Siri LarsenLet's head to northwestern Montana today to visit mom of two, Siri Larsen, and her garden. You'll want to grab a glass of lemonade and take your time reading Siri's thoughtful interview answers. I'm sure you'll find them to be both inspiring and informative. I just love her pea trellis and homemade topsy turvy planters!
One of the bonuses of working at a nurseryTell us a little about your family and your garden.
We are a family of four (my husband, our two boys, 7 and 10 years of age, and myself) living on 22+ acres outside of the town of Eureka in northwestern Montana.
Our place was a certified organic potato farm when we bought it nearly 14 years ago. It lies on the edge of a USDA zone 3 and 4, which means it can get down to 25 to 35 degrees F below zero during the winter. Our average last frost date is June 9, but it isn’t uncommon to have a fluke of a frost between then and early September. Some years we’re lucky enough to have 3 solid months or more of frost-free weather.
Frequent nighttime temperatures down into the 40s and below just doesn’t provide enough warmth for some crops to grow or ripen, so we stick with cold-hardy and short-season varieties. Tender crops such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and basil don’t do so well here, at least not out in the open garden. Corn is pretty well out of the question, although it can be grown only 10 miles away in town where it's warmer and the growing season is typically longer.
Also, it isn’t uncommon to see up to 45 deer out in the field by our house or to find they’ve mowed down all the flowers just outside the front door.
Garlic and cole cropsDid you grow up with a garden?
My parents landscaped and have cared for the suburban lot of my childhood home in Seattle for the last 43 years and, at 79 years of age, they still do most of the maintenance themselves throughout the year in their mild climate. I remember reluctantly helping with the weeding and mulching of the yard with cedar bark, but mostly I recall playing, both on the manicured lawn and in the “wilder,” woodsier parts of the yard.
My own interest in gardening began in my early twenties after college while living just blocks from the Seattle Tilth, spending time off wandering through neighborhoods, noticing other people’s gardens, and exploring the city’s community gardens.
During our first few summers together, my now-husband and I lived together in different parts of the country, always amongst others who gardened, too:
- in a remote town of 10 inhabitants on the Big Sur coastline of California surrounded by the lush gardens of a few neighbors.
- living in a canvas tent on a newly established organic farm in the southwestern corner of Colorado where we worked long hours and didn’t make a single penny, but we ate well, grew strong, met some great folks, and learned a lot (mostly the hard way!) The farm didn’t last beyond that one summer and let’s just say we ate a lot of turnip and rutabaga soup that fall.
- In downtown Boulder, Colorado where we inherited an established, long-organically tended garden with the room we rented, gardening there with our roommates for the next two years.
After that, we moved here and have gardened on-again/off-again over the past 14 years, finally getting “serious” about it again last year.
So, while it would be nice to say I learned about gardening directly from my own parents, that just isn’t entirely so. My mom grew up on a subsistence farm in rural Norway during the 1930s-40s, and my paternal great-grandmother was awarded a silver cup in 1936 for the best amateur small garden in a contest sponsored by the Seattle Times newspaper and the Citywide Flower Club. So, just maybe, somehow, it’s genetic?
The boys trellising peasHow do your children help with the day to day aspects of the garden?
The boys have their own small, raised bed in the garden. The “Easter Bunny” has brought them such things as packets of pea seeds and brightly colored garden hose spray nozzles (why not disguise some garden necessities as gifts?). I try to suggest easy-to-grow plants that can also be either useful, fun, or edible. Last year they grew catnip from seed for our family cat, and now they’ve discovered they can make a tasty tea from it. They’ve planted Cosmic Purple and Atomic Red carrots, sugar snap peas, and dwarf sunflowers. We’ll take them to a nursery and let them pick out any 6-pack of flowers of their own choosing, too. This year they started marigolds, nasturtiums, zinnias from seed, and sunflowers from seeds that we gathered and saved from their own plants last fall.
To be honest, they’re not so interested in being in the garden daily, and I’d rather it didn’t become a chore -- they have enough of those -- so I’m content doing some of the weeding and watering of their garden beds myself while they play outside, read, or even play computer games inside.
My little tag-a-long in the hoop houseLike so many things with children, it takes a certain amount of creative persuasion, finding just the right way of interesting them enough to get them into the garden. For example, early this spring when I asked our 7-year-old to pull the weeds and grass that had come into his garden bed, he quickly grew weary of it. Then, after I told him that it is around the roots of the weeds that he’d be most likely to find worms, suddenly he was digging for worms and making “house” in a the corner of this garden for them, with the side effect of a well-turned, weeded, and worm-filled garden.
