-wintered in the soil and sprang up from dormancy once temperatures became obliging. That little surprise of seed sleeping all winter only to pop up and cheer us with hopes of salsa and guacamole is truly one of the reasons I’m so confounded and attracted to the earth and its bounty, but even more so to its Creator and Provider and will gladly immerse myself in what wisdom mother nature has to share.

Aside from the gardening hours I’ve been putting in here (really just morning hours, then I’m free the rest of the afternoon and evening to play!) I’ve logged numerous miles on my bike (my sore quads can readily attest to that! Biking in Golden is a whole ‘nother ballgame than the flat, steady ground of Lawrence! But, at least I have the comfort of knowing the rooftop hot tub is just waiting for me each evening as I get back from my ventures.)

 A ride to the base of the mesa followed by a good 6-mile round-trip hike across the top of it is how I spent most of my day yesterday. (When I got back, not only my hair but my reddened face attested that I was going for the rather ‘windblown’ look.)

Golden's very own "Pride Rock"; the end of the mesa

 The vegetation was low, but indeed not sparse! Lots of grasses and dry bush, a few dandelions even in the mix. But the most exciting part was amid all the rushing herbage the rattlers were letting me know they were around – all around! Between the cacophony of crickets, grasshoppers and rattlers, the multitudinous mariachi band surrounding me sure made me watch my step! But I caught sight of nary a snake my entire hike, though I had my camera at the ready the whole time.

View from up there

Golden also has a wonderful (yet small) array of local businesses including great and eclectic coffee shops, some consignment stores, a great used/new bookstore and a couple of local breweries (Coors being local yes, but I opted for the Golden City Brewery’s ‘Mad Molly’s Brown Ale’, delightful chocolate tones over a smooth and light, malty intro.) The library is very accommodating and set up in a beautiful location next to the river where kayakers, sunbathers and dog-lovers congregate. Golden is quite a haven for those outdoorsy types, those co-housing types, and these farm-hopping types.

Check out some of Dave’s books:

Simple Prosperity: Finding Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle
Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic
Biologic: Designing With Nature to Protect the Environment


3 responses to “Thistle Smarts…….

  1. There are a couple of Bethel’s in NC. Did your grandparents live near Greenville, NC? If so, I know where Bethel is!

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