Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Susan the gardener
 Today, I spent a quiet afternoon reading the poetry of Marge Piercy and discovered a poem entitled “Six underrated pleasures,” in which she extols the virtues of picking pole beans and ends with these lines: “Then comes the minor zest/of nipping the ends off with your nails/and snapping them in pieces,/their retorts like soft pistolry./Then eat the littlest raw.” Piercy is a master at creating sensuous poems which inspire appetite for food, and I began to hanker after a mess of pole beans. I immediately felt this pining to plant a vegetable garden.

A few minutes following this poetry reading and my subsequent desire for fresh pole beans, Gary Entsminger, editor of Pinyon Publishing, sent me photographs of Susan Elliott, his partner, preparing ground for a new garden. I know that Gary keeps Susan busy designing books, marketing, and creating paintings for them, but some time during the day or week, she devotes a few hours to playing musical instruments, hiking, cooking (whew) and gardening year round up there on the Uncompaghre Plateau in the southern Rocky Mountains.

The photographs piqued my interest in this small enterprise, so I fired off an e-mail, requesting that Susan submit to the second interview I’ve had with her during the past two years and to tell me about her plateau gardening at 7,000 feet. Susan has been engaged in designing and formatting an upcoming issue of the Pinyon Review, a new literary magazine Gary is putting together, as well as drawing and painting pictures of plants for Why Water Plants Don’t Drown, a book she is co-authoring with Dr. Victoria Sullivan, but she agreed to talk with me about her garden.

Moore: When do you begin planting your summer garden?

Elliott: I work the ground as soon as the ground thaws, before it dries and hardens. In March, we plant cover crops and cool-weather crops (peas, rye grass, greens, radishes, onions…). Then in late May, we plant warm-weather crops (tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, squash, flowers…).

Moore: What about your winter garden?

Elliott: We grow winter greens in 5-gallon cloth pots. While working on Why Water Plants Don’t Drown with Victoria Sullivan, I started to think more about oxygen supply to roots. I mix potting soil with coconut husks for soil aeration. And the cloth pots also encourage aeration and root branching. It’s practically impossible to over-water cloth pots because surplus water will drip out the sides. Our south-facing windows get a lot of sun, but we supplement light supply with energy-efficient full-spectrum fluorescent bulbs.

Moore: I understand that you do elaborate soil preparation for your gardens. What is the soil like on the plateau and what do you add to it to get maximum production and nutritional value from the products?

Elliott: The soil up here can get very hard and fairly salty (though there’s local variation; our neighbors a couple of miles down the road have sandier soil…). There are very few deciduous trees or herbaceous plants to add organic matter to the soil. So we compost throughout the year, producing about 30 gallons of compost to add each spring. I’ve also tried “sheet mulching,” layering straw, alfalfa, compost, manure, and the like to build up a garden bed. We mulch with straw to reduce water loss in the summer and to protect perennials from the winter cold. We fertilize only very lightly with organic “Age Old” brand liquid fertilizer. We don’t have huge robust plants, but they do well enough for the environment they (and we) live in, and they seem happy enough.

July in the garden
 Moore: Are you a vegetarian? Why?

Elliott: I’m a vegetarian, for several reasons. Nutritionally, there are many great alternative ways to get proteins, and high meat consumption (particularly red meat) has been correlated with many health problems. Also, many studies show we need more vegetables in our diet. When we remove one (meat) dish from our plate, that creates more room for more vegetables. Environmentally, raising animals for consumption uses a lot of resources (water in particular, but also feed: corn, etc.). The conversion of resources through animals to our plate is less efficient than the conversion of resources through plants to our plate. So by not eating meat, I can help preserve a little of the precious clean water that’s becoming harder and harder to come by. Ethically, many animals raised for meat production are not treated very well. And of course, I love my vegetables…! Brian Wilson (creative force and lead singer in the Beach Boys) wrote a great song about eating your vegetables on his “Smile” album; the song is called “Vega-Tables.” Listen to it, and you’ll just want to sing and dance and laugh and eat vegetables. It will at least make you smile.