Of course they love to harvest, both in their own and in the family’s garden beds, especially root crops -- there’s just something almost magical, or at least ever-surprising, even for me, about reaching down and digging up something so bright and instantly edible as a sweet carrot or a crunchy radish straight from its hiding place underground.
And, it really is true, at least in our own experience: Kids will eat and appreciate the tastes of the vegetables they grow or harvest themselves. That goes for parents too.
Our younger son, especially, tends to wander in and out of the garden checking in, when I’m out there, tasting and talking, finding edible weeds to snack on. Our older son likes to have a particular project to work on out there. Some of the best conversations seem to happen when we’re out there side by side, “working” in the garden together.
Lettuce galoreTell us about a DIY project you've taken on and love.
After 10 years without much to speak of in the way of a vegetable garden, last spring we cleared the trees and other plants and grasses from an area between our house and pond, just enough to still receive enough sunlight during the summer. We built 5 large raised beds, a 10’ x 30’ hoop house, a small orchard of fruit trees, and a strawberry bed, all enclosed within an 8 foot tall deer-proof fence. Also, a chicken coop with attached greenhouse on its south-facing side and chicken yard on its north side amongst the cottonwood trees, although the chickens spend most of their days free-ranging around the house.
Most of the wood for these projects was locally harvested cedar bought from a small nearby mill. The wood was deemed “seconds,” leftover from the high-end building boom of the past several years around here, and so we were able to buy all we needed for a fraction of what prime grade lumber would have cost, yet this utility-grade lumber was of perfectly acceptable quality for our needs.
Who am I kidding? I didn’t really build all of this! My husband did most of the work with help from friends and neighbors. He’s got mad skills when it comes to working with wood and all the tools to match. I did, however, help with the clearing of the land, with the filling of most of the garden beds, and I do most of the gardening now that it's established.
Dwarf sunflowers started by E., our 7-year-oldWhat's on your must-grow list this year?
You know how people often say, “There’s just nothing like a homegrown tomato”? If I could grow just one thing, it would be row upon row of carrots and can’t imagine ever being able to raise enough of them. Homegrown cabbage just can’t be beat either. Last year we grew cucumbers for the first time, learning how good they are straight off the vine. And who knew kale could be so easy to grow, and be so tasty, let alone so very good for you? I certainly didn’t grow up on the stuff, but I’d never garden without it again. Parsnips hold over in the ground through the winter and are even sweeter when dug in the springtime when fresh veggies are so much appreciated. This year I planted three varieties and have left some in the ground from last year to go to seed.
And sure, there really is nothing quite like a homegrown tomato.
This year, I put in a long row of Nova raspberries ordered in from Nourse Farms in Massachusetts. I remember as a kid picking them within the tall and tightly grown, prickly rows of my aunt’s garden and my mom making freezer jam, and then finding lots of teensy, flavorful ones growing wild in the mountains in Colorado. Raspberries are my #1, all-time favorite food but, despite my love of them, they’re something I rarely ever splurge on in the store. If all goes as planned, we’ll be eating our first raspberries next summer. Imagine! The luxury, the extravagance, of having one’s favorite food growing right outside the back door, just for the picking.
As far as flowers go, it’s hard to choose, but zinnias, ever-cheerful, are my favorite. For a long time I never really liked snapdragons, at least not until finding out that they are super cold-hardy and are essentially completely deer-resistant. Besides, the boys love “snapping” their dragon-head blossoms. What’s not to like about that?
Homemade Topsy Turvy PlantersWhat are your favorite stores to shop for garden supplies and plants?
Well, I’ve worked at two small, family-owned nurseries in our town, so I’d have to say “stay local” for everything that you can possibly find there that meets our needs or wishes. Local nurseries tend to carry only what grows successfully in your particular area, and they can provide specific information on growing conditions and challenges.
I tend to make the rounds to all the nearby nurseries in the early springtime, noting what they have since they all seem to carry slightly different varieties and picking up a little from each one of them, spreading the wealth (ha!) around, so to speak.
For larger trees and shrubs, I like to buy them early in the spring when they are sometimes offered bare root, costing as little as half what they’ll cost once they are potted up. Because they are bare root, you have to be ready to pick up, plant, and care for them soon after their arrival and, because they tend to be smaller specimens, it takes longer to see them grow to maturity.
