GARDENING IN THE HIGH DESERT

07/04/14 | By | 20 More
Even in his absence, Cal Wilbourne’s desert garden thrives thanks to raised beds, rabbit fencing, drip tape, timers and shade cloth.  (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)

Even in his absence, Cal Wilbourne’s desert garden thrives thanks to raised beds, rabbit fencing, drip tape, timers and shade cloth. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)

Both weather- and water-wise, Cal Wilbourne’s and Martha Gearty’s Redvale retreat, elevation 5,900 ft., has its challenges.

But eight years after moving into the house the couple built in Redvale, Wilbourne found that “for some reason, I decided I wanted to try a garden.”

Wilbourne, originally from York, Pa., grew up gardening. “I’d help my grandmother in her garden. That got me started,” he says. “I used to dig the ground and plant with her. Then, when my family moved near an uncle, I helped garden an acre of land.”

But while gardening back East, where water is plentiful, and coaxing a seed to grow can seem almost effortless (thanks to high humidity and warm nighttime temperatures), high-desert gardening is a whole different ball game.

“It’s tough to grow here,” admits Wilbourne.

He has, nonetheless, developed effective ways to conquer the critters, the wind and the searing sun, and he uses water wisely.

To deter the rabbits, he installed fencing (“our deer leave” for higher ground in the summer, he explains, so rabbits are the main intruders). He built several raised beds and filled them with topsoil, amending the dirt with lots of compost and mulch acquired from a composting facility in Grand Junction.

“It’s been a process. Over the years I’ve added more and more compost, and the soil has gotten a lot better,” he says. Key to its improvement: “I’ve gotten the pH – the alkalinity-down.” he explains.

In his first year of high-desert gardening, Wilbourne bought transplants. “That was probably one of my best years for tomatoes,” he says. “Now I start seeds inside, using self-watering trays.”

After several years of trial and error, Wilbourne now successfully grows a large variety of vegetables: squash (butternut, acorn, yellow, zucchini); eggplant, string beans, serrano and jalapeno peppers, carrots, radishes, beets, rutabaga, onions, tomatillos, cucumbers, mixed lettuces, kale, chard, arugula and spinach.

“I grow New Zealand spinach. It loves the heat; it’s almost like a weed,” he says.

And while Wilbourne has had no luck with cherry tomatoes, he does grow Early Girl, Roma, Brandywine and a variety of heirlooms. He also plants lots of herbs, especially basil.

Wilbourne typically plants his starts outside during the third week in May, covering his crops with hoops and white cover cloth to help keep them warm, moist and protected from the spring winds. He also uses drip tape on timers for regular watering and suspends shade cloth several feet above each bed to help protect plants from the searing desert sun. Wilbourne’s garden is impressively self-sustaining, given the couple’s frequent and extended trips back to Telluride.

Two years in, Wilbourne had such an abundant harvest, he started canning. Although he was apprehensive, he figured if his grandmother, mother and aunt were canners, he ought to give it a try.

“When you get into this canning business, you get really scared,” says Wilbourne, noting the precise temperatures and cooking times required for safe canning, and the stern warnings against experimentation.
Once he mastered the process, Wilbourne became a devoted fan of all types of food preservation – water-bath canning, steam-pressure canning, and freezing in particular. Always testing new recipes, his repertoire includes jalapeno jelly, salsas (fire-roasted salsa is a favorite), soup and jam made from zucchini, green tomato jelly, pickles, tapenade and pesto. He also makes Palisade peach butter, and makes a point of freezing ears of Olathe Sweet Corn, as well as a number of vegetables from his garden.

“It’s tough being a gardener,” says Wilbourne. “It’s not an easy chore.”
But he’s clearly smitten with it, from the meditative joy of caring for plants to the thrill of filling his pantry with delicious, homegrown foods that he and Gearty can share, year-round.

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