Organic gardeners produce more than just produce

For this group of dedicated organic gardeners, the hard work in the soil more than pays off with vegetables and camaraderie

Special to The TribuneSeptember 18, 2013 

A group of local gardeners with a spirit of fun and an eye for beauty are growing far more than vegetables.

Visit SLO Creek Farms Organic Community Garden and you find a lush sofa and overstuffed chairs made of mounds of hay bales, which are covered with sod and then planted with grass seed. The gardeners call the collection their “lawn furniture.”

Nasturtiums trail across paths and mound against picket fencing to mulch the garden and deter deer. Organic vegetables such as squash, beans and tomatoes grow in abundance in the rich soil. Good Bug Blend, a cover crop that attracts butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects, thrives along the hillside by the fence line. Ashley Gable believed a community of organic farmers was possible and practical. She kicked off the rhinestone heels she wears as a professional ballroom dancer, pulled on a pair of rubber boots, and now her vision is reality. Everything in the community garden eco-system works together and the gardeners do, too. The modest rent of $50 each year on the 16 plots is plowed back into the garden in the form of supplies like fencing and other garden needs.

One plot is donated to local veterans so they can experience the benefits of connecting with the earth. Deborah Humphrey, one of the garden managers, works with that group. Another plot is set aside in which everyone plants one seed and takes care of it. When that plot is harvested, the produce is given to a family in need.

A lot of people visiting U-pick at SLO Creek Farm to get their apples said they wished they had a place to grow a garden. This helped Ashley and her parents, Robyn and Blythe Gable, to open one. The farm is located some six miles south of San Luis Obispo.

“We believe strongly in organic produce and the health and well-being of the community. We hope more organic farms catch on,” Ashley Gable said.

Family members are also strong supporters of GleanSLO, which is part of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County. Apples from their certified organic orchard are donated each fall. When spring comes, the Apple Blossom Festival at the farm also provides some financial support for GleanSLO.

“This family is so gracious and open hearted,” said Cheryl Jones, a certified permaculture design consultant who helps man age the community garden.

Several years ago Jones was an intensive care nurse working trauma in emergency care. She and her husband have owned organic farms in Hawaii since 1999. “There is something therapeutic in growing your own food. It helps us reconnect with our basic nature,” Jones said, adding that about 17 years ago she trained in permaculture and organic farming and found many reasons for organic. Among them, she said:

• It’s cheaper and conserves water and soil.

• You’re working with nature rather than fighting it.

• It’s easy to grow a tremendous amount of food in a small area.

• Economically, it makes sense. It’s very empowering.

• It’s wonderful for kids. It’s important for families to see the whole process from seed to plant to eating something.

Jones suggests beginners start with easy crops like any of the summer or winter squash. Now is a good time to plant fall crops like seed kale, broccoli and cabbage.

Every gardener knows that gophers can destroy months of effort in minutes. In this garden, wire is buried deep in each plot to keep the gophers out. Weeds are another problem so the group plants buckwheat as a cover crop to crowd out weeds and add organic matter to the soil. Where no cover crop is planted cardboard obtained from an organic market is used as a cover so weeds can’t sprout.

"It’s been pretty amazing,” Ashley Gable said. “Once a month we get together and barbecue to celebrate birthdays and to harvest and share the produce. Trials in people’s lives become smiles.”

Like many families, the gardeners support and help one another, not just in growing healthy food, but also in growing healthy lives.

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A highly productive organic vegetable garden is making many South County residents happy.

Adam Terpening of Arroyo Grande transformed a neighbor’s sloping yard into a garden success story by studying what works and what doesn’t. When things grow, his generous spirit sends baskets laden with fresh berries, tomatoes, green onions, basil, carrots, lettuce and more into the neighborhood and on to family and friends.

“I think a lot of people could do this and get a lot of joy from it,” Terpening said about gardening. Lush marigold plants attest to his green thumb and help keep pests at bay as do his many basil plants and giant sunflowers.

A wildflower seed blend provides a blanket of flowers, which along with lavender plants, help draw bees.

Varieties that work best near the coast include the stupice variety of tomato, Terpening said. It worked so well it outgrew the trellis. His sun gold cherry tomatoes were also abundant. Basil planted next to them may improve tomato flavor, according to some gardeners. Terpening and Brandee Sanchez, who shares his spirit of adventure and picking veggies/weeding effort, especially like wrapping a cherry tomato in a fresh basil leaf for a colorful appetizer.

Early peas fixated nitrogen in one planting bed so he put carrots, lettuce, kale and cucumbers in that area. Zucchini in a different bed suffered bad powdery mildew so he pruned the plants back and is happy they have kept going. He wants neighbors to know he plans to plant seven next year, not the 20 that went in this year.

Other simple tricks include using jute to help hold soil, bamboo stakes with foil streamers help keep birds out of the berries. He doesn’t plant squash in the same area as his tomatoes to help with pest control.

— Mary McCorkle

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