Garden Guru: Byron Pike & High Ground Gardens

The Crestone Eagle • March, 2020

by Matie Belle Lakish

High Ground Gardens, local seed purveyors, was began by Bryon Pike, whose intention was to offer locally adapted seed varieties, while preserving the local heirlooms that have benefited high-altitude gardeners and small farmers for generations. His focus has been the San Luis Valley, but over the years many old-time gardeners from several southwestern states have contributed seed-stock to his collection.

Bryon and his wife, Leah, moved to the San Luis Valley 16 years ago, and now live in the Baca, where Bryon has three garden sites. As he is growing plants to produce seed, he has to isolate the different varieties of the same plants so they don’t cross-pollinate, and will remain true to variety. For instance, if he planted four corn varieties in the same locale, they would mix their pollen so much that the resulting new plants would be unrecognizable. Lacking a large acreage, Bryon plants in three different locations, two in the Chalets, and one in Casita Park.

Like many local gardeners, Bryon originally saved his own seeds of varieties that grew well in the challenging SLV weather, soil conditions and high altitude. Over time, they became adapted to this area. Bryon started the seed business to share his passion on a larger scale. He calls it his “passion hobby.” While they do sell the seeds, Bryon has had several agriculture-related jobs over the years that actually pay the bills. Leah helps with the business, but Bryon does most of the growing.

Bryon is passionate about saving non-hybrid, non-GMO traditional seeds. He has visited seed exchanges and traditional gardeners and farmers around the southwest and collects and grows out seeds of old varieties, many of which have not been planted in years.

Last year I grew a Three Sisters patch from seeds I got from Bryon. It included Hopi Blue Corn, a traditional Hopi purple climbing bean, and Hopi Orange Squash, all from plants that Bryon grew from seeds he was gifted by Hopi elders. The plants did quite well, in spite of the cool wet summer that slowed many plants. The beans were particularly nice, and matured dry beans well, even in our short season.

Many of the seeds they sell have been selected over the years to be hardy and productive in this climate. Leah mentioned the chard and broccoli that they sell as being especially well adapted for this climate. Bryan spoke about their Hardy Tomato, which has some frost resistance. He said it was the only plant in a field that survived a frost, and he has saved and propagated it ever since.

In the garden by their house, which is on a rather steep hillside, he grows trial varieties in large tubs. If someone gives him seeds to try, or he decides to try a new variety, he will do it first in one of the tubs. If he likes it, he’ll plant out more the next year. He has found that seeds from other areas may adapt, over a few years, to our mountain conditions. In another garden, with more level ground, he plants in raised beds, but without boards or other retainers. He then plants on the sides of the mounded area, as well as on the top, and takes advantage of warmer soils for more tender plants. He has noticed that even a foot or two of elevation change can make the difference between a plant freezing or surviving.

As he plants large areas, he doesn’t usually mulch with straw, but instead, puts seeds for cover crops around the plants, usually around August 1. When the plants die in winter, he just pulls out the old plants and the cover crop takes off.

We also talked irrigation. Bryon uses a 5/8 inch Aqua-Traxx drip tape, 15 mils thick, that he said has held up well for 12 to 15 years. This has emitters at various intervals, and various flow rates, depending on what is best for the crop. I asked if he loops the system, as I do, to create even pressure in the hoses. He said it isn’t necessary, as he gets a Pressure Compensating Tape, that regulates the flow from one end to the other so that all plants in a long row receive the same amount of water. He gave me a catalog from dripworks.com, which is the company he orders from. He noted that he buries the hose in the winter to protect it. His water systems are on timers so they go on and off without his presence.

One of Bryon’s experiments is with Goji berries. He has experimented with Goji for several years, and last fall Leah picked several pounds from plants in Casita Park. Bryon believes, based on observations of wild Goji’s in the area, that they were brought here by Chinese workers over 100 years ago. Indeed, he has ordered plants from Phoenix Tears Nursery in Logan, Utah, whose genetics have tested identical to those grown in China. Planted and watered, the nutritious berries are hardy and bear abundantly in the valley. Also known as Wolfberry, or Matrimony Vine, Goji is loaded with nutrients, both berries and leaves, which can be dried for later use. For example, testing done by Phoenix Tears showed that the dried leaves have over 1000 milligrams of Vitamin C in about ½ cup. Bryon gifted me a Goji plant a few years ago, and it has survived well with little water or care. He has plants for sale, and I plan to increase my planting, as I have researched the nutritional benefits of this remarkable plant.

Bryon and I also share a love of apricots. He told me he has planted over 100 seeds from a hardy tree, along his back fence. His goal is to select the best plants and graft them to create trees with frost-tolerant blossoms and tasty fruits.

Bryon, Leah, and their son Cairn hope to have their own farm someday, where Bryon can have room to expand his experiments. In the meantime, visit their website at highgroundgardens.com and check out their seeds and blog. Bryon and Leah will also have their seeds available at the Seed Exchange at Joyful Journey Hot Springs on Saturday, March 7, from 10am to 5pm.

I like this quote from Bryon’s article, “The Mysteries of Seed Adaptability”, on their website. “Our relationship with seeds and plants is founded on paying attention to how our life-supporting crops have evolved over large spans of historical time with humans having selected for the favorable traits of the food we enjoy today. Now that’s advanced! Do we grow the seeds or do the seeds grow us?”