It's her passion.
"I like it because it really is a form of therapy," she said. "It's something you have to work hard at. Once you get your garden in, it's just a sense of joy."
As readers of Mellinger's column can attest, she loves the fresh, homegrown taste of the fruits of her labor.
"The sweet corn you get out of your garden is unlike anything you can buy at the store," she said. "And a yellow pepper, chilled and seeded, is the sweetest snack. It's amazing."
The garden that provides fodder for her weekly column is on 10 acres about five miles south of Clinton Lake. Mellinger and her husband, Mike Auchard, have lived there since 1993.
In addition to offering fresh flavor, the 3,500-square-foot garden's produce is beautiful: vibrant red tomatoes, green cucumbers and deep purple eggplant with vibrant leaves.
"I think these are about the prettiest thing in the garden. I love the blooms," Mellinger said of the eggplant's foliage.
Because she works full-time as an assistant professor of journalism at Baker University, Mellinger focuses on plants that fit the school-year schedule.
"In May and the first part of June I'm working out in the garden probably 12 and 18 hours a week," she said. By this time of year, when the garden is weeded and mulched, she spends about three to four hours tending to the plants.
The garden offers a bounty of herbs and produce that will find their way to her kitchen.
Each year, she plants Italian parsley, cilantro and pineapple sage. Perennial herbs that volunteer their return include oregano, lemon balm, spearmint, rosemary, sweet basil, epazote (a Mexican herb) and tarragon.
Then there's the produce: tomatoes, asparagus, tomatillos, peppers, squash, zucchini, sweet corn, cucumbers, eggplant and okra.
Auchard, a longtime Kansas University employee who works in housing maintenance, has a green thumb, too. In a separate garden, he grows cantaloupe, musk melons and watermelons.
The couple's gardens produce quite a bit of fruits, vegetables and herbs -- more than Mellinger and Auchard can eat by themselves. So they share with others.
"My brother makes pesto. He'll come out and get some of my extra basil," Mellinger said. "And we always have friends who are asking to be added to our list."
The couple are especially fond of tomatoes -- Mellinger has 12 tomato plants, and Auchard has four that he tends. They grow several varieties, including Early Girls, Rutgers, Better Boys, Jet Stars and Romas.
Mellinger has 30 tomato cages made out concrete reinforcing wire purchased from a lumber yard that sells construction materials.
"I like the 5-inch size because your hand can reach through it to get the tomatoes," she said. "It's sturdy. The wind can't knock it down."
But one garden hazard that she has yet to solve are the deer that live near her house and find their way over the chest-high wire fence that surrounds her garden.
She uses pepper spray to discourage nibbling, with mixed results.
"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," she said.
This year's much-anticipated green bean crop is a complete loss due to the foraging critters, who also munched the tops off her sweet corn earlier in the season.
"I had a whole row of cucumbers, but my deer friends came in and decimated it," she said.
But as Mellinger and other gardeners know, their efforts -- which can be both fruitful and futile -- ultimately offer rewards.
"It's something that you work for and you tend," she said. "Even weeding is therapeutic. It's a very Zen thing."
-- Staff writer Jim Baker can be reached at 832-7173.