The Crestone Eagle • December, 2020

Garden Guru: The Woman’s Garden

by Matie Belle Lakish

When I first met Kizzen, about 1993, she was living cattycorner from the gas pumps with her family: husband Michael Dennett, daughter Nakia, sons Talmath and Rama, a large black lab named Jackson, two hens, and a mean red rooster who diligently guarded the place. But her heart was with another piece of land close to the northeast corner of the town, where the family planned to build a house and raise their own food. She began working the pasture-land soil even before the foundation was laid, about 1990.

Later, as the family grew up and the marriage dissolved, Kizzen and Janet Woodman became partners, both in life and in the garden. By that time, the soil had been nurtured to the point that things would grow adequately, and they decided to invite other women into the garden, both as helpers and as consumers of the produce. I was fortunate to be included in the approximately eight helpers, many of whom have come and gone through the years. Now, thirty years later, the garden has the best soil I have seen in the valley, and produces abundantly year after year.

Both Kizzen and Janet have their roles to play in the garden. Kizzen makes the decisions, with input from garden participants, regarding what to plant, where to plant it, what varieties will be selected, and how the planting will be done. She keeps detailed notes on how the various plants and varieties measure up, and can look back over years of records to help make the next year’s choices. Janet is the queen of water, weeding and thinning and also the organizer of volunteers. She sends out emails every week letting the women know what will be happening, and compiles lists of tasks to be done. She also organizes refreshments, so that at the end of a Sunday morning work session, volunteers can sit in the shade, have a glass of juice or tea, and tell stories of their weeks, and their lives, and the garden. There is always wisdom to be shared, and Kizzen says that, as long as she has been gardening, she is always learning from the other women who come to work and then share the harvest.

Sisters of the soil, Daughters of the Dirt. Ladies of the Loam, Madams of the Mulch.Karen Caddis and Matie Belle Lakish in the women’s co-op garden.

Compost is the key to the good soil. The women maintain three compost piles in various stages of decomposition. The first, the rough pile, accepts all the plant trimmings, manures, excess food residue from the food bank and any other organic material. The second year, the pile is watered, and planted with winter squash. Over the course of the growing season the squash vines will mature giant squashes and the rough compost will decompose. In the third year, the squash pile is sifted and turned into the garden beds and used as potting soil. While Kizzen’s approach to tilling has changed over the years, she now mixes the compost into the top four or so inches of soil with a light tilling or hoeing.

Earthworms abound in the garden. Kizzen said that the original soil had little organic matter and no visible earthworms. As she added organic material to the soil, she went and dug earthworms by North Crestone Creek to move to the garden she was creating. The earthworms multiplied to the point that almost every shovel-full of garden soil now has numerous earthworms. Their castings have contributed immensely to the fertility of the garden.

Besides fertile soil, gardens in the desert need water. This is Janet’s realm. She decided to use soaker hoses, because it offers the most efficient use of water. Janet said, “I was concerned because we were getting less precipitation every year. I wanted to be as careful as possible about the water on the garden.” Each season she reviews the hoses, then lays them out in zones. She then controls the water to each zone in line with the needs of the plants. For instance, peas and cabbages and such will need water every other day in summer, while perennials and fruit trees may need a deep watering twice a week. She has considered automating the system, but feels that she has more control by doing it herself. Almost every morning she walks through the garden looking it over, and she may find an unexpected leak, or find something that needs special attention.

Mulching is also an important part of conserving water, while also adding nutrients to the soil and helping to feed the earthworms. Over the years, they have tried leaves, cardboard, and straw. Leaves tend to blow away, while cardboard leaves tape residue behind. Straw is easily available in the valley, and tends to work well. It is usually raked off in the early spring, then compost is added and tilled into the beds, and the hoses are laid down. Then after the soil has warmed a bit, the seeds are planted. Once the plants are a few inches tall, the straw is tucked back around them to conserve the moisture.

The women have a small greenhouse where they start seeds in the spring. They always end up with more plants than they need. About a decade ago, Janet thought they might try selling these to other gardeners to help pay for some of their seed and equipment needs. It has since become an important part of the garden resources. Every spring the garden ladies pot up plants using the mix of compost and garden soil, and Janet sells them at the Saturday market. The proceeds pay for that year’s seeds, supplements, and equipment. A bonus for the buyers is that they get some of that fertile, living soil along with the seedlings, which, buyers report, leads to larger, healthier plants than those sold in stores. In addition, the varieties are often ones found to do well in this short growing season.

While other women are the primary helpers in the garden, husbands and sons have also contributed heavy labor, especially now as some gardeners are aging. 

Kizzen says, “You really can garden here if you’re a masochist and an eternal optimist, but we couldn’t do it without the others.” “Sharing the work, sharing the harvest, it frees us up to go somewhere.” They also like to travel.