Soil, space and sunshine in Atascadero

When the Dexters moved from the Rockies to Atascadero, they wanted to be active in their garden, so they bought a house on an acre

conniepillsbury22@gmail.comAugust 14, 2013 

In their 35 years in the ministry for the Presbyterian Church, Don and Pennie Dexter lived and gardened in three different locations — New Mexico, Santa Barbara and Nederland, Colo.

They chose a small congregation in Nederland to be the final phase in their career before retiring and returning to California. At 8,600 feet in the Rockies east of Boulder, they thought they wouldn’t be doing much gardening, but just enjoying the hiking, skiing and snow.

But Don found a gardening mentor there, Englishman and Master Gardener John Brocklehurst, who convinced him that if he “put as much attention into the soil as to the planting and watering, you’ll do well, even at 8,600 feet.”

Don started adding compost and manure to the ground, removed some trees, and in four years had developed a most beautiful summer garden.

“It was actually the garden that sold the house when it came time to move,” he said.

When Don retired, he and Pennie relocated near his mother and sister in Atascadero, where his late father, Roland Dexter, had founded the Methodist Church and been active in city government. Convinced that gardening was to be their main focus, they looked for a home in Atascadero that had lots of space and sunshine. They found an acre with a relatively new home in east Atascadero that filled the bill.

Don’s first project was to remove the manicured putting green lawn in the front yard. Don started by digging down one foot and turning the sod over. Because it wasn’t Bermuda grass, he didn’t have to use chemicals or tarps. He turned over a little each day, forming slight mounds out of the clods. He was surprised when his neighbor told him he could get a rebate from the water company for removing the lawn.

After removing the entire lawn and installing a drip system, he ordered two truckloads — 20 yards — of Tri-Mix from Rossi’s to spread one foot deep over the former lawn area. The area was now ready for seeds of blooming perennials, bulbs and plants in a myriad of colors, plus two trees purchased with the water company rebate, a Chitalpa and an Arbutus “Marina.”

With a very large gopher population, Don and Pennie started hand weeding the entire property, explaining that the thick roots of the filaree weed attracts them. Don trapped 65 gophers in the first year, and they are now gopher-free.

Next came the vegetable gardens and orchard. For each tree, Don dug a hole 4 feet wide and 8 feet in diameter, using water to soften the hard caliche nonporous dirt. Using two more truckloads of Tri-Mix, he filled the holes beneath the trees and the vegetable gardens, creating a rich growing environment that would also allow water to drain.

Then he started his compost pile. His neighbors had horses and chickens, providing good nutrients for the mix. In return, they get to use the compost when they need it. Before dawn every morning, Don walks the garden and turns the compost. “I wave at my neighbor as he leaves for work at 6:30,” he smiles.

As a pastor, Don explains that turning the compost pile provides a type of spiritual discipline for him, as it reminds him of the concept of how God makes “beauty for ashes.” On cooler mornings, he likes to watch the steam rise out of the turned pile.

“All of that compost contributes to our productive produce and flowers,” Pennie adds.

She is in charge of harvesting and storing the fruit and vegetables. With a dehydrator, she dries the peaches and tomatoes and stores them in the freezer in plastic containers. She says they take lots of fruit and vegetables to church with them, and still have plenty more for food banks and other groups.

Don and Pennie spend an average of three hours a day in their prolific garden. “I am always amazed at the product of our labor and the beauty and color that the soil can create,” Don said.

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