Twenty-five years ago, Pat and Betty Gates built themselves a house on 15 acres, about three miles north of Baldwin, and began learning a thing or two about growing vegetables in the woods.
"It's like National Geographic domestically," Pat said of the secluded location.
Raccoons, rabbits, hedgehogs, wild turkeys, bobcats and deer share the woods with the Gateses. The raccoons, rabbits and deer would like the Gateses to share their 60-by-60-foot garden in return, but two strands of hot wire around the outside of the garden fence establish a boundary between the human food supply and nature.
Over the years, the Gateses have accumulated a long list of stories about beans, lettuce and other crops devoured by wildlife. The electric fence was a last resort. If it hadn't worked, gardening might have proved to be too much of a losing battle.
"I wish I had all the money from everything we've tried that didn't work," Betty said.
The pilfering is now down to a manageable level; an occasional rabbit slips into the garden, but the deer stay out, so the damage is usually tolerable.
The garden, which stands in a clearing, is ringed by nesting bluebird boxes. Inside the fence, larkspur, hollyhocks and daylilies provide a colorful border. Because of the surrounding trees, the sun doesn't bear down until about 10 a.m., providing just enough direct sunlight to make everything grow. Deep in the woods, the soil, which the Gateses amend with compost, also is slow to dry out.
In late winter the Gateses start all their seeds indoors under lights on a set of shelves that Pat built. They also have a lean-to greenhouse on the south side of their house.
The format of the garden is a mix of wide rows and raised beds. A gentle slope runs through the garden and about five years ago the Gateses were confronted with an erosion problem. That's when they built raised beds against the slope. Lettuce, carrots and strawberries are among the crops that grow in them.
Other produce growing in this year's garden are leeks, Italian flat onions, shallots, shelling peas, radishes, bulb fennel, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, garlic, squash, cucumbers, peppers, green beans, basil, dill, cilantro, potatoes, asparagus, horseradish and 30 tomato plants.
"We grow our garden mainly for taste," Pat said. "Last year we ran out of canned beans and had to buy some. It's not the same."
Their favorite canning bean is the Roma II, a flat Italian green bean. This year, the Gateses also are growing Maxibel and Florence.
The Gateses plant multiple varieties of most crops and each year try a couple of experimental varieties, some of which have been so successful that they have become standards in the garden. The Green Zebra tomato, a flavorful yellow and green variety, is one example.
The couple have worked out the division of labor in the garden, so that it remains a mutual project and all the work gets done. Pat does the hoeing and tilling, while Betty does most of the hand work.
"I like to work on my knees, Pat doesn't," Betty said. "He's not particularly crazy about picking beans and that sort of thing."
When they aren't puttering in the garden or canning their harvest, the Gateses enjoy simply kicking back and admiring their corner of nature. On a summer evening, they can look out on the garden and watch their bluebirds from two lawn chairs.
-- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.