68.29 Weeks in the Mountains: Channeling My Inner Jefferson

A common question teachers ask grade school students to write about is: If you could meet any historical figure, who would it be and why? For me, that answer has always been Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson and I have many things in common: a love of freedom and independence, a demand for personal responsibility, a craving for good wine and food, a sense of the importance of reading and correspondence, a respect for personal time and space, a desire for culture and lifelong education, a commitment to reason and science over religion, and a belief in taking care of one’s body through regular exercise. But a passion for gardening and living off the land is one area where we have always differed. Jefferson’s gardens, and his meticulous record-keeping about his gardens are well-known among Jefferson and gardening aficionados alike. I tried to make a small garden once, six years ago, but a spring hailstorm destroyed everything and I couldn’t be bothered to try again.

In the Denver/Boulder area, there’s definitely some pressure to have a garden, given the popularity of gardening and the emphasis here on fresh vegetables, farmers markets, and organic living. Many of my friends and neighbors have gardens and even work for community garden organizations. Despite my initial failed attempt and subsequent resignation, I have still wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. And living at The Sanctuary, it seems a bit wasteful to not take advantage of the space and the sunshine. With an adobe-walled courtyard to keep the plants warm and sheltered, and keep the critters out, I already have a leg-up on other amateur horticulturists, so this past summer seemed like the perfect time to give it another go.  And if I was going to try, naturally I was going to be Jeffersonian about it.

It may seem that in the internet age, there isn’t much need for the type of record keeping Jefferson did for his gardens. But I disagree, especially considering the microclimate I and my garden exist in. The closest weather records to my house that I can find online are for the old mining camp of Crisman. As the crow flies, Crisman is only a half mile away. However, there is a more than 800-foot elevation difference between Crisman and my house, and Crisman lies in the canyon, shaded by trees, while my house sits on the top of a hill in full sun. As such, there can be a significant difference in temperature. Furthermore, no online records can tell you my tools and supplies, types of soil, pH, varietals, which plants were in pots versus in beds, what fertilizer or compost I used, what companion planting I did, etc.

So, what follows in this post are some photos and basic information from my records. I kept far more detailed records than what I am posting here (about berries, flowers, precipitation, and everything else I mentioned in the previous paragraph), so feel free to leave a comment with any questions you might have about my 7,000-foot gardening experience.

Hardening the seedlings (5/23-5/28), day one after transplanting (5/29), and the garden after one month (6/29)

What I Grew

Seedlings from the Growing Gardens community plant sale

  • Marketmore 76 slicing cucumbers. 4 plants. Began harvesting 7/23. Prolific growth. Pulled out of ground 10/22.
  • Corno di Toro Italian sweet peppers. 4 plants. Began harvesting 7/23. Prolific growth. Pulled out of ground 11/6.
  • Prize bok choy. 2 plants. Bolted early on in the season. I think it was too hot and dry for them. Pulled out of ground 7/23.
  • Ring of Fire Cayenne peppers.  1 plant. Began harvesting 7/23. Prolific growth. Pulled out of ground 11/6.
  • Freckles lettuce. 4 plants. Prolific growth. 3-4 harvests per plant before they bolted.
  • Costata Romanesco summer squash. 2 plants. Prolific growth. Pulled out of ground 10/8.
  • Chamomile. Grew nicely. Made plenty of tea from it.
  • Pineapple mint. Never grew well and died about a month after transplanting.

Other seedlings given to me by neighbors

  • Sun Drop tomatoes. Began harvesting 7/16. Prolific growth. Pulled out of ground 11/19.
  • Sun Gold tomatoes. Began harvesting 7/23. Prolific growth. Pulled out of ground 11/6.
  • Sweet Pea Currant tomatoes. Began harvesting 7/23. Prolific growth. Pulled out of ground 11/19.
  • Super Snow White tomatoes. Began harvesting 7/23. Prolific growth. Pulled out of ground 11/19.
  • Speckled Roman tomatoes. Never blossomed, plant wilted. Pulled out of ground 7/23.
  • Onions. 21. All came from the same source yet grew different sizes and colors. Pulled throughout the summer and used in dishes.

Herbs and vegetables from grown from seed

  • Summer savory. Prolific growth. Dried and chopped for use throughout year.
  • Thyme. Prolific growth. Dried and chopped for use throughout year.
  • Dill bouquet. Prolific growth. Cut continuously throughout the summer and added to dishes.
  • Culinary sage. Dog knocked over the pot. Repotted some I bought from grocery store and that grew well
  • Mustard leaves. Prolific growth. Cut continuously throughout the summer and added to salads.
  • Sweet basil. Prolific growth. Used all of it.
  • Cilantro. Died shortly after germination. Repotted some I bought from grocery store and that grew well
  • Scarlet Nantes carrots. Left in ground far longer than packet indicated was necessary for full growth, but they never grew more than an inch or two long. I think I crowded them.
  • Black Seeded Simpson lettuce. Grew 5 bunches very nicely. Only one harvest per plant.
  • Italian parsley. Died shortly after germination.
  • Garlic chives. Died shortly after germination.
  • Early Wonder beets. Died shortly after germination.
  • Dinosaur kale. Died shortly after germination.

Some of my many tasty harvests

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Other Key Dates

  • April 3: first wildflowers appeared
  • April 16: last snowstorm of the season, 24 inches in one day
  • April 29-May 1: ten inches of snow over these three days but not much stuck because the ground was warm at the point
  • May 2: first insect (fly) appeared in house
  • May 5: first leaves on the aspen trees
  • May 16-17: snow flurries
  • June 6: first hailstorm of the season, significant damage to leaves of squash and bok choy, but all plants survived
  • September 30: leaves on aspen trees turned yellow overnight
  • October 6: ice on the decks but didn’t reach freezing point (low of 35) in the courtyard
  • November 18: three inches of snow and down to 19 degrees in courtyard
  • November 20: last insect (stinkbug) sighting in the house

As you can probably tell from the photos, I consider my experience a great success. I loved having vegetables that were 100 percent pesticide free and not merely aligned to the weak organic standards of the USDA. I discovered my new favorite vegetable in the world, sun drop tomatoes (My partner got almost none of these because every time I was in the courtyard, the ripe ones went right into my mouth). And I discovered the joy of doing something meaning outdoors with my free time. I loved playing in the dirt. It was just like being a kid again but with a beneficial and nutritious outcome to my efforts. Next year’s season begins in five months and I’m looking forward to it.

To learn more about Thomas Jefferson, I highly recommend the Monticello Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia page. There are also dozens of great books devoted to him out there, of which I’ve read far too many and still not enough, and the Thomas Jefferson Hour podcast, which I was addicted to for several years but am taking a respite from.

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