My happy accidental gardening story

by G. Kunkel

(This article was originally published on on August 15, 2009)

Accidents aren’t always a bad thing.

I bought a four-year-old house some time back. It was devoid of landscaping and the drainage system drained into the house during a heavy downpour. As luck would have it the first spring in the house was one of the wettest springs on record in Colorado. Putting in a drainage system was the top priority. A garden had to wait.

The second year of being a homeowner taught me the value of landscaping and shade trees. The Front Range of Colorado is basically a high plains desert – little moisture with poor soil. Without any shade trees, my backyard was roasting in the afternoon. Researching and planting trees appropriate for the Rocky Mountain West was the top priority. The garden had to wait another year.

The third year of home-ownership taught me the foils of having a lawn in Colorado. It became clear that the first owner had failed to amend the soil before laying sod. The soil was compacted and devoid of any organic matter. No amount of watering could make the grass healthy. I spent the summer sprinkling mushroom compost on top of the grass, adding sulfur to counter the alkaline soil, and using a step-on aerator to reduce soil compaction.

The grass started to look healthier but one morning I spied a troubling sign. There was a perfectly symmetrical dark green circle in my lawn with mushrooms on the fringes. At first I thought someone had played a prank on me. After a few days of researching I discovered my lawn had “fairy ring” and a cure was almost hopeless. I tried a cure a western gardening book said had worked in a few cases, and slowly but surely the ring disappeared. Still no vegetable garden.

The fourth year of home ownership was to be the year. A vegetable garden. After much researching, I discovered that native Colorado soil is rather hopeless when vegetable gardening. A 10×10 foot plot was dug down to 1.5 feet with 2/3rds of the dirt being thrown over the back fence. The remaining third was amended with bag after bag of mushroom compost. A few bags of cow manure were thrown in for good measure.

After planting the garden I was rewarded with a bountiful harvest of peppers, tomatoes, squash, and zucchini. Summer was over too soon and everything was frost killed. The backyard looked bare and lonely in the winter kill. Bushes, evergreens, and flowerbeds were in order come spring.

In the spring a 60×12 foot section of grass was torn out and the soil amended. Low water plants would save on the water bill and provide more shade. The reward was a blaze of color throughout the backyard. The hops and raspberries could be used for brewing beer too. Mmmm….beer.

By now the bushes, trees, and flower garden were producing large amounts of organic waste. The trash removal company wanted more money. Several composting bins were established instead. My neighbors were kind enough to donate organic materials too. Purchasing compost was no longer needed.

In the spring, the lovely earthy-smelling compost was lovingly spread on top of the flower beds. The flowers were happy. One summer day a long evil-looking vine was noticed in the flowerbed. What a strange looking weed. It didn’t look like bind weed. I went to the end of the vine and lifted it up. I was extremely startled by the large globs hanging from the vine and dropped the vine. A few weeks and continued watering of the vines revealed that I was growing cantaloupe seedlings from the compost. Cantaloupes? I’ve never been able to grow melons. They were quite tasty.

One day I decided I missed freshly picked orchard peaches. Everything in the grocery store tasted like cardboard. Tree varietals were carefully researched and then planted. A peach tree and a pear tree. The first year- no fruit. The second year – no fruit. The third year – fruit set. Careful watching showed a modest peach setting, the pear tree showed disturbing signs. The fruits were malformed and grew slowly. They looked nothing like pears. One day the pears turned red. The nursery sold me a cherry tree. I baked some really tasty sour cherry pies with homemade crust with that years harvest. Someone begged me to give her some of those precious sour cherries for their own pies. Grocery stores don’t stock sour cherries.

The next spring, I decided May 28 would be a great planting day for the vegetable garden. It was sunny, 81 F degrees and the plants had been hardened off. The plants were carefully arranged and planted. A celebratory trip to Home Depot was in order. On the drive home, a large fast moving cloud was noticed coming down from the north. What could it be? I stood on a backyard chair and watched it come closer. The wind blew fiercely and then it started snowing…heavily. The veggies were quickly ripped from the ground and transported to the garage. The temperature dropped to 31 degrees in one hour. 18 inches of snow fell that night. The bountiful moisture gave the replanted veggies a great start.

Then came the drought. The grass went dormant and looked dead due to severe watering restrictions. It seemed as if the whole state was on fire. The grass was ripped out along the driveway and sidewalk. It had never done well there. In went the colorful, fragrant, low-water Agastache and Russian sage. While weeding them one day, I looked up and nearly fell over. A hummingbird was a few inches from my face. After years of trying to attract them, there they were. The bees swarmed the Russian sage then pollinated the garden, the fruit trees, and the raspberries.

The harvests are bountiful. The shade trees are wonderful. I now have a perfectly harmonious garden.

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