Fearless gardening reaps rewards in the Snyders' Nipomo garden

Pumpkins and poppies and swallows and more! Whether plants flourish or falter in the Snyder garden, experimentation and bold plantings are a big part of what makes this yard sparkle

Special to The TribuneSeptember 4, 2013 

Iceland poppies in orange and yellow wave to visitors before swallows dive-bomb them. Welcome to a vast garden where the Snyder family plants and plays together.

Daughter Katrina was 6 when she helped plant a few giant pumpkins. That October, while helping carve jack-o’-lanterns, she asked, “What would happen if we planted all these seeds?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t we try?” her dad replied. The next year they planted 250 feet of seeds from the pumpkins, which resulted in great genetic variations.

Visiting the Nipomo Pumpkin Patch is a popular October activity for families in the South County and a tradition that Katrina, now 12, and her brother Paul, 10, relish. The family expanded on varieties and now grows 100 different kinds. Pumpkins, some 300-pound giants, are sold for up to $15.

Encouraging the eighth generation of horticulturalists is important to the Snyders, owners and operators of Koch California, a large rose-growing business on the Nipomo Mesa started by Susan’s parents, who grew roses and mums.

Part of the front yard is space for the children’s garden, with room for digging, planting, building and experimentation. They plant fearlessly, just like their parents. Some things grow, some die, some just take over, but this family’s extreme garden adventure never slows down.

“Feel this soil,” John says, offering a cupful for closer inspection. “It’s friable,” Susan adds, as we crumble a black, root-lovin’ handful.

Their passion for growing things is infectious. They share their enthusiasm as we hike through the garden, snipping, stomping on snails, pulling weeds, and snapping off unwanted branches.

Susan is the mastermind behind the ornamentals: bulbs, annuals, perennials and assorted shrubs and trees.

When she envisioned a rock garden, John started looking for rocks. They found black-green serpentine in Cambria and used 100 tons of it to create this unusual garden feature. Forty varieties of wild buckwheat compete for space along with a western redbud, yellow lupine, monkey flowers in gold and wine and coral echium wildpretii.

Birds are ecstatic here. John built the swallows the strangest and busiest garden feature imaginable. It looks like a free-standing eave with a roof that allows for construction of mud nests. Peek under the roof and tiny little faces peek back at you. Don’t stand too close.

Birds dart over a large koi pond bordered in flagstone, which is surrounded by Japanese maples, grasses, dwarf conifers, perennials and succulents, punctuated by asiatic lilies.

John, red-handled Felco pruners in pocket, is master of the edibles. No variety is too obscure for him to try.

Different berries, like goji, gooseberry, huckleberry and raspberry, vie for his attention along with stone fruits and an abundance of vegetables. Blueberries burst into plump perfection in time to celebrate Paul’s birthday. His party guests freely pick all they can eat right off the bushes. A third of the plant is pruned yearly so berries stay big. Water moats surround plant bench legs or encircle strawberry pots to discourage ants.

John’s second-hand $50 stove bakes a giant bean pot full of soil to kill weed seeds and also mulches with woodchips.

As worm wranglers go, no one can touch the Snyder Ranch for production. The homemade worm bins can be found in several locations.

Through trial and effort, the family has created such a worm-friendly habitat that you can scoop handfuls of them out of the shredded newspaper and decomposing fruit mix. The worm castings, or what John calls “black gold,” are what make this garden such fertile ground. Footfalls are softened everywhere by more than 2 feet of the richest compost you could ever hope for.

Lean into a blossom-heavy orange tree and listen to the sound of bees at work. Hives, 6 feet high, buzz with activity.

Pruning is a skill practiced quite a bit in this garden. John prunes the fruit trees so they grow low and branches stay accessible so fruit can be picked without use of ladders.

Although John graduated from UC Berkeley in computer science and not Cal Poly horticulture like his wife, he and Susan exemplify the “learn by doing” philosophy.

The Snyders eat what they grow and rarely dine on carbs when so many fruits and vegetables are growing. Consuming three cantaloupes per person each day is normal when melons ripen at the same time.

The Snyders’ garden is filled with plants many have never see or heard of before. Dieters might love the crunchy low-calorie Bolivian sunroot, except for one thing — it gives those who eat it flatulence. As we drove away, we were happy no sample was available.

PHOTOS: More pictures of the Snyders' Nipomo garden »

Contact Mary McCorkle and Genevieve Holloway at happygardener225@gmail.com.

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