Growing the ultimate garden in the Wood River Valley can pose many challenges to the uninitiated gardener. With scant rainfall, cold winters and hot summers, it takes local know-how to get the most out of the high pH soils in this area. But for some valley residents, summer is the season when it all comes together and all of the hard work starts to pay off.
A Hailey gardener shares lessons
“My dad and maternal grandfather were farmers,” said Julie Fox-Jones, a fourth-generation Hailey gardener and craftswoman who lives at the mouth of Quigley Canyon. Her Fox Acres home is surrounded in summer by a lush garden. Chickens, rabbits, geese and goats also inhabit the premises. They all provide compost, the goats eat weeds and the chickens lay eggs.
“You can grow a lot more than you would think in Hailey, as long as you know what you’re doing and take advantage of microclimates and season extenders,” Fox-Jones said. “I start leeks way early, like February, artichokes, too, if I’m going to bother. I plant tomatoes, eggplants and peppers on the first day of spring, with basil shortly after.”
Fox-Jones said April is for planting greens and peas and transplanting leeks. May is for Brassicas, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale. In June, she plants “hot crops” such as corn and beans and transplants her spring veggies and herbs.
“Garlic and spinach I plant in the fall,” she said.
Fox-Jones said she would not start seeds in March and April without using hoop houses or greenhouses, Agribon row covers or other microclimate structures made of black plastic, stones and raised beds.
“I had to move my gardens around as my trees got bigger,” she said. “Be careful of shade and think before you plant trees. They are helpful for keeping cool season crops that produce in the summer heat, but otherwise it’s sun you want, and lots of it.”
Fox-Jones said she composts as much as possible, taking a fair amount of droppings from her animals, using soaker hoses for irrigation, as well as hand watering. Her fall-planted spinach was almost ready to harvest in March. During summer she pulls up asparagus, carrots and parsnips, sweet corn, green beans, soybeans, winter and summer squash and small melons and cucumbers.
“Humidity can be tricky here, so yields on certain crops are compromised,” she said. She also grows herbs for cooking and healing, and useful flowers, which attract pollinating insects. She freezes and cans some of her produce for winter.
“It takes a lot of work, but I love to do it,” she said.
There are limits to what Fox-Jones can produce, even with a home that gets lots of sun.
“I want production and high yields, so I don’t bother with stuff that is questionable or super finicky,” she said. “I don’t think okra would work here, although I haven’t tried. Artichokes don’t pay off enough for me, though I’ve harvested a few small ones. Big melons and tomatoes and most winter squash just take too long.”
Fox-Jones doesn’t grow potatoes or onions, because she knows some Idaho’s Bounty co-op farmers are going to bring them to town soon enough.
“Mike Heath and Nate Jones [producers for farmers markets and Idaho’s Bounty] grow those down south in huge quantities, organically and inexpensively. Hagerman is not far away,” she said.
The Hope Garden
About a mile west of Fox-Jones’ house and garden, on land in central Hailey where the old county jail once stood, the Hunger Coalition Hope Garden is filling out with dozens of vegetable, herb and flower varieties. Food from the Hope Garden will help fill food storage lockers at the Hunger Coalition center in Bellevue.
The 10,000-square-foot garden is managed by Hunger Coalition Education Manager Hallie Reikowsky and tended by numerous volunteers, many of whom take gardening classes and trade sweat equity for the food assistance that the garden provides.
Reikowsky sprouted tomatoes, eggplants and peppers under grow lights early this spring, and grew cauliflower, kholrabi, cabbage and broccoli seeded in a coldframe.
Lettuce and radishes were sprouted in the raised garden plots at the Hope Garden, beside kale and spinach that returned early from last season. By early summer, there were melons, cucumbers and squash, moved from indoors to the garden, along with cilantro, peas, carrots and beets that were seeded in the ground.
Reikowsky uses a soil thermometer to tell exactly when the soil is ready for planting.
“That way we don’t rely on myth or info from someone who may have a much warmer or cooler space than ours,” she said.