Moore: Do you attempt to supply all the vegetables for your table?

Elliott: Goodness, no. Maybe if we lived in a more productive climate with a longer growing season, but we eat a LOT of vegetables!! Fortunately, there are some very productive local farms in our area. Off the plateau, in the Uncompaghre Valley (and the Colorado “West Slope,” in general), there are many small farms that treat their plants well and avoid the over-use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. We U-pick tomatoes, and get boxes of chili peppers, cucumbers, and peaches for canning. We usually can close to a hundred quarts each fall. The local natural grocery carries organic Colorado produce when it’s available. When it’s not, they carry organic produce from California.

Moore: How much time do you allow for gardening during a day? Or week?

Layout of the garden
 Elliott: My work, play, music, gardening, yoga, running, hiking, etc. are all “as the spirit moves me.” Or as the plants need me… (Okay, or if the books “need” me, but all of this is relative…) Some days or weeks get more time devoted to one or the other. This morning, I was feeling tight, so it was yoga. Yesterday I knew there was a storm coming, so I worked on rain catchment repairs. A couple of weeks ago, the ground was in danger of drying out and getting hard, so I hoed away at it. I LOVE playing outside, “putsing” you might say. If it were up to me, I’d spend the better part of every day hoeing, digging, potting, watering, mulching, pruning, harvesting, weeding, exploring “my” plants… In reality, I probably get an average of 2-3 hours/day in the summer and 2-3 hours/week in the winter.

Moore: The design of your garden is intriguing. Is there a history associated with the design, and what are the advantages of the design?

Elliott: This year I laid out the garden plots so that many paths lead to the center (or so that many paths radiated out of the center, depending on how you look at it). It’s a convenient way to get around the garden. And it’s aesthetically pleasing to see something a more than just rectangles.

Moore: Do you plant primarily from seed or do you grow seedlings in a greenhouse and transplant them in the soil?

Elliott: In the early spring, I plant seeds (cover crops and cool-weather crops). I also plant native wildflower and grass seeds. In the late spring, I plant veggie and flower starts from our local nursery. The past few years, we traveled during the spring, so we didn’t have time to start plants indoors. However, a few years ago, I started many trays of plants when I was living on the East Coast. I then rigged my Subaru Impreza into a “plant mobile,” (double decker, including a grow light for the lower shelf) and drove the seedlings out to plant in Colorado. And this year, we’ll transplant the greens outside that we started indoors. But really, down in the valley, the local nurseries do a great job of getting plants going early (tomatoes, peppers, squash, and the like). We have a short growing season, so we take advantage of the local greenhouses getting a head start.

Moore: Is there sufficient rainfall to water the garden on the plateau? Or do you have a system of irrigation?

Elliott: We definitely have to supplement the rainfall water. In the summer, we can count on a good monsoon rain at least once a week, but that’s not enough for the garden. And in June, when the plants are very young, rains are infrequent. We have two hand-me-down 300-gallon tanks that are fed by rain gutters. The tanks (continually refilled by monsoons during the summer and snowmelt during the winter) store close to all the water we need for watering summer and winter gardens. We haul water manually (in 5-gallon buckets and gallon jugs); good for the upper body strength. We also prefer to water plants with rainwater because it is free of the salts that are prevalent in our soil and well-water. The salts tie up essential plant nutrients; so the plants are much happier with rainwater. And it’s collected passively; so we don’t have to use electricity to haul water 400 feet out of the ground.

Tune in to Part II of Gardening High Up on tomorrow's blog.

1 comment:

Julia K Walton - Fire Horse Textiles said...

What an interesting interview with Susan. It's fascinating to know how people garden in another part of the world and in a different climate. In our Scottish garden we tend to get plenty of rain (!) but also have a short growing season.