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Sowing a vision: Huddleston has big plans for dry, windy acres

Sowing a vision: Huddleston has big plans for dry, windy acres

Jun 30, 2014 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Imagine three quarters of an acre covered by at least 50 fruit trees--apples, pears, plums and apricots--each 15 to 30 feet tall and equally wide. Their leaves brush against each other when the wind blows, and their fruit fattens over the summer months.

This is the dream of Shawn Huddleston and his wife Deb, and it would not be out of place in many parts of the country.

But in Wyoming it would be an oasis.

Just off Alaska Road north of Riverton, their vision is taking root out of alkali soil and despite steady winds, scant rainfall and 5,262 of elevation.

It is not there yet, but it has come pretty far. Far enough to show it is possible.

There are about 35 trees planted now, each standing 6-10 feet tall. A few, mostly apples and cherries, were killed by a late frost on Mothers Day when they were budding.

Shawn Huddleston expects those trees to start producing well in three years and to reach maturity in five. Already though, the Huddlestons have been enjoying the fruits of their labor.

Over rhubarb cobbler, made from their own rhubarb, they said they canned about 60 gallons of apple juice last fall. They also can peaches, dehydrate plums, and eat their produce fresh.

Along with their orchard, the Huddlestons have a 5,000 square-foot vegetable patch, strawberries, grape vines and dozens of ornamental or wind-break trees. Most of those trees also produce food for birds.

Shawn Huddleston is a self-proclaimed "tree nerd" and said he "geeks out" over the exotic, ornamental species he grows. When he starts talking fruit, however, his eyes get big, his smile gets bigger, and he seem to be tasting again the pear that changed his life.

"The fruit we can grow here in this basin is the sweetest, best fruit you'll ever eat," he said.

He came to that realization several years ago after biting into a pear his former boss at Sweetwater Garden Co., Kim Wilbert, grew. Huddleston had never liked pears before, but that pear was so sweet he got hooked. Today he has a dozen pear trees and wants to plant more.

Huddleston thinks he knows why the fruit is so sweet. He is quick to credit Wilbert with developing the idea, but also to acknowledge it might not be all that scientific. It has to do with Wyoming's warm summer days and cool summer nights.

During the day, a fruit tree makes sugar through photosynthesis that it stores in its fruit. Most fruit trees draw on that sugar to grow at night when the sun is not shining.

Here, though, the nights get so cold that tree sap gets thick, like honey or maple syrup, and cannot flow, Huddleston said. The sugar gets stuck in the fruit, and the next day, it is left there when photosynthesis resumes.

"That happens for four to six weeks prior to that fruit ripening. There's a lot more sugar stored in that fruit."

The Huddlestons did not grow green thumbs overnight.

Deb Huddleston started learning how to garden about 30 years ago from a library book. She later got her husband into growing flowers, and he became known for his dinner-plate-sized dahlias.

Word got around about the Huddlestons' gardens, and they both started to work at Sweetwater about nine years ago. Then, about five or six years ago, Deb talked Shawn into starting a small, 150-foot "salsa garden" to grow tomatoes, peppers, onion and herbs. Their house on West Park Avenue in Riverton was a favorite sight for passersby.

Soon, however, they decided they needed more space. Four years ago they bought a fixer-upper house on Farview Circle north of Riverton on 2.5 acres.

A single spruce tree was one of the few plants growing on the property.

"That spruce was one of the keys. That told me the soil and water was not too bad, because spruces don't like alkali," Shawn Huddleston said.

He now swears by three techniques for growing plants in the Wind River Basin. The first challenge a gardener faces is the soil.

"It's mostly silt, some sand and a little clay. By working organic material into it, I knew I could break it up and make anything grow," Huddleston said.

Thus his love of compost. The Huddlestons put all of their yard waste and kitchen scraps, along with sheep manure and compost from Rocky Mountain Mushrooms, into a pile to decompose.

In early June, the heap was 40 feet long, 8 feet wide and 4 feet tall. It will grow to more than 10 feet tall by the end of the year, Huddleston said.

Wind can affect growth, reduce production, and desiccate plants.

"That wind sucks the moisture out of the leaves," Huddleston said.

To protect the productive plants, the Huddlestons plant windbreaks of hardier trees and shrubs.

The property gets about 4 to 6 inches of rain a year, not enough for much besides sage brush and a few grasses without some extra help. Shawn and Deb Huddleston take a two-pronged approach to watering.

First, they lay out hundreds of feet of drip hoses that deliver water only to the bases of their plants, cutting down on waste. The system allows them to control exactly how much water each plant receives, cut down on water consumption, and makes watering as easy at turning on a hose.

Then, they lay gardening fabric over the hoses and plants in their vegetable patch and mulch over their orchard to keep the water from evaporating.

The system is time- and cost-efficient, but Huddleston believes conserving water is important in and of itself.

"We live in a high plains desert. Water is our most precious resource," he said.

With their garden and orchard, the Huddlestons produce all of the fruits and vegetables they eat in a year, and they still have plenty left over to give away at Christmas or sell at the Riverton farmers market.

It is a lot of work, but it is worth it, Deb said.

Her husband agreed.

"What do we miss out on? I don't watch 'The Bachelorette,'" he said.

Growing food and preserving it also strengthens their marriage.

"We pretty much do it all side by side," Shawn said.

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