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Lessons from the Edge

Gardening as continuing education


When I arrive at ForestEdge on a chilly April Sunday afternoon, the prominent sound is the lusty chirping of birds, crowding the feeder in front of the house.

I find Laura down the hill in her workshop, an old horse stall fitted with south-facing windows and filled with potting materials, various plants that have overwintered indoors, and shelves of seedlings under growlights. Laura sits high on a stool at her workbench, carefully pressing tiny, almost invisible seeds into a small pot filled with damp, black growing medium.

A tomato, Early Girl, planted last June, stands six feet tall, adjacent to the work bench, in a large pot with the bottom cut out. "I planted it last June, and it has produced all winter," says Laura. She points out the yellow blossoms and describes how she has to pollinate the plant manually in order to keep it producing fruit. "I just give them a shake," she says, taking the plant by its thick, center stem, "or sometimes I get out my little paint brush and act like a pollinator." She gently dusts the center of each flower, spreading microscopic bits of pollen from male flower to female flower.

In eight years, Laura and husband Tim have established a garden on the southwestern edge of the Black Forest that has attained national attention. Last summer, their sheet composting and soil building techniques were featured in Organic Gardening magazine. They have been lauded in a coffee table book honoring the best gardens in Colorado, and Denver Botanic Gardens now sponsors tours to their place for students of horticulture.

More importantly, they have taken what was once a parched piece of wind-beaten land and turned it into a personal paradise. When you visit ForestEdge, what comes through is not only the Spear's gardening expertise and the spectacle of so many luxurious plants, but the deep spiritual satisfaction that comes from cultivating and continually caring for the land.

"I'm being very methodical this year," says Laura, referring to the spring tending of her massive perennial beds. "I spread llama poop and coffee grounds over the winter to amend the soil. And I have notes, so I know exactly what's where. Other years, I just raked the debris off the beds, but this year I committed to getting down on my hands and knees and clearing each bed by hand. That way I can see which new plants have come up, decide what to keep and what needs to go."

We wander the lower acreage where Laura and Tim grow vegetables, all interspersed with roses, fruit trees, ornamental shrubs, herbs and more flowers. Laura pulls back a soft sheet of Re-may, a spun polyester row cover that shields a bed of greens she has kept going all winter. Hearty greens, lettuces, spinach, chard and arugula thrive behind a windbreak built by Tim. In the distance, I point out a bush so heavy with what looks like berries, I don't recognize it.

"That's rosa eglentaria, a wonderful old-species rose," says Laura. The "berries" are actually rose hips, hundreds of them. "The blossoms smell like apple."

Laura shows me the section of her garden where she is conducting plant select trials for Denver Botanic Gardens, seeing if plant species gathered in other parts of the world can be cultivated in Black Forest conditions.

"The way to learn a plant is to grow it," she says, obvious, simple advice missed by many anxious gardeners who want either instant gratification or guaranteed success.

We join Tim inside and talk about his new business venture, custom woodworks crafted at ForestEdge. Garden benches, heavy wooden birdbath stands, custom designed garden gates and archways are among the structures Tim builds, using fine, hard woods and emphasizing simple, almost Asian looking, geometric designs. This summer he will construct a gazebo in the lower gardens at ForestEdge, fashioned after a traditional Japanese bridge design. Also in the works are new structures for the work space in the Denver Botanic Gardens herb garden. A Black Forest potter, Randy Brown, crafts the heavy-duty glazed bowls for the bird feeders.

We briefly discuss Laura's newest specialty and fascination, ornamental herbs grown in the perennial border for color and form. Last year, she grew African Blue basil in the flower garden for the purple stems and olive-green and purple leaves. When they bloomed in mid-July, the long purple flower spikes of the fragrant plants provided such a spectacle against her mauve verbena, she decided to make them a permanent part of the mix.

When she tells me she attended a class with Lauren Springer last week in Denver, I observe that to most of us it would seem she has little to learn from another master gardener.

"When you get your hands in the dirt, you're always learning something," she says, smiling as she reaches down and pulls a single blade of grass from the raised bed just outside her front door.

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