Q&A with Idaho Statesman weekly gardening columnist Margaret Lauterbach – The Idaho Statesman

Q: Talk about when and how you started gardening. When did you really realize this was a passion for you?

A: I started gardening about age 5 or 6, helping my grandmothers (one farm wife, the other in town). They explained what they were doing and why, and taught me that producing food was a useful and admirable enterprise.

At home in Boulder, Colo., my family had a so-so garden, which we shared with a Japanese family brought there to teach that language. The family’s father, an M.D., was a passionate gardener, and I enjoyed talking to him while he worked in the garden. When we moved into our own home, the new garden was a disaster. My mother situated it in the shade (not a good idea) of a black walnut tree (even worse), and when an insect-eating garter snake moved into the garden, Mother incurred the enmity of our herpetologist neighbor by dicing “Stripey” with her hoe. She blamed the feeble harvest on our soil.

After my marriage, in our first home in Southern California, I planted a very small garden, and discovered it was a lot of fun and produced luscious tomatoes.

When we moved to Boise, “large sunny yard” was a requirement as we looked for a home.

The first winter I spaded the entire garden area, roughly a triangle 80 by 40 by 100 feet, a little at a time, then realized it was too large to be simply raked. We bought a used rototiller.

Now I have 14 raised beds in that space, three low beds for tomatoes, the others 20-inch-high boxes made of 2-by-10 fir. I can tend the beds from the seat of my Celebrity Victory scooter. That seat turns and locks every 45 degrees, so I can turn it 90 degrees and plant, weed or harvest without straining my back.

Q: You’ve been writing a column for the Statesman since 1993. How do you come up with your topics?

A: I browse the Internet and find topics I think I can relate to local conditions that will interest gardeners. Often a gardener’s question is the basis of a column, or something new has occurred in my yard.

Q: What do you say to people who say gardening is too much work or takes too much time?

A: Nobody says either to me, although they may think it. Some people have no interest in gardening, and I feel it’s their loss. I try to advise people the simplest, easiest ways to plant and grow edibles and ornamentals.

One woman told me that she loved gardening, and for years felt that she wouldn’t be able to indulge her gardening passion until she retired. Then she discovered soaker hoses and found they permitted her to garden before and after work. I suggested she also use mulch to block out weeds as another way to cut back on garden work.

Q: What’s your best advice for people who have just begun gardening?

A: Pay close attention to soil and do not follow advice of garden books that tell you to add fireplace ashes or lime. That advice is not good here, since it raises the alkalinity even further, and as it is, we’re really pushing our growing luck with some of our alkaline soils.

Adding organic matter will moderate the alkalinity in time. I live on the second bench in Boise, scoured by river and glacier, and baked in the sun until my soil is naturally pale yellow. I had the Ada County Highway District dump a few truckloads of leaves (and other sweepings) on my garden years ago, then we tilled into the soil. Then I had a little pickup with a camper shell in which I roamed southside neighborhoods in quest of bagged leaves in fall. I could drive to my back fence and drop bags over, and we spread those leaves and tilled them in. Prior to the development of certain persistent herbicides, I permitted some professional lawn mowing people to dump clippings in my garden, which I spread as mulch and later tilled in.

After I lost my leg, I arranged with Gary Casey, a magician with a backhoe, to scrape my much-amended garden soil into ridges, and then hired a fellow to build containment boxes around the ridges. Even I, sitting on my electric scooter, could rake the ridges level in the new beds, so I didn’t have to give up or replace my soil, which by that time had been enriched with organic matter and compost for over 25 years.

So add pesticide-free organic matter, be wary of killing all insects since so many are beneficial, compost spent plant matter, plant to your own taste and not what others recommend, and be sparing of water use, whether or not you’re on a meter. Go easy on fertilizer; when a little is good, a lot is not better.

Q: What’s the question you most often are asked about gardening in the Treasure Valley?

A: I’m most often asked when to start tomatoes, and when to plant tomatoes out in the garden. Starting seeds six to eight weeks before the average last frost is the usual answer. The average last frost here is May 10, but note that is an average, and some frosts occur later. I think planting frost-tender plants outdoors about June 1 is safer. Local lore, too, is putting tomatoes out only after the visible snow is gone from Shafer Butte, and that sometimes happens after May 10.

It’s difficult to start tomatoes from seed indoors if you don’t have a grow-light setup, a sun room or a greenhouse. We have several excellent garden supply stores in this area that sell well-grown plants, both hybrid and open-pollinated, some even heirlooms.

Q: What should Valley gardeners be concerned about these days?

A: One is the continued existence of persistent herbicides that can poison your soil for years and are too easy to get.

One herbicide, Picloram, has been shown to retain toxicity for over a decade.

You might encounter that or another of the pyralids via crop residues from mint, lawns and grains that have been sprayed for broadleaf weed control. Mint sludge probably is contaminated, and straw may be.

Clopyralid-based herbicides are no longer recommended for lawns, but some folks may still be using leftover chemicals. These herbicides are said to be harmless to large animals, but pass right through them, contaminating their manure. I think rabbit or chicken manure is safe, or if you know that the horses, cattle, sheep, goats or llamas that produce your manure have not been grazing on pastures sprayed with herbicide and haven’t eaten any commercial food containing these herbicides, their manure should be safe.

Commercial compost may be contaminated because the composter didn’t know the source of the manure he used.

I don’t think such chemicals should be approved by EPA unless there’s an effective antidote to stop its toxicity. It’s a threat to our food future.

Q: If you could only grow five edibles, what would they be?

A: Lollipop cherry tomatoes, Paul Robeson tomatoes, Italienischer lettuce, King of the North peppers, Slenderette snap beans. Increasing or fudging my limit, I’d also grow onions in between these crops – bunching and bulb.


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