The Crestone Eagle • October, 2020

Garden Guru: Ascension Garden at Little Shepherd

By Mattie Belle Lakish

Note: This begins a look at some of the group gardens in the Crestone/Baca area. If you work with a garden in which several people are involved, and would like to see it featured, please email me at matieb42@gmail.com, or call 719-256-4252 and leave a phone number.

Almost everyone in the area has watched the space in front of Little Shepherd of the Hills Episcopal Church as it has grown into a vibrant community garden. Started last August as an outgrowth of the Saturday community food events, it now helps to feed several people who come to volunteer their time and effort, as well as providing fresh produce to the local food bank. 

Little Shepherd is a mission of the Episcopal Church in Salida, and services have been held at the old log cabin on Alder Street for decades. However, a few years ago the church built a new auxiliary building, which has allowed a meeting space for many groups, including a free food effort hosted for many months by Aha and Erin. The garden is a direct outgrowth of this free food effort, and was originally envisioned as a source of free food for the community. Aha worked hard to put up a fence that could protect the space from deer, bear, and smaller critters, and a group of potential gardeners layered the earth with cardboard to suppress weeds, then covered it with several layers of soil and compost. Beds were created in a circular pattern.

Ginny Ducale, chair of the Food Group of Crestone Baca Resiliency, and a Master Gardener (indicating completion of the Master Gardener course given by Cooperative Extension), took the lead at that point, developing a plan for planting the space, with the help of many volunteers. She arranged for the importation of truckloads of straw and compost, some of which was then sold to other gardeners, helping many people get a good start on planting last spring. Although Ginny asked for suggestions from other members of the church and food group, she made the final decisions on what to plant, and where, and purchased the seed. Another member of the congregation, Denise Peine, has provided the water to keep the soil hydrated. Many other volunteers have provided muscle and energy and suggestions to bring the garden to a reality. It looks great!

As mentioned, most of the soil was brought in from outside. First, cardboard was placed on top of the existing soil, then soils were purchased, mostly from Compost Technologies and Rocky Mountain Soils, and were layered with minerals. Ginny said that originally she added ashes, but they made the soil too alkaline, and she had to add peat moss to bring it to the correct ph.

The garden is arranged in a circular pattern, but with many small, raised beds fanning out from the center. Closest to the entrance are the herb beds, which host a wide variety of both culinary and medicinal herbs. Some of the offerings are motherwort, holy basil, feverfew, chamomile, catnip, lemon balm, various thymes, as well as common cooking herbs. These beds also have some beautiful purple amaranth and edible chrysanthemums.

The garden offers many types of greens of various sorts. I saw bok choi, three types of kale, Chinese cabbages, purple orach, New Zealand spinach, chicory and endive, and several types of mustards. I was particularly impressed with the Chinese cabbage and bok choi. In my experience, these greens suffer in this dry climate, but in this garden, they are thriving.

There are also beds with other plants, including beets, broccoli, onions, leeks, peas, carrots and tomatoes. Six Three-Sisters mounds have small plantings of corn, beans, and squash, all from various Native American varieties. Some of these, as well as other small plantings of hot-weather crops seemed to be struggling to mature. This was a problem for many gardeners this year, with the late frost and cooler nights through the summer. Variety can also be a factor, and Ginny said she did not know much about the varieties of those crops that were planted.

Around the edges, some small fruits have been planted, especially bush cherries and goji berries. Some dinnerplate-sized sunflowers formed a backdrop for the shorter plants, and the bright yellow heads, along with the purple orach and amaranth, made for an attractive contrast to the many greens. Visually quite beautiful.

From a food perspective, most of the produce this year has been leafy greens, so far. Ginny is looking forward to planting and harvesting more “meaty veggies” next year. She would like more onions, beets, carrots, broccoli, string beans, and maybe some purple fingerling potatoes.

Another goal for next year is a better water system. Although the first beds, the herb beds, have some soaker hose, most of the garden is watered by overhead sprinklers. Because of the cardboard underlayment, drainage has been a problem. The raised beds are doing well, but the paths in between are so wet that water often stands in them. The sprinkler is run every day, and therefore everything is well watered, but it could be more efficient.

Another change Ginny is considering is combining some of the small beds into longer beds. There is a lot of wasted space between the numerous small beds and it will be much easier to set up a soaker hose system if the beds are more connected. Along the outside fence, most of the soil is covered with straw bales, and Ginny would like to see more garden plants taking advantage of the fenced space.

For a first-year garden, the Ascension Garden is extraordinary. Most of the produce has been donated to the Food Bank, and many recipients have benefited from the extraordinary variety and freshness of the greens. The cost of such an endeavor is high, with imported soils and amendments and abundant purchased water being most of the cost. However, the soils can be used and enjoyed for several years and a more efficient watering system is in the works.

One of the best things about the garden is the level of community involvement. Every Saturday volunteers come to work and then share a meal together. When we had the extraordinary freeze in early September, Ginny put out a request for covers for the plants and numerous people responded with tarps, sheets, and blankets. And the location on the main street in Crestone makes it ideal for a true “community garden”.