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Larry Sagers
The raised beds are filled with a custom artificial-soil mix that Nelson describes as a "candy soil."

REXBURG, Idaho — Brigham Young University-Idaho, might seem an unlikely place to look for garden ideas.

But the delightful Thomas E. Ricks Horticulture Gardens offers plenty for visitors.

"This garden, the greenhouses and the other demonstration gardens are unique because the students design the gardens, the students build the gardens and the students maintain the gardens," said Reese Nelson, a horticulture professor who took me on the tour. "This gives them experience and prepares them for employment in the industry."

Years ago, the site now occupied by the outdoor laboratory was considered the lower 40 of campus, Nelson said. Dr. Kim Black laid out the original area.

"He and others basically planted rows of trees, shrubs and perennials with the idea of assessing their cold hardiness," Nelson said.

That makes this garden a good starting point for Utah plantings. If the plants survive well under the extreme cold that sometimes affects Rexburg they will survive here.

In addition to the trees, the gardens are accessorized by more than 250 varieties of annual flowers and 100 varieties of perennial flowers and shrubs. In other areas there are All America Selection gardens to show off the newest and best annuals from seeds.

Other demonstration areas near the garden include a fruit orchard, demonstration areas for strawberries, raspberries and other less-common bush fruits and several areas for growing vegetables, vines and other plants.

Each year, students design and build a project, often inspired by visits to other gardens, and it becomes a part of the overall garden. There is a formal English garden, Patsy's Porch, The Beaver's Dam and of course a Wedding Area. This year's class is building a new water feature.

In addition to many ornamental plants, Nelson, who is formerly from Grantsville, has also created an area to help home-vegetable gardeners increase their enjoyment and production. He teaches about the importance of selecting suitable varieties of seed and how to store them for extended times.

Since the growing season in Rexburg is much shorter and cooler than most of the areas along the Wasatch Front, the growing ideas are helpful to those who get their gardens in later in the season.

"I have several raised beds that I use to grow vegetables," Nelson said. "Our average last frost date is June 5th, so I try to get my vegetables off to a good start growing them in the beds. Additionally, days to maturity are very important to us, as you can imagine."

The beds are filled with what he describes as a "candy soil." This custom artificial-soil mix provides excellent drainage and eliminates the problems with heavy clay, excessive sand, rocks or other problems.

By adding drip irrigation and including precision planting, the gardens become even more productive. His soil mix has no weed seed, so the drudgery of weed removal is largely eliminated. By fertilizing carefully, he can expect excellent yields from small areas.

Since Nelson wants the vegetables to grow quickly to speed their maturity and quality, he uses a liquid fertilizer and a sulfur-coated urea for season-long needs.

In addition to using the raised beds to hold the custom soil mix, he also uses them for another purpose. "I am very interested in horticultural therapy. By using the raised beds, it makes it easier for people to work their beds. Raise it up, fix the soil and save your back. That way I can kill two birds with one stone."


Larry A. Sagers is the horticulture specialist, Utah State University Extension at Thanksgiving Point.