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Organic gardening

Utah couple shares hard-earned expertise

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HOYTSVILLE — Nestled in a high mountain valley of northern Utah is one of the most interesting gardens I have visited. Part of the interest is the location. Part comes from the crops that are grown. Part comes from the interesting cropping system.

But the real charm comes from the woman who grows the plants at Ranui Gardens.

Jenny Erickson and her husband, Steve, started this interesting and untraditional enterprise in 1983.

Steve, a native of Salt Lake City, and Jenny, a native of New Zealand, met while she was traveling. They eventually started an unconventional business in the relatively cold, horticulturally hostile area of Hoytsville.

Jenny grew up on a 500-acre family farm, where she learned about agriculture. She continued her education at Lincoln College in New Zealand and went to work on a biodynamic farm in the area. While on the farm, she helped set up orchards growing citrus, avocados, macadamias and many other kinds of fruit. That education helped her, but she faced entirely different challenges in Utah.

"I had to figure out how to do it in Hoytsville," she said. "I was told that I would have a hard time getting anything to grow here, let alone the crops I wanted to grow. Proving that I could do it was part of the challenge."

The Ericksons chose the name Ranui for their farm. It's a Maori word that means "place of sun."

"Hoytsville was a sunny place so I thought the name fit," said Jenny.

Ranui Gardens began as an herb farm. The Ericksons' original intention was to grow herbs to dry and sell. "We built a small lean-to greenhouse on our home and got started. We soon found we did not have enough property to have a large herb farm and compete in the dried-herb market. We then started to grow fresh herbs for gourmet restaurants in Park City. We expanded into both field-grown and greenhouse herbs."

Jenny told her husband they needed to grow something she could handle. "I am not very big, and it was a lot easier to plant and harvest bunches of basil than it would be to lug around heavy loads of potatoes."

Although herbs are still an important part of the farm's production, the Ericksons expanded for a time to fresh greens for salad mixes. Now, they focus on farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture farms.

Ranui Gardens is a totally organic farm. That may appear difficult to some, but it is a commitment the Ericksons have always had for their farm. They willingly teach their methods to others.

Organic farming presents challenges but none the Ericksons have not been able to overcome. They had many insect problems when they first started. They then let some of the weeds stay around the edges of the property. Those areas became a breeding place for beneficial insects, which have made the insect problem much easier to deal with.

Gardeners who spray pesticides frequently may not understand the Ranui Gardens philosophy and practice. "We have not sprayed anything here for years," said Jenny. "That includes organic sprays, such as insecticidal soaps and oils. We occasionally get a few mites and aphids, but they do not last. We remove infested plants before they become serious."

Their organic weed-control program includes flaming the young weeds, cultivation and mowing. "With difficult-to-control perennials, such as quackgrass, we smother them with a cover crop," she said. "Rotating the crops as best we can and removing problem plants controls diseases. Cleanliness is also very important."

One secret of organic production is to build up the soil. The Ericksons grow a cover crop of cereal rye and Austrian peas in the gardens and the greenhouses. The peas and other legumes add nitrogen to the soil through nitrogen fixation — a process that converts the nitrogen in the air to a form that is available to plants. This crop goes in after frost in October and is tilled in the spring.

"We also learned the value of compost," said Jenny. "We had to build our soil and we had a dairy farm just down the road that had mountains of manure they needed to get rid of."

Their interest in the product spawned an operation that now produces compost that is sold in many nurseries along the Wasatch Front. This operation is overseen by Steve and is now being done in Summit and Duschesne counties.

Another part of building good soil that Jenny espouses is to till carefully. She suggests gardeners till as little as possible so they do not break down the soil structure. Be certain that the soil is not too wet or too dry, or it will do more harm than good.

The gardens abound with vegetables. Ripe tomatoes and peppers are somewhat rare at this altitude, but Jenny has 15 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes turning color with a similar number of pepper varieties. Eggplants are flourishing inside the hoop house and 15 kinds of potatoes are getting ready to grace local markets.

Jenny is hard-pressed to pick favorites. "I love to grow everything. I love carrots, beet roots, green beans and zucchini. I haven't done very well with berries. Corn can be grown here, but it is difficult and not worth the bother. When the cold comes, we cover the garden. It is a pain in the neck but we have to do it."

That seems quite a statement for a dedicated gardener who makes her living growing in such a cold climate. The garden is started under cloches, covers and Remay or floating row covers. The warm season vegetables of necessity are grown inside hoop houses. The covers for the rest of the garden are not far away because frost is never far away from Ranui gardens — the sunny Maori designation for Hoytsville, Utah.

In spite of being told they could never grow commercial vegetables and herbs in the high mountain valleys, in spite of being told it could not be done organically and in spite of being told there was no market, they have succeeded.

The New Zealand charm and a lot of ambition have made Ranui Gardens the success it is today.

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