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Rose Park man a gardening advocate

With the national economy stumbling and the world climate changing, now is the time to become proficient at growing food.

So says a Rose Park Mormon who hasn't bought a vegetable in a store for more than 20 years but still sits down to a healthy, veggie-laden meal every night.

"My mother used to make me take care of the vegetables in our garden," Ralph Steenblik said. "I thought it was an abomination."

Today, Steenblik, 81, cares for an 18-tree orchard and a large garden. He also oversees the Rose Park Community Garden just a ways north of his home in Salt Lake City.

Steenblik tills, seeds, weeds, waters and harvests all season long and even tends a few hardy crops through the winter. He raises sweet corn, celery, tomatoes, beets, carrots, 10 varieties of squash, beans, garlic, cabbage, leeks, chard and spinach.

"I eat fresh spinach all winter long," said Steenblik, who covers the plants with a layer of leaves so they continue to grow in the cold.

Steenblik freezes or cans his harvest. Last year, he put up 160 quarts of fruit, canned string beans and dill pickles, and froze corn, peas, broccoli, cauliflower and English broad beans.

At one point in the process, he stood back and surveyed the quart jars and the sink full of dishes and told himself, "Ralph, you'd make somebody a good wife!"

Steenblik, a widower with six children, 29 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren, has lived in the Rose Park area his entire life. He has a knack for gardening, and he's learned a lot from books.

But the most valuable knowledge came from growing plants for years in the clay soil that's typical of the area.

He knows if he wants good carrots, he has to break up the soil to about a 1-foot depth wherever they are planted. He knows potatoes won't do well in the hard clay.

He knows to push the soil up around the celery plants and corn stalks to support them.

He understands the value of staggered plantings to assure fresh crops throughout the summer.

He's trying some peanuts to see what happens, and he's thinking about adding a few chickens to the mix.

"I don't grow radishes or red beets because I don't care for them," Steenblik said. "I won't waste my time with melons here. They didn't grow, so I'm not going to monkey with it."

He figures he's not only saved a good amount of money over the years from gardening, but he also eats healthily and feels good.

Steenblik can't believe people aren't growing their own food, given the current economic circumstances. Sometimes, he's the only one who shows up on Wednesday and Saturday evenings to work in the community garden, a place designed to benefit those who want fresh vegetables in return for a few hours labor.

"People will starve to death before they'll come and work and do something," he said. "That's my gut feeling."

e-mail: haddoc@desnews.com