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Diverse crops, drip irrigation help urban farmers hedge bets weather extremes

Published: Sunday, July 7 2013 11:20 p.m. MDT

David Bell carries freshly picked summer squash in his field near Bangerter Highway in Draper on Saturday, July 6, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE — Diane Jones plants a diverse array of crops, in part to hedge her bets against extreme Utah weather conditions.

Like the recent seven consecutive days of 100-plus degree temperatures followed by two monsoon-like rainstorms.

“The hot weather wasn’t that good for anything, I don’t think, not this early,” said Jones, who grows 88 varieties of plants on 4 ½ acres at Salt Lake County’s Wheadon Farm.

The extreme heat also took its toll on some plants grown by Bell Organic Gardens, said fellow urban farmer David Bell.

“The heat put the kibosh on the peas, the fava beans. Oh, man, the cilantro went up in smoke,” Bell said.

But like Jones, Bell grows a wide variety plants on the plots of private and government-owned land he cultivates. Some of the crops can’t tolerate extreme heat, he said, but others seem to be thriving, such as melons, winter squash and corn.

“We grow about 40 different vegetable crops, and some we grow better than others. Everything’s got its season, and we try to plant wisely. Sometimes it goes better than others,” he said.

Mother Nature gets the last laugh, so Bell said he tries to keep the weather extremes in perspective, he said.

“The nice thing about 100-plus degree temperatures is, once it gets back in the mid-90s, it feels so good to me. It’s good. It’s all good. A little more rain wouldn’t hurt my feelings,” he said.

Carly Gillespie, community educator for Wasatch Community Gardens, said some plants shriveled in the extreme heat, but most endured the recent spate of 100-degree days because of their established root systems and the drip irrigation systems Wasatch Gardens uses on all of its farms.

Wasatch Community Gardens operates more than 30 community gardens throughout Salt Lake County, involving a network of more than 1,000 people.

While the leaves on some plants appear to fall over and curl up, “it’s really the plants trying to make themselves smaller," Gillespie said. “It’s an interesting time to figure out a watering schedule. We went from not too hot to raging hot. The garden takes a minute to get used to it.”

Most recent damage to area gardens has resulted from neglect, she said.

“Most of damage that has been caused by people not going to the gardens because people don’t want to be outside in the heat. It’s hard to drag yourself outside,” Gillespie said.

The good news is, the soil is easier to work after two consecutive nights of rain.

“If you go out and weed after the rain, it’s much more productive. You’re getting the whole root, not just breaking off the top,” Gillespie said.

Jones said the rain has meant she has not had to irrigate her crops for a couple of days, which was a pleasant change.

While the successive days of extreme heat make the job more difficult, the payoff is tending seeds and tiny plants into mature fresh vegetables and herbs, she said. Many of the plants she grows are served in local restaurants that want specialty produce from area growers.

"It’s so cool to see stuff grow. There’s nothing quite like it. That's why you do it," Jones said.

Like Friday, when she showed up to work to find a ripe tomato and a ripe cucumber, "the first of many to come this season."

Urban farming, she said, "is major work. It's filthy work. Today I'm covered in mud from the rain."

Whether it's hot or cold, raining or bone dry, tending a vegetable garden is a full-time job, Bell said.

Aside from the weather, weeds are a perpetual nemesis of the urban farmer, Bell said.

“These days we're just trying to bash down the weeds. They’re always diabolically hard to manage,” he said.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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