It’s Earth Day! What better way to celebrate than to show you my gardens? This post was written last year when Amanda Soule of Soulemama asked her readers to submit a piece about their garden. Each month she selected one to share with her readers. Well, my gardens never made her blog, but they can sure make mine! Shall we go for a stroll?
Gardener: Johanna Levene
Garden Location and Zone: Denver, Colorado – Zone 5
Vegetable Garden Size: Home (300 sq feet) School (500 sq feet)
Spring in the Garden
How long have you been gardening?
I don’t ever remember not gardening. My spring and summer childhood memories revolve around Mother’s Day flower shopping, mixing bright blue Miracle Grow water for tomato planting, and sitting very quietly with my mom listening for tomato hornworms as they chewed their way through our plants. When we found one we’d fling it into the street, except the one time we put it in a terrarium and watched it grow into a spectacularly terrifying moth.
Me and Raggedy Ann in my grandma’s garden 40 years ago
I taught my husband to garden when we bought our house and he has taken over most of the maintenance while I still focus on the new plantings and the vegetable garden. We’ve moved away from the chemical fertilizer of my childhood to organic gardening, but he brings a new kind of technology to our efforts. As a mechanical engineer he can be found weekend mornings walking around our yard with his AutoCAD drawings of our garden recording the growth, blooms and colors of the plants. He maintains both an electronic and hard copy of these maps: he is a modern garden dork.
Why do you garden?
Gardening is one pastime that brings our family of diverse interests together. In our life we have two working parents and an only child and it’s easy to get swept away in all the things we “should” be doing. Gardening makes us slow down and spend time together because we all enjoy being outside together playing in the dirt.
Where do you go for gardening inspiration?
My garden inspiration is largely found in walks through the neighborhood, visits to my parent’s house, and trips to my local nursery. I have been known to steal seeds from a neighbor’s unique flower or bring a trowel when visiting a friend who has a particularly pretty iris.
What’s your biggest gardening challenge?
In Denver late freezes, summer hail, and early freezes are the destroyers of gardens. Last year we planted two Sundays before Memorial Day and our garden was demolished by hail two days later. The year before we had Japanese Beetles for the first time. We tried to control their population by borrowing a friend’s chickens for a weekend. We believed in that solution so much that we got our own chickens last year in order to avoid loading chickens into the back of my Subaru. Also chickens turn bugs into eggs, which is awesome.
Late May hail damage and our white picket fence. Poor plants.
What’s your biggest garden accomplishment?
For the past couple of years we have included our daughter’s friends in the planting and harvesting of our garden, and we’ve loved introducing new kids to our garden. Last year our family expanded our influence to include seventy-five third graders at our public elementary school. The parent who had been in charge of our school garden was graduating her oldest child, so when the school asked for volunteers we jumped at the chance. We plant with the kiddos in late May and harvest in September. We love every minute of it. My favorite moment last year was at the plant sale when this tough eighth grade boy came loping down the stairs and said, “Do I smell tomato plants? I love that smell.” Even the big kids get excited about the garden. The school garden gives kids a focal point that they look forward to in the younger grades, own in third and fourth grade, and then remember in the later grades.
The school garden at sunset
The school garden in AutoCAD
What do you most love to grow?
We grow flowers and vegetables. In the veggie garden tomatoes and Anaheim peppers are our standby favorites, but the past few years we’ve grown potatoes, and they are magical. The plant grows, the plant dies and you don’t know what the harvest looks like until you dig around. We never fail to miss a spud or two so the potatoes just keep perpetuating. Oh, and don’t get me started on pumpkins. One day you have no pumpkins and the next day one has grown so big you can’t get it out of the tomato cage.
Pumpkin in a cage
In the flower beds we have tons of spring bulbs: tulips, miniature iris, hyacinths, crocus, and daffodils. My heart thaws every February when the first crocus appears. We’ve got color all year, but the flower gardens reach their peak in spring and early summer. In Colorado, July and August are a bit hot and dry for many blooms.
If you have children, what role do they play in your gardening?
We include our daughter as much as she wants to be included. From year to year her interest and commitment change, but we try not to force her into gardening because we think nothing ruins a kid’s love of “yard work” like being told they must participate. Last year my husband and I did most of the planting – both times, stupid hail – by ourselves. The spring vegetables are her favorite and she’ll head out to the garden before school to snack on lettuce and snap peas. In the fall she’ll help us harvest the veggies and process them for storage. Our daughter is also enjoying our new role as garden parents at school and is looking forward to her turn planting the school garden this year.
Gardening before she could walk eight years ago
Can you share one or two of your favorite gardening tips?
We’ve lucked into a couple of natural pest solutions that make gardening easier: plant cilantro right next to your tomatoes to keep the hornworms away, and a huge lemon verbena plant in the middle of everything keeps a variety of pests away and smells great when you *accidentally* crush it when weeding.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your garden?
We have an urban garden at our house, and it supplements our meals, but does not come close to providing all the food our family eats. Our school garden provides an opportunity for kids to learn where food comes from and harvest a feast for the fourth graders in the fall. Our gardens are as much about growing our family and community as they are about growing food.
Can you tell us about yourself?
By day, Johanna Levene is a manager of a team of ten web developers, database administrators, analysts and projects managers that build web tools about renewable energy and alternative fuels. In the evenings she transitions to a mom of a third grader which can include the roles of a soccer coach, gardener, meal maker, and pet caretaker of two cats, one hamster, three chickens, and a few snails. Once the kiddo goes to bed, Johanna’s evening persona morphs into a crafter with a primary focus on knitting, and an aspiring novelist. When she’s not busy with the rest of that stuff she manages to be a wife too.