Growing giant veggies, fruit trees at 8,300 feet

|Barbara Lawlor • Nederland|

I have written about mountain gardens for years, have been in awe of Eldora’s perennial gardens, their columbines, poppies, bee balms, sedums and delphiniums that brighten the granite and pine-needle carpet of high altitude earth. I cherish every plant I have succeeded at bringing back in the spring.
Some years ago, sustainability became the buzz word for mountain gardeners, and a community garden was created creekside behind Wild Mountain Smokehouse by the Nederland Sustainability Project. These visionary members grew vegetables and herbs that fed themselves and added to local restaurant cuisine. That they were able to do this is a great step to accomplishing their goal.
Last week, as a friend and I rode around the Gold Run Subdivision outside of Gold Hill, I noticed a woman working in a patch of plants on Dixon Road. Often I had admired the greenhouse on the property and had seen signs of a garden on the hillside. I said hello to her and asked if we could look at the garden.
She said sure, but she couldn’t show us around at that moment and said to come back some other time. We rode past the knee-high lush plants that sheltered large produce under their dark green leaves. Wow. These were some healthy vegetables.
“Be sure to take a look at the orchard,” she yelled at us. That stopped me in my tracks. Orchard? Here in the mountains, at over 8,300 feet? I pictured a spindly apple tree with a few small green apples. A few yards later, we saw them — manicured, leafy, their boughs bent to the ground with large apples of every color and shape, many of them ready for harvest. Being from Wisconsin I have a thing about apples growing on trees waiting to be picked in the fall. I missed it so much that often I would drive to northeast Boulder, pullover on Jay Road and surreptitiously snatch a bunch of wormy, unripened green apples from a roadside tree, fulfilling that Wisconsin yearning.
These apples, these perfect apples on Dixon Road took my breath away. The woman of the house had gone inside and my friend and I rode on. A week went by and I kept thinking about that garden, those huge vegetables and the apples. Last Friday, Aug. 31, once again we rode by and the gardener was bent over in her buckwheat patch, weeding. I called to her again and asked if I could come back later in the day. She said I should wait until her husband, Steve, came home, that he was the guy responsible for the orchard.
I couldn’t wait. This was a mountain gardener’s dream come true.
When I returned that afternoon Steve and Pam Sherman greeted me, happy to share their successful gardening story, but before we went to the garden we had to wait for Steve’s sourdough, onion, rye bread to rise to the desired height. It’s all about the timing, he said. The bread has to go in the oven at the exactly the right moment.
The kitchen counter was filled with picture perfect zucchini, yellow squash and containers of dried onion, kale and beans of varied colors. Bushels of apples of various quality lounged on the floor in the kitchen, waiting to be dried, to be turned into apple crisp, baked in pies. The Shermans took turns explaining their garden, which, they said, they started about 18-and-a-half years ago when they moved to Gold Hill and their son was born. After much research, they knew they wanted to raise him in the small mountain town.
Steve brought with him a passion for gardening. He grew up on the East Coast and enjoyed gardening all his life. They moved into an old pioneer cabin which had been built in the mid-1800s when the surrounding ground had been a flourishing potato farm. Perfect. Steve knew he could put his passion to work and soon the couple had planted the gentle slope of the hill behind the house. They ordered cold weather, early season seeds and worked the land, coming up with a crop of kale, carrots, onions and potatoes.
Then Steve decided to try fruit trees. He ordered bare root apple trees that specialize in a cold climate from a company in upstate New York. It took four to five years for them to bear fruit, but the wait was worth it. He now has an abundant crop of three dozen fruit trees including many apple varieties, as wells cherries, plums and pears. He added hazelnuts and black walnuts to the orchard and even Korean pine nuts and piñon pine nuts.
Fertilizer and the Foliar Spray System of watering have led the Sherman orchard to bear fruit of exceptional quality and quantity for the mountains. Already, the apples and cherries and plums have been harvested. “We don’t decide when to pick the fruit,” Steve said. “The bears and deer do.” When the fruit is ready, the animals show up.”
Steve brushes a mixture of home-grown arrowroot and water on the top of the bread and slides the loaves into the oven. It is time to go to the garden, or, I should say, gardens. Six separate gardens are on the property with 55 different kinds of vegetables. We pass the beans — wax yellow beans, purple beans, lava beans and mid-eastern beans that thrive in the mountain soil. Peas that are crunchy, plump and sweet, kale, dozens of varieties of lettuce and Swiss chard are protected from the sun. Onions that look ready to eat are about a month away from harvest, Steve said. “They will grow to from three to five pounds.”
Pumpkin plants yield at least three pumpkins per plant, all of them just about Halloween size already, orange and healthy. The squash made my jaw drop. Blue squash and turban squash that looked too good to be true. Spaghetti squash nearing harvest size, unblemished, lying peacefully on the ground, soaking up the sun. There was a giant blue squash, about a foot in diameter, and Long Island Cheese squash. Beets, carrots and potatoes grew their leaves above ground and their vitamin rich tubers were poking out of the ground looking for some attention.
We passed the shoulder high berry patch where yellow raspberries, elderberries and sea berries were beginning their sweet ripening. Volunteer Jerusalem artichokes raised their heads. A section of the grain garden was given over to Guinoa, planted with seeds from Betsy Burton’s farm on the plains. Burton is a former resident of Eldora who now hosts from field-to-table dinners in the flatlands.
Pam said she learned how to turn all of the produce into delicious dishes from the” Encyclopedia of Country Living” by Carla Emery. Pam said she has always wanted to live more simply. “But it’s complicated to live simply,” she added.
She and Steve spend a few hours every day in their six gardens. She said that with more grains and more potatoes, they can harvest and store enough food to live on. The dried vegetables and grains will give them soup all winter long. The Shermans are building a barn and greenhouse that will add to their ability to grow their own food and which could include sheep.
Steve plucked an apple from a tree that has fruit on only one side. “This is where the Fourmile Fire went past our house and garden,” he said. “Afterwards, one half of the tree was charred and there was one baked apple hanging from a branch. The other half is healthy.”
The Shermans said that the firefighters working to save their house said the gardens helped to keep the fire from burning them out. A building next door to them was destroyed.
We have to leave the garden because Steve said his bread will be ready. He pulls the savory aroma-filled loaves from the oven and whips out a thermometer. He wasn’t going to take them out too soon. They are perfectly browned, steaming through the crispy crust from the soft, moist, succulent flesh inside. My mouth is watering.
Before I leave Pam offers me a snack, dried Kale with spices dried into them, the Sherman brand of Doritos. It is light, crunchy and seasoned just right. You can’t eat only one. She forces me, after I begged her, to take a bag of apples, some squash and yellow and purple beans. With harvest season nigh, the Shermans like to share. Also it is Pam’s intent to get together with other mountain communities interested in gardening and sustainability.
Pam has an article in the fall addition of “Permaculture Activists” on banning fracking and is co-creating the new organization, the Evolutionary Law Institute, which focuses on putting the welfare of nature first in all decisions.
If you think my descriptions of this amazing garden are over the top, I don’t blame you. I would too if I hadn’t seen it first-hand and tasted it for myself. It is a picture of a world that could be for everyone if they took the time and used the resources available, if they believed that a partnership between people and nature can actually work, even in the mountains.

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