Wednesday, April 4, 2012

PART II. GARDENING HIGH UP


Susan's "plant-mobile"
 This is the second part of a blog featuring Susan Elliott, artist and designer for Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado, who did the cover art for Chant of Death, a mystery written by me and Isabel Anders. Susan is a consummate gardener and during this season of Spring planting, Susan has been preparing the ground for a new garden. She agreed to an interview with me about her gardening on the Uncompaghre Plateau in the southern Rocky Mountains where she lives with Gary Entsminger, editor and publisher of Pinyon Publishing. Readers with real green thumbs will enjoy her comments in this second blog about the art of gardening.
Moore: Although my grandfather and my father had gardens, and my father planted a patch of mint in every place we ever lived, I have a black thumb and have had numerous failures with my “crops.” Do you have many failures?

Elliott: Yes, I have many failures! Each time we work through a “problem,” that’s one new skill we have for a better season next year: spring deer, bunnies, over-fertilizing container plants, salts, evaporation, squirrels, too much sun, too little sun, fungal diseases, carelessness, wind … It’s all a learning experience.

Moore: Does your garden attract many birds? The deer here on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee destroyed my first season of home-grown tomatoes, and I’ve refused to replant. Do animals eat your produce?

Elliott: We have a lot of birds here (about 75 species come through each year), but none have bothered our garden. Some are helpful (like bluebirds, which eat insects). The goldfinches enjoy our sunflowers. Hummingbirds visit the tomato flowers (though I’m not sure if they’re effectively pollinating). Turkeys come through in the spring before plants are out of the ground. In the summer many birds move to higher elevations. Deer also move to higher elevations, or else they would really be hard to control. All we need for bunnies is a two and a half foot high chicken wire fence. No digging under fences around here because the ground is too hard and rocky! We share occasional tomatoes with chipmunks; they’re too hard to control (and they’re awfully cute). It’s too dry for slugs or snails, but I demolish a lot of tomato hornworms and the like (so much for being an entirely ethical vegetarian…); ying-yang.

Moore: I know that one summer Gary wrote to me about preparing sauces and other products from tomatoes. What foods or preserves do you can or bottle?

Elliott: All varieties of tomato sauces/salsas, though my favorite it just plain cooked tomatoes (like Gary’s mom used to make). Also peaches (big chunks, in a light sugar-water solution). The valley farms have GREAT roasted chilies (heavenly!!), which we freeze and can. Pickles and ketchup are favorites, too. When we make it to Virginia in the fall, Gary’s family hauls out the 30-gallon copper kettle and cooks down about 10 bushels of apples into apple butter. Gary is the king of canning. His mom canned her whole life, and Gary learned from her. Gary is very good about making sure sauces are good and boiling, and he makes sure the jars boil for extra time to kill any potential bad guys. We also bottle homebrew Imperial Pale Ales, but that’s a different story.

Moore: Do you have an herb garden?


Spring planting
Elliott: In my dream world, I have a garden/farm devoted entirely to basil (perhaps basil and lavender). If I had a son, I think I’d name him Basil. Fresh basil is intoxicating. They don’t call holy basil holy for nothing. But alas, we’re a bit too cool (especially the summer nights) for basil (or lavender) to flourish. We had one basil plant going all winter indoors this year. Instead of the prolific sweet basil varieties, we grow smaller-leaved Thai and Greek varieties. They do better when we keep them in containers next to the cabin with a window propped up next to them to insulate them at night. We treasure every sprig we harvest. I snip it and take it over to Gary for a “smell” before I add it to a dish. We savor it. And yes, we grow parsley, rosemary, chives, mint, and oregano; they all do fine. The mint overwinters each year; it loves its spot under the eaves, picking up lots of rain and snowmelt.
Moore: Gardening is known to be an activity that not only nourishes the body, in terms of exercise, and in produce received, it nurtures the soul. Would you speak to this idea?

Elliott: I find gardening extremely therapeutic. When gardening, I forget my (imaginary) troubles and feel like a kid. Yes, it’s a good work-out (especially hoeing hard dirt and hauling water in five-gallon buckets). And yes, the produce is yummy. But I’d do it all even if I didn’t get anything “tangible” from it. Even container gardening indoors, we’re connecting with earth. I’d even venture to say hydroponic gardening would connect you with something totally intangible, a life force—even if it’s the life force of garden “pests.” Just like reading connects us with a creative literary force, and that feels good. I think there’s something deep inside us that explodes into pure joy when we connect with that greater force, that connective tissue of animal and plant and mineral. Smelling freshly watered dirt will do it for me. I’m thankful. Gardening restores my connection and thankfulness. In a troubled world, it’s good to find life.

Photography courtesy of Gary Entsminger and Susan Elliott.



Susan's sunflower

Susan Elliott has a B.S. in Botany, a B.A. in French from Humboldt State University, and a Ph.D. in Biology from Dartmouth College. She has studied ecology, evolution, and conservation of plant-pollinator mutualisms. She has lived in Mariposa, California, southern France, Georgia, and New Hampshire. She moved to Colorado to do pollination research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Crested Butte (the official Wildflower Capitol of Colorado), and is a gifted scientist and artist.
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