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Winter Garden Offers Taste of Summertime


January 11, 2011 by wcobserver

By Susan McCarthy



When Darin McDonald married his wife, Debra Elam about two and a half years ago, he married more than an energetic woman with bright eyes; he also married a gardening business that landed him in West Fork.And while January is traditionally a month many farmers get their only rest, it is high season for Wren Thicket Gardens who grow a wide range of gourmet greens you’re unlikely to find at most grocery stores. Much of what is grown will end up in Elam’s special salad mix and because of the wide variety of greens grown; it’s likely to be somewhat different every time you buy it.

Under a winter blue sky full of sunshine, their 3500 SF greenhouse feels almost balmy; a full 30 degrees warmer than the outside air even though it is unheated. Over 30 raised beds line both walls as far as the eye can see. Each boasts bountiful rows of greens in various stages of growth. On tables at the front of the greenhouse, trays full of perky baby plants are ready to be put into the ground…in the middle of winter.

“I wanted something that was a bit of a niche market,” said Elam who not only gave up growing tomatoes, but traded a summer garden for a winter one.

“It’s going on nine years that I’ve done this. I kind of learned over the years what does well in the cold,” said Elam. “It was a losing battle to grow lettuce in the summertime…too hot…too many bugs.”

Staff Photographer Brooke McNeely Galligan

Elam can’t tell you off the top of her head how many varieties of greens are in their greenhouse, but as she strolls through the beds, she ticks off at least seven varieties of lettuce and fifteen other types of greens she’s growing. Some plants like her beets and watermelon radishes are grown for their greens as well as the vegetables that grow beneath the soil. Most beds hold several varieties of greens; all of them are in near-perfect rows; there isn’t a weed or blade of grass in sight.

“Everything I use is organic. I’m not certified, so I have to say ‘naturally grown’,” explains Elam who says there are fewer pests in a winter garden.

One of Elam’s secret weapons against pests is the praying mantis; Elam shows off egg cases on boysenberry vines along the greenhouse’s walls.

“They’re great predators, plus they’re soooo interesting,” said Elam.

Elam sells her greens from December up until the Farmer’s Market in Fayetteville reopens in April. She and seven other gardeners sell their produce, eggs and meat at a winter market on Saturdays at the old bus depot on South School Street on Fayetteville’s south end. Elam manages an extensive email list of winter customers, sending an email each Sunday to let them know what will be available the following Saturday for purchase. Orders are taken on a first come basis and Elam then emails each of the other participating farmers their orders on Thursdays.

“It takes two days to get things picked and packaged, “said McDonald who jokes he has two full time jobs.

McDonald works by day for SWEPCO, but helps Elam when he’s home.

“Friday nights are long,” said McDonald. “The rest of the time, it’s watering, covering, weeding.”

Elam says she waters everything by hand with a garden hose, but that not as much water is needed in a winter garden.

In between each raised bed, there is a neatly folded floating row cover, a polyester blanket. McDonald says all of the plants have to be covered when temperatures dip below 32 degrees, which is almost every night.

Elam said she begins work on her winter garden in August; she plants her first seeds in trays so the first round of greens will be ready to go in the ground in September. Before the plants go into the ground, she and McDonald trek to Oklahoma to purchase mushroom compost and prepare the beds for their new plants. Throughout the winter, Elam plants new trays of various greens so there is a continuous supply of gourmet greens for her customers.

When April rolls around, the greenhouse’s beds will be covered with plastic for the summer to keep weeds out, but you won’t find Elam on her back deck with a glass of lemonade. She’s then off to the family farm in Prairie Grove to help her father, Dale Hulet with a 2 acre watermelon garden. The duo grows and sells about 35 varieties of watermelon for the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market.

“My Dad has always gardened. When he retired, he started [selling] at the Farmer’s Market up on the Square,” said Elam.

Elam said her father has developed several kinds of watermelons, keeping seeds with desirable traits and has nearly perfected a large yellow rind watermelon.

Asked how many hours she works each week, Elam laughs and says she tries not to think about that.

“I try not to count. I’m probably making about $2 an hour,” she said with a laugh.

If you’d like to be added to the winter market email list to receive weekly emails about what’s available from Wren Thicket Gardens as well as the other seven winter farmers, send her an email at Elam said because food is “grown to order,” they may not be able to accommodate many new orders this year, but will do their best. She said each winter market participant usually brings some extra things for sale, but it’s best to order by email to guarantee that what you want will be available when you arrive.


1 comment »

  1. James Maginot says:

    Great article on another hidden gem in our community. It is great to hear of people like this, doing these great things, right in our back yard. Kudos to staff for seeking out these incredible community assets as well as to Wren Thicket Garden for providing another example of how small scale, local, and organic agriculture can shape the way we shop, eat, and think about food!

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