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A Gardening Manifesto for Tahoe

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SunMie Won will be teaching a canning clinic for Slow Food Lake Tahoe on July 26th. Tickets are available online.

She will also be offering a Cold Frame Clinic in September. See her cold frames in action and learn how to make your own and extend your growing season. Sign up online

Her backyard garden will be a stop on the annual Slow Food Lake Tahoe Garden Tour on September 14th. Follow SFLT's events

By SUNMIE WON  |  Moonshine Ink

My dad always kept a garden while I was growing up. Every spring he would seed a set of vegetable regulars to grow in our backyard: lettuce, spring onions, tomatoes, and hot peppers. In the heat of summer we’d make kalbi, a classic Korean barbecue dish of marinated beef short ribs. With tongs in hand, my dad would flip ribs on the grill while my sister and I harvested a stack of leafy lettuce. Kalbi is eaten by bundling a lettuce leaf with pepper paste, rice, and meat off the ribs. It’s a fresh flavor explosion and, for me it’s the taste of summer.

Those fresh ingredients set a standard for taste and flavor that I still crave, and that I wanted to provide for my own family. Since moving to Truckee in 2000, I’ve tried sourcing many ways — via CSA shares, farmers markets, roadside stands, and roaming produce aisles. All good options, but each comes with big obstacles in terms of cost and access. Fresh, local food, especially organic, is expensive. So I decided to follow my dad’s example and source things from our own backyard. I wanted my own garden.

“But, it’s Tahoe,” you say. “The mountains. It’s hard to grow things here.” It’s true. It can snow any month of the year, and daily temperatures fluctuate up to 40 degrees. Our soil — rocks held together with crushed pine needles — is acidic and poor. But we have more than 290 days of sunshine a year. We can deal with the other stuff.

As a first attempt for my own garden in 2001, I put raised beds in our backyard, tilled in soil amendment, and planted seeds. Little seedlings popped up and grew 8 inches tall. Then, it snowed. At the end of May. The seedlings ended up black and withered and I had to start over, a cycle that repeated two, maybe three times that summer. When September’s cooler nights and shorter days came along, my plants were only halfway along. They didn’t have a snowball’s chance.

But I kept at it. I tried fabric row covers for protection, cold-tolerant plants, starting seeds indoors, and carting tomatoes in and out of the garage. All these efforts helped but were a lot of work with marginal success. I coveted a greenhouse but ruled it out due to cost and the hassle of winterizing. One day, I stumbled upon a book by Eliot Coleman with a chapter on cold frames. Small, low structures, cold frames have a window at the top that lets the sun in, and walls on the sides and back for shelter. They’re mini-greenhouses, scaled to the size of the plants, and they create a microclimate by trapping humidity, blocking out wind, and collecting warmth. They can be built with many different materials, even wood scraps. In the spring, they melt snow and warm up the soil, allowing you to seed earlier. Throughout summer and into fall, they protect plants from the chilly night air. Gardeners also call them hothouses, season extenders, and magic boxes.

I built my first cold frame in 2009 using old deck boards and painter’s plastic from the hardware store. In the spring, I set the frame over soil and pulled the plastic tight across. The box protected my seedlings from frosty nights and late snowstorms, and produced green lettuce in four weeks. That lettuce kept growing over the summer, providing for salads and wraps for many Korean rib sessions.

The success with that first cold frame was a big leap for my garden, and since then I’ve taken my garden further every year. I set up hoop tunnels over beds using PVC and painter’s plastic as a cheap cold frame alternative. I added chickens. Hens reduce our garbage by eating table scraps and weeds, and in return they provide delicious eggs daily. I learned how to build a bomber cold frame using cinder blocks that soak up solar heat and slowly release it at night. I started adding fresh (hot) horse manure to jump-start my compost, which gets tilled in to enrich the soil. Using these techniques our garden provides fresh greens from February to November and laundry baskets full of tomatoes in October.

Besides fresh produce, we reap so many other benefits from our garden. It teaches observation — my kids can identify mint, thyme, lavender, parsley, spinach, and chard — and good eating habits. They also know how to cut, wash, and prepare ingredients. By repurposing materials to make good soil (the key to good flavor) and build cold frames, we throw less away and get fresh produce in return. Gardening slows us down to feel the rhythm of seasonal foods. And then there’s the taste: fresh ingredients will elevate flavors in everything you eat.

The West has had droughts before and we’ll probably bounce back from this one, but it’s undeniable that the climate is changing. This makes the skier in me feel hopeless, and the parent in me worried about the state of the world when my kids are older. It’s a big problem that needs big solutions, and many of my efforts seem small and pointless. Yet I know that if I grow some of our food, I save a trip to the store to buy it. Then there’s the quick realization of all the other gas miles generated by refrigerated trucks, delivering that produce from field to warehouse, to shipping facility, and finally to the store. Think if more of us did a little growing ourselves: individual drops in a bucket that collectively can fill that bucket up. Find a sunny spot and get some painter’s plastic. We can all grow a little.

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October 11, 2018