ELKO — City Councilman Rich Perry and his wife Lisa are touring through the garden plot at their home in Elko, describing the year’s young crop.
Basil and melons are tough to grow so they don’t try in Elko’s extreme climate, Lisa Perry says.
“But oregano,” Perry said, “I could supply all of Elko with oregano. It just explodes every year.”
The Perrys have had years of success growing all number of vegetables in their vast backyard plot off Ruby View Drive.
They have multiple tomato patches, grapes, rhubarb, garlic, apple trees, raspberry bushes, a peach tree, a pear tree, a bush cherry, hops, onions, radishes, beets, collard greens and carrots. They’ll plant their warmer crops after they harvest this batch.
Each year they make wine from their white Niagara grapes and enjoy the green landscape from their shady porch.
“It’s very peaceful back here,” Rich Perry said.
In a climate with extreme temperatures, a 90-day (or less) growing season, stubborn soil and limited crop choices, the Perrys’ success is hard-earned.
“I think the key is just to keep trying,” Lisa Perry said. “People shouldn’t be afraid to just start and see what works. Just experiment.”
Elko County has one of the shortest growing seasons in the continental United States. Only a few hours away, the growing season — commonly the time between the last frost date in the spring and the first frost date in the fall — can nearly double.
Even in these conditions, farmer Carol Huether, who operates Carol’s Country Garden in Spring Creek, has had great success growing and selling certified organic fruits and vegetables from her 3-acre plot.
This year she’ll transplant 8,000 peppers, 2,500 tomatoes and stacks of herbs, cucumbers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and squash, among other things.
The key, she says, is vigilance.
“Every morning I get up, grab a cup of coffee and wander the garden from one end to the other,” Huether said. “I check on whether they have enough water, if there are any bug problems, if I need to hoe somewhere, if there is a fungus attacking, what weeds need attention and maybe if I see something like mildew. You can’t just plant something and leave it here, it’s too harsh.”
So how do the area’s expert gardeners and farmers address obstacles like cold, wind, water, soil and predators? From their experience, these are their tips.
Huether is lucky enough to have both a greenhouse and a large hoop house on her 10 acres of property. The protected warmth of the buildings provides a safe place to start plants early, keep sensitive plants going during the summer, and extend the season far into the fall and even start of winter.
“The ground never freezes in the hoop house,” she said from inside the plastic structure, with drips of condensation coming down from the peak of the hoops. “When it hit its lowest over the winter at 18-below, it was 6-above in the hoop house. It can be 90 degrees in here in the winter.”
Even in the middle of the summer, freezing temperatures can frost over plants at night. The Perrys plant their tomatoes in walls of water — water-filled plastic insulator tee-pees — and leave the walls on through the whole season. They have a dual effect: they keep the warm weather plants from freezing at night and they protect against bugs at the base of the stem.
Covering rows at night if it dips below 35 degrees is a good way to prevent any frostbite, Huether said. She keeps close watch on the weather each day so that if she sees a drop in temperatures coming she can prepare to cover the plants.
She even got her own weather station and digital monitor so she’s alerted at any point, day or night, if the temperature goes below or above a level she’s set. (She’ll use a swamp cooler in her greenhouse to keep it from sweltering young plants there.)
“People can also pay attention to the varieties (of plants) that they grow, which helps,” Huether said. “Grow hardy, short-season, disease-resistant varieties. There are some great hybrids out there for our climate.”
Huether plants around June 1 (her estimated last frost) and tries to harvest by September 1 (her estimated first frost) for her in-ground plants.
Lisa Perry hasn’t had much of a problem with wind at their tree-protected property in Elko, but when their family lived in Spring Creek the wind was definitely a problem.
“We used a six-foot fence to keep the wind from hitting the plants,” Rich Perry said. “You could see anything that grew above the line of that fence would die off from there, so obviously it was helpful.”
Huether deals with wind by planting “walls” of trellising peas and high sunflowers or corn along the windward edges of her plots. They create organic windbreaks and work surprisingly well during peak winds, she said.
“I haven’t had too much loss from wind with those up,” she said.
Huether uses drip tape — it looks like a flat, flexible hose with tiny pinholes at even intervals — to precisely water each plant.
“It’s the most efficient use of water,” she said. “You have to really water here in the dry conditions so it’s a great way to keep plants soaked and happy, but still not overuse the water.”
She also pays attention to her water content. Her well water isn’t chlorinated or extra salty, and she believes that makes a difference.
Rich Perry insists that the sprinkler system they have set up is the only way they’d have the success they do.
“Water is key here,” he said.
“And some of the winters you even need to water if it’s too dry,” Lisa Perry said. “It can make or break a young perennial crop.”
Huether uses an organic seaweed-based fertilizer to augment her soil. When she transplants, she puts a handful of fertilizer directly into the hole she digs for the young plant.
“It just gives it a little boost directly to the roots,” she said.
A cover crop that she plants in the fall and then tills into the soil at the start of the planting season — along with the dead plants from the year before — also augments her soil for her vegetables, she said.
“It’s such a rich source of free nutrients,” she said. “It’s an easy way to help soil over the years.”
Huether folds a few inches of potting mix into each row as well when she tills, for extra nutrients. She also rotates what she plants in each section of her farm so that one part isn’t overburdened over the seasons.
But the biggest key for Huether, she said, was testing her soil when she first started. She sent a sample out to be tested at a lab for PH levels, mineral content and organic matter, and was able to address any amendments she may have needed at the start. (Surprisingly, she didn’t need much in her rich soil at the base of the Ruby Mountains.)
Lisa Perry was a 4-H gardening teacher for years and had leftover test kits that she used when they started out.
“Once you know your soil conditions, you can add amendments like gypsum if you need it,” she said.
The Perrys also use peat moss, manure and compost to augment their soil. Their compost matures in small piles surrounded by chicken wire, where they dump grass clippings, organic food scraps, egg shells and garden discards. They don’t use oak leaves or pine needles in the piles, as they take too long to decompose.
The Perrys use mounded rows — a technique called the French Intensive method — that are narrow enough to reach across for weeding. The mounds are never compacted to allow the fluffy soil to provide oxygen to the roots of the plants.
Rich Perry adds any bait worms he has left over from fishing trips to their mounds and they also augment the soil.
Companion planting and marigolds among their vegetables help encourage growth, Perry said.
While deer don’t make it back into the Perrys’ protected yard, they have a flock of quail that eat their plants if given the chance.
“And the dogs will get in there, too, if we let them,” Rich Perry said.
The Perrys use bird netting to protect some of their younger plants in their early formations.
Expensive fencing was necessary for Huether around her plots because of the deer that roam around her land. She purchased rolls of 8-foot wire fencing for $500 each and puts them around every part of her operation to prevent deer and other animals from having a snack on her hard-earned foods.
It was worth it for her despite the cost, she said.
“Each roll is about 500 pounds so they are really hard to work with, but necessary,” she said. “If I didn’t put it up, I’d come out each morning to little brown nubs.”
Even with all these hurdles to keeping a garden running in Elko, Huether says would-be gardeners shouldn’t be deterred. Trying different things in the garden is part of the fun.
“There is math involved and biology and geometry, and there is some new challenge to it each day,” she said. “I love problem-solving out here. I’m in the best shape of my life. I enjoy some part of it every day.”