Reikowsky also depends on experiments to get the most out of her garden.
“This season we’re testing cabbage germination to confirm whether or not it is beneficial to begin growing it early indoors,” she said.
She had some cabbage seeded in the ground, some in the coldframes and some under the grow lights indoors.
“We’ll see how germination rates go, and what the success and growth rates are of transplants,” she said. “Over time, this kind of information will make us more and more efficient and help us feed nutritious food to more and more folks.
“Learning by trial and error—that’s the main way most gardeners learn. No matter how many classes you’ve taken and/or how many books you’ve read, part of the joy of gardening is that you are always refining your methods, hosting experiments, and learning.”
The Sawtooth Botanical Garden
Just south of Ketchum is the nonprofit Sawtooth Botanical Garden. An office and greenhouse complex sits at one end of a lawn that is used for concerts and other festivities.
The garden does not get long, sunny afternoons due to a ridge to the west, but a large greenhouse on the property facilitates the growing of numerous orange trees and other subtropical plants.
The Botanical Garden hosts gardening workshops throughout the spring, summer and fall, and provides educational garden plots for students.
Early this past spring, valley residents John Caccia and Miles Teitge hosted an organizational meeting to form the first “seed library” in the Wood River Valley, an effort that led to the recently established Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance. Their goal is to swap seeds and seed-saving expertise twice each year, in an effort to find out what works best in the challenging environment of the Wood River Valley.
“I call us the Green Berets of seed-saving,” said Caccia, who specializes in raising garlic. He has selectively bred hardy varieties with great taste.
Like many small-scale producers, Caccia is wary of a growing dependence on genetically modified vegetable varieties.
“Establishing grassroots natural seed-saving programs are the best way to ensure that locally adapted, robust seed varieties continue to survive and provide nutritious food for the community,” he said.
During a recent meeting of the organization, Marie Mohler, an expert gardener and massage therapist, spread out her collection of hundreds of seed varieties in the Botanical Garden greenhouse, including Anasazi beans, St. John’s wort, poppies and squash. Other seed enthusiasts took turns sharing their knowledge about what qualities they contain, and how best to bring them to full expression.
Caccia’s goal this summer is to have a “seed forest” at the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, where native plants are grown specifically to cull for seeds.
“If everybody combines their knowledge and their seeds, we will all have a free source for the very best seeds in this area, ones that have been selected here by gardeners for their robust varieties,” he said.
The Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance will host a screening of “Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds” at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum on Thursday, July 10, at 6 p.m. Tickets cost $10.
On Saturday, July 19, the organization will present “Seed School in a Day” from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Botanical Garden, hosted by Bill McDorman and Belle Starr. Tickets are $75, which includes lunch.
There are numerous helpful herbs and medicinal plants growing in the Rocky Mountain region, from alder and angelica to valerian, willow and yarrow. Users are encouraged to gather reliable information or talk to a medical professional about their uses, as some can be toxic or poisonous in the wrong dose.
Marie Mohler is an expert gardener who grows medicinal herbs and plants for use in tinctures, salves and oils. Mohler uses some of these brews in her massage-therapy treatments. Below is a short list of some of the plants that she has grown successfully in the Wood River Valley, and descriptions of their uses.
- Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ) is a ground cover whose leaves can be effective in treating urinary tract infections.
- Licorice (Agastache foeniculum ) or mint can be made into a tea that helps with digestion.
- Arnica (Arnica chamissonis ) flower tops can be made into a salve or oil that’s good for sprains, strains, over-worked muscles, bumps and bruises. Should be used externally only.
- *Fireweed ( Epilobium angustifolium ) can help control erosion in burned areas and is a great source of nectar for bees, being high in vitamins A and C.
- St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum ) is used to support the nervous system.
- Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis ) can be used as a natural anti-inflamatory and diuretic.
- Other perennial herbs that grow well here include thyme, sage, echinacea, oregano, marjoram, tarragon and some varieties of lavender.