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Spring stirs the seeds of obsession

Apr 14, 2014 - By Randy Tucker

The gardening bug is endemic in my family.

The signs are finally here. Last week I watched a father and son playing catch at the Babe Ruth Park on West Sunset Drive in Riverton. The late afternoon ritual marks the arrival of April and with it the first portends of the coming growing season.

I've inherited an ailment, a disease if you will. The gardening bug is endemic in my family and in my wife's lineage as well. Gardening was easiest for my grandfather Forrest Tucker in the low-lying land in Central Arkansas just west of the Mississippi River. His garden featured championship watermelons and huge tomatoes that grew seemingly year round. They actually grew about eight months in the Zone 7 wilderness of the mid-South, but to a preteen with little knowledge of the complexities of time, 's garden was magical. Add in onions, okra, peppers, potatoes, apples, peaches, pears, pecans, black walnuts and persimmons and it was an actual cornucopia.

We visited Grandma and Gasser in Riverton every summer. During these visits from Arkansas and California, I noticed a couple of raised beds, created with crisscrossed telephone poles in their backyard.

Our home is just a hundred feet or so east of the original Gasser house and I completely understand my grandfather's raised beds. We should have petitioned for a gravel pit before we built our house. Most of the west end of our property is composed of rocks, ranging from tennis ball-sized stones to basketball-sized boulders. It is evident that a river once ran through this area, leaving the rocks but not bothering to keep the water it once contained.

We've had smaller raised beds before, but this summer I've upped the ante a bit.

Four bags of Portland cement, a trailer load of sand and gravel picked up in town, and four dozen concrete blocks purchased from surplus when the new Arapahoe school was built transformed into a 20-by-13 raised bed last week. Just a little water in the wheelbarrow mixed with the sand, gravel and cement, followed by a similar mix sans the gravel (to put the blocks in place) and a covering rail of painted, rough cut 2-by-8's, and it was finished. The topsoil arrives from Lander sometime next week.

Other experiments are growing nicely in the greenhouse I built in the summer of 2012.

For the first time I started sweet corn inside. My late friend Gene Franklin always had the earliest corn of the season, and while I can't compete with his masterful talents, perhaps a head start inside, followed by transplanting outdoors next month will feed the raccoons in late June rather than early September as in most years.

The tomatoes and peppers were started by another master gardener -- my dad, Luther -- in his sunroom off North Broadway Avenue. While he's never tried it, I'll bet he could get grass to grow on a sidewalk if he tried.

Last summer the corn seemed to take forever to grow, and just as it was close to harvest, a local gang of bandit raccoons feasted on it one night. Only shredded remains survived the next morning. The previous year, one of our cows worried the gate open, and it was a bovine feast of sweet corn at almost the exact time.

Hopefully, the new raised bed -- with my shop providing protection from the north and west wind -- will create a mini Zone 5 and the close proximity to the house will keep the marauding wildlife at bay.

My Gasser experimented with black walnut and oak trees as well and had some success. It's apples and apricots for his grandson. Last year was a banner year for apples in Fremont County.

While the climate here can break the heart of the most earnest horticulturalist, the challenges that my father-in-law faced in Lusk were exponentially more difficult.

Sigmund Hahn spent nearly half-a-century in Niobrara County trying to get trees to grow. The story was almost always the same, they'd grow for four or five years as he pampered them with supporting wires, special fertilizer and wrapped trunks only to have a fierce Wyoming wind or heavy snowfall snap them in half.

His trees never quite made it, but the garden he grew when Sue and I first met was of epic proportions. The familiar tomatoes, peppers, peas, beans and carrots were augmented by a spectacular bed of asparagus. He was even able to nurse watermelons and cantaloupe out of the harsh panhandle climate of the far eastern edge of our state.

Gardening in our harsh climate is a challenge. Those afflicted with the gardening bug quickly learn to enjoy success when it arrives, but are equally adept at accepting the freak winds, drops in temperature, droughts and floods that make Wyoming the unique place it is.

Maps in the seed catalogs claim we live in Zone 4 and that Cheyenne, Torrington and the Big Horn Basin have traces of Zone 5. Don't believe it. Most people who have dabbled in the habit practice a simple rule, if you can find a plant marked Zone 3, grow it.

Greenhouses are always Zone 9 and like the Zone 7 and 8 that marked my grandfather's home in Arkansas, they develop attitudes in gardeners you'd never find in the Cowboy State. It's time to plant soon, but the seeds of the obsession already lay deep inside and last a lifetime.

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired educator.

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