What is it that adds dimension and a bit of passion to an ordinary day? A hobby like gardening adds mind, body and spirit for Wayne Nelson-Stastny of Yankton.
His vegetable and fruit garden are nearly a year-round endeavor. He plans the garden with seeds from many cultures and displays them as if in a flowerbed. His quest for taste in cooking is another hobby. His family meals of garden produce are a treat for his wife, high school daughter and middle school son. To see how he does it, we explore his interest in this hobby.
Wayne is a river biologist and a University of South Dakota alumnus. He coordinates the Missouri River Natural Resources Committee of state Fish and Wildlife professionals of the Missouri River basin. He’s also the Pallid Sturgeon Recovery coordinator. His work extends from the headwaters of the Missouri River to the gulf through several states in a season of flooding concerns. His backyard garden is his repose.
Many visited Wayne’s country garden on the Yankton area master gardener’s yard and garden tour in late June. The wren in the gourd birdhouse at the garden entrance gate has fledged, and the monarch caterpillars on broadleaf milkweed are now adults. It’s mid-July and the mostly heirloom tomatoes haven’t ripened yet. Many garden vegetables, fruit and ornamental flowers are in bloom. So are grasses and other plants he grows in the garden to dry for holiday décor and feed wildlife.
His garden includes a 50-foot x 100-foot fenced rectangle, separate from his backyard with more garden elsewhere. Early harvest has begun.
“From now on this year, a large portion of every evening meal has roots in the garden,” he said. Peas, fresh and dried beans, cabbage, kale, okra, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, sweet and ornamental corn, squash, pumpkins, carrots, herbs, radishes, garlic and onions grow here. While these are basics of an ample produce garden, what sets Wayne’s garden apart is his choice of seeds to grow and his interweaving of methods for garden appearance and function.
How It Started
When he lived in Pierre, he grew large pumpkins in the range of 400 pounds or more that he decorated for Halloween. His dad helped roll pumpkins to where they were loaded to move. Wayne’s interest in decorating for Halloween with pumpkins and dried ornamentals for people and wildlife continues. His Facebook photos document his growing family and garden.
“In Pierre, I couldn’t find bok choy in the grocery store, so I grew it in the garden,” he said. The search for more varieties led him into heirloom seeds at Bakers Creek Heirloom Seeds and Seed Savers Exchange. Some seeds are exotic, and some have tastes not found in hybrid seed. Some of the catalog seed descriptions include stories about the culture from which they originated.
“When you start tasting these ripe green Malakhitovaya Shkatulka tomatoes from the Ural Mountains of Asia, they have incredible flavor,” he said. The green tomato is named after malachite jewel boxes from the malachite ore of that region.
“To know it’s ripe, you go by a slight change in color and texture. When you grow these plants, you get the diversity and history of plants throughout the world. You get a taste of the world, in a sense, and can see it too,” he said.
“Here’s a 1,500-Year-Old Cave bean. Dried beans of its kind were found in New Mexico in a sealed pot. They carbon dated them to that age and one germinated,” he said. “Coming from a German and Czechoslovakian family with a lot of traditions, it’s great to be a part of other traditions too,” he said. “Another favorite of mine is Kellogg’s Breakfast tomato. You can get a 1 ½ pound orange beefsteak tomato from this plant. It’s incredible.”
“One of my favorites is Shishito peppers with sea salt and oil to sear it. I add a miso glaze honey with them,” he said. Carolina Reapers, Ghost Peppers and Trinidad Scorpions are hot peppers that he grows.
Job’s Tears is a millet harvested from a corn-like plant and can be used for making rosary beads. Future beads appear about where tassels would be located on corn.
“I came across Job’s Tears and thought it would make a special gift for my mother if I could grow her a rosary,” Wayne relayed in an essay. Job, from the Bible, exhibited patience and perseverance in many trials and Wayne thought of his mother.
“I wasn’t sure if the seeds would mature before frost, as they need a long growing season. As every farmer, I put the seeds in the ground with the hope of harvesting a rosary for Mom.”
He and his children crafted the rosary for her.
His wooden entrance gate and plant supports and bean tower that he built, make the garden his own. We see vining beans such as Carolina runner, climb on a repurposed corn crib from his dad’s farm.
“My dad didn’t combine, he always picked corn and used corn cribs. We’d shell corn with a John Deere sheller in winter,” he said.
The corn crib has a tall pole in the center and ropes tied to it that extend down to the rim of the crib cylinder like a May pole. In spring, the space conserving crib supports sugar snap peas that are succeeded by various climbing beans and birdhouse gourds. Early, the space inside can grow lettuce. Later, the foliage covers the top of the crib and gourds hang down inside.
“When the kids were younger, inside the plant-covered crib was their secret garden,” he said.
Structure and Plan
Some indeterminate tomato plants are held upright with three tripod 2-inch-by-2-inch wooden supports that have jute wound around them. Bamboo poles propped against the fence support ornamentals such as morning glories that spiral upward. Tall plants like broom corn are grouped near Thai long beans as runner supports. Concrete reinforcement wire is made into tall cylinders to hold cucumber and drying bean vines upright. These vertical supports conserve garden ground space and display plants at attractive heights.
By his design, you can see in a little from the entrance gate. In order to experience the garden, you must walk in the garden on winding paths. When they were younger, his kids called it a maze.
“I come here to harvest zucchini and beans. I know the path, but I take a different route, like today when I found the first eggplant developing,” he said.
Each turn on the path reveals a cluster of plant — one is of basil and cherry tomatoes for a taste of salad. Tall burgundy amaranth and bold zinnias add a color burst cluster. Kale, placed by the sauerkraut cabbage, contrasts in leaf texture. Cherokee Trail of Tears ornamental corn adds height as well as origin. Runner beans such as Blue Succotash from Rhode Island might climb the corn.
The corn crib covered in peas, beans or gourd leaves is prominent. Wayne will shift the crib location like all the plant beds and paths for next season. With confined space and chance of plant disease, he rotates tomatoes and peppers and other plants each year.
Wayne’s wide diversity of plants for eating and ornamentation result in his garden activity for most of four seasons. He prepares a garlic bed in October and harvests carrots, parsnips, leeks and horseradish into December. He orders seeds in December, starts his leeks and onions in January and peppers and tomatoes in March. He has in mind the seeds and plants when he prepares the garden. He composts leftover plant material and tills the sandy loam soil before he starts in spring. The garden becomes a blank space and has a new pattern of paths each year.
“It’s a mental game of building the beds and what I’ll plant in them. I start in front by the gate with a sand shovel and build paths and mound up soil eight inches or so on the beds. I try to keep future plants at arm’s reach, so beds are not wider than 5 feet. From the visual aspect, I want something new to discover around the corner,” he said. Most of the paths curve. Because the direction of the path determines the shape of the bed, some are bean-shape, some nearly round and some are long and narrow. He wants several paths starting from the entrance that lead in a winding maze.
“I think of succession planting and what might go in next in that location. When cabbages are harvested, behind them are Bleu De Solaise leeks will remain until December,” he said.
Weeding is difficult, as many plants look alike as the first leaves appear. This is true in a garden of more than seventy garden specimens and one where plants are grouped in clusters instead of rows. He puts aged straw in the paths and adds straw to the beds once plants are growing. The straw decomposes over the season or it is tilled in for organic matter in spring.
Back at the garden entrance gate, it is clear about the importance of the garden for Wayne.
“For me, it’s a workout weeding the garden, but I don’t view it as labor or work. This is my golf,” Nelson-Stastny said.
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