Our local soil conservation district office of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service offers bulk ordering of bare root stock in the springtime. It can be a good way of starting a larger hedgerow or planting at very low costs. Of the varieties of trees and shrubs they offer, some are native, some provide wildlife habitat or windbreak, some are drought tolerant, and some are for stream bank re-vegetation and erosion control.
Greens and the wall o' peasMany of my seed packets come straight from racks at local nurseries, and hardware or feed stores. They typically are from Irish Eyes Garden Seeds, formerly Garden City Seeds.
Pinetree Seeds out of Maine carries smaller seed packets that still hold more than enough seeds for the average home gardener with comparably lower prices. They also have a decent selection of books, many at discounted prices, and garden supplies. This year three of us placed our orders together, splitting the shipping costs.
Packets of seeds from Seeds of Change are all organically raised, and they carry some interesting varieties, both vegetables and flowers.
As far as garden tools go, the so-called “oriental garden tool” from Pinetree is the best tool I’ve come across thus far, but I’m sure I’d be pretty happy with just about anything from the gardening section of Hida Tool out of Berkeley.
In the greenhouseWhich garden blogs or websites inspire you the most?
There area numerous photos pools on Flickr worth frequenting. A handful of groups I occasionally check in on are The Kitchen Garden~Potager~Allotment, Corners of My Yard, The Unpretentious Garden, Organic Gardeners, and permaculture. If I’m ever trying to identify a weed or wildflower or see how a plant might look in a “real” garden, Flickr is often the place I go to.
Margaret Roach’s blog, A Way to Garden, is both pretty to look at and packed with useful tips and information, and she is actively involved in the conversations in the comments section of her posts. She has such a great eye for color, something I first noticed back when she was the garden editor for the Martha Stewart Living mag.
Another great resource can be the nearest Cooperative Extension Service of your state’s or a neighboring state’s agricultural college, which often provides all sorts of information on landscaping, gardening, growing, harvesting, and preserving, amongst so many other topics, for farmers and home gardeners, both.
Montana’s Cooperative Extension site has an extensive list of publications and seems to increasingly be updating them to include organic methods. This one in particular, I think, could be helpful for timing the starting of seeds and the planting out of vegetable plants in many parts of the country.
New York’s Cornell University has a site where people from all around the U.S. rate and comment on individual vegetable varieties. It’s probably pretty safe to say that if anything gets a 5 star rating from numerous gardeners, it just might be worth trying.
Any must-have gardening books?
Unfortunately, a lot of my go-to gardening books are out of print.
The Natural Food Garden: Growing Vegetables and Fruits Chemical-Free, by Patrick Lima and John Scanlan, published again under the title, The Organic Home Garden: How to Grow Fruits and Vegetables Naturally, are both out of print. It is my most frequented book on vegetable gardening, both for its information and photos.
Again, Margaret Roach’s book by the same name as her blog, A Way to Garden, is also out of print. I pull this book off the shelf every year in late winter for inspiration for the upcoming growing season. Her website is a good alternative and extension of the book itself.
And, lastly, although time to read is a little hard to come by this time of year while the garden and summer itself are heading into full swing, Alys Fowler’s Garden Anywhere currently has me enamored, carrying it with me everywhere, even to the beach, sneaking a peek here and there between dips in the lake. Unfortunately, it, too, is due back soon to the library.
Why do you garden?
Why do we garden? Partly out of personal interest, partly to be sure that we can eat well regardless of economic vagaries, and also because that is one of the reasons we moved here. Growing a garden is one of those things that provides opportunities for continually learning more and gaining experience throughout the course of a lifetime. With gardening there’s always the lure of “next year” when maybe the weather will be more favorable, or when the aphids might be so bad, or when the asparagus might start producing, or when it will be a chance to try that new or old variety of food or flower that sounds tasty or interesting…
Siri Larsen is a homeschooling mom of two sons. She also works seasonal jobs at a local nursery during the springtime and making holiday evergreen holiday wreaths in the fall. Occasionally she fills in serving happy customers at the local diner. She is a bit of a knitting fool, although not so much of one since her recent return to gardening. She dyes yarn with plant and other natural materials mostly grown in her own garden or gathered from the fields, mountains, and roadsides surrounding her home. Her yarns are sold at knittingiris.etsy.com. Now that nursery work is done for the year, she looks forward to time together with her family and friends spent sailing, swimming, camping, fishing, canoeing, berry-picking, and of course, puttering in her greenhouse and garden during the upcoming summer months. She sporadically blogs about her life and knitting over at knitting iris, and posts under the same name over on Flickr.
All images via Siri Larsen