Strolling between the rows in Paul Heitzman's garden is like walking across a plush, deep-pile carpet. While other gardeners might single out this crop or that as their greatest source of pride, Heitzman points to the soil.
"When I plowed that up, the ground was so velvety, I couldn't believe it," Heitzman told me.
Standing in his garden Sunday afternoon, Heitzman, an energetic retiree, talked about dirt, manure, seeds, bugs, rainfall and all the other things that make a gardener's world go round.
Virtually every reader of this column has driven past Heitzman's 3,200-square-foot patch of paradise, which is located on the north side of Kansas Highway 10, between the Evening Star and Edgerton exits. When it was built in the 1970s, the highway bisected Heitzman's 100-acre farm.
A chicken house sits next to the garden, so that Heitzman simply has to open a door and run a shovel under the roost to gather manure. Or he can take his wheelbarrow and pick up rotted cow manure from the small pasture on the other side of the garden, where a bull, five cows and their calves gaze lazily at the traffic on K-10.
Natural fertilizer is the foundation of Heitzman's garden, however it was Suffolk sheep, not chickens and cattle, that led him in this direction. Years ago, when one of his daughters was in 4-H, Heitzman found himself propelled into lambing. He's quick to say that this enterprise was no financial boon, but it did offer lessons about soil enhancement.
The lot that once contained his lambing operation is now his garden site, and what the sheep initially did for the soil, Heitzman has routinely supplemented with applications of composted manure. He acknowledges that many gardeners may think he overdoes it by putting manure on his garden at a rate he estimates at 15 tons per acre. But as long as his garden crops are lush and green, his harvests are bountiful, and the plants show no sign of burn, no one will convince him he is wrong.
The magic of manure is in what it does for the soil, he insists.
"You get a little fertilizer benefit out of it, but the main thing it does is improve the tilth," he says. "You cannot make this ground clod up."
What's more, this rich soil produces generous harvests year in and year out, without supplemental watering.
One of his best crops is snow peas, and the plants in an 80-foot row that runs down the middle of the garden are already 2 feet high. Heitzman likes the variety Little Grey, a tall-vining plant that is less common than the Oregon peas, which have a short growing habit.
Little Grey snow peas must be grown next to a running fence and Heitzman already has 3-foot-high wire mesh staked in place. He'll add another row of fence above it, when the plants have their final growth spurt. Ultimately, they'll be about 6 feet high. Heitzman says he doesn't mind the extra work involved in the fencing, because the peas will be easier to pick.
"The thing about snowpeas is that you've got to pick them every day," he said. Seeing the green pods against green foliage is a challenge, and Heitzman figures the closer the pods are to eye level, the more likely they are to be picked in their prime.
Heitzman's garden also contains a swath of strawberries as well as 30 tomato plants and beans, sweet corn, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes and okra set in rows.
He acknowledges that growing a full row of potatoes is a thankless task that makes no economic sense. Part of his reason for planting them is nostalgia for his childhood, and the clear memory of his mother cutting seed potatoes, and part of it is a sense of adventure.
"I love to dig potatoes because there's always the surprise of not knowing what you're going to get," he said.
Heitzman's new project this year is the third of an acre he planted in field corn, across the farm yard from his garden. It's a testament to Heitzman's passion for growing things. During a trip across Iowa 50 years ago, Heitzman saw fields planted in what he describes as the check-rowed pattern, with plants spaced so that they appear to be in a straight line when viewed from any angle.
"It was something that impressed me at that time," he said. "I thought once before I die I'd like to plant that corn."
Lacking a planter that could space the seed properly, Heitzman set the seed out by hand. The plants are up and, yes, they line up perfectly from any vantage point. And, of course, he tilled in three tons of manure before he got started.