Gardening advice from locals and legends
The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a national publication that’s been recording weather patterns, frost dates and gardening information in the United States since its 1792. Among traditional gardeners, it’s considered to be pretty sage advice—offering general tips on planting dates, pest control and produce based on the averages of hundreds of years of records.
However, as Reno gardeners know, maintaining even a houseplant in the desert can be a struggle. Scorching sun and freezing cold—sometimes in the same day—coupled with inhospitable soil and punishing winds mean that Northern Nevada presents a challenge for even the greenest of thumbs, and simply knowing when it snowed last year is no guarantee of what’s to come. As a result, there are plenty of familiar fables among the city’s gardeners aimed at remedying local growing pains.
“The folklore of Reno that is most common is: ’Don’t plant your tomatoes, or what you consider warm season crops, until the snow is off of Mt. Peavine,” said Wendy Hanson Mazet, a plant diagnostician with the University of Nevada, Reno’s Cooperative Extension program.
However, taking generalities like these at face value can cause confusion in a place like Reno, where the inconsistencies of the landscape and weather eliminate a one-size-fits-all solution.
“The problem is our seasons aren’t like they used to be, and we have people who live in what we call ’microclimates,’” Mazet said. “The people in downtown Reno or in suburbs that are well established, they can push it and plant much earlier than when the snow comes off Peavine.Where, people in the north valleys that are out in, say, Cold Springs, if they waited till the snow was off Peavine, in many cases they wouldn’t have a growing season.”
Mazet has heard lots of sayings and gardening legends from all over the state in her almost two decades with the UNCE. Some of them, she said, offer good, common sense advice for that particular region.
“We call it folklore, but, truly, it’s oral history,” Mazet said. “As the Native Americans tell their stories, they sit down, and the elders tell the stories of the past, when it comes to vegetable gardening in an area, you know, it’s the farmers and the ranchers of the past that said, “This is what we learned.’”
To Mazet, gardening legends only work when the science behind them is solid. As former coordinator of UNCE’s Master Gardener program, which trains community members in horticulture in exchange for their commitment to a certain number of volunteer service hours, she prescribes strictly evidence-based solutions to clients. Often, her advice is based on aggregated government data and in-house research conducted in partnership with the UNR’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources.
“With the Master Gardener program, although they may have years, decade’s worth of gardening experience, the information that they give out to a client all has to be science-based,” Mazet said. “We teach them to try to understand, if you have tricks of the trade that work for you at your home, and it’s not scientifically proven and you tell someone else that and they try it and they absolutely fail, the reality is their landscape is different than yours.”
For beginner gardeners, Mazet said to start with the basics: frost dates.
“If you follow what the national weather service provides and NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], they record the data, and if we go by averages—and it fluctuates—generally, they’ll label our last killing freeze as May 15th and our first one in mid-September.”
Knowing when the frost will stop means that it’s safe to plant vegetables that wouldn’t survive otherwise, like tomatoes, peppers, squash and corn. The dates between the last spring frost and first fall frost typically account for the 90 to 120-day growth season. That season gets far longer once you learn to stagger your planting.
“You can start many of your what is called cold season or cool season crops like your lettuce, spinach, peas, many of your Kales can grow in cooler temperatures,” Mazet said. “You can get those started in March … Well, then they’re done by the middle of June when the temperatures get hot, but then guess what? You put them in again at the end of August and you can harvest through the fall.”
Staggered planting is more complicated than just knowing when it gets cold, though. Many turn to the lunar planting calendar, which prescribes planting dates and more based on the date and phase of the moon. Even that, Mazet said, is a little misleading.
“It’s not technically the moon, it’s the environment,” Mazet said. “But the moon is easier to track than the sun.”
Some of Mazet’s favorite examples of old agricultural legends with strong scientific backing are found in companion planting—or planting mutually beneficial species close to each other—like the ’Three Sisters” method of growing corn, beans and squash. As the corn grows, the beans climb the stalk for support while feeding the corn’s root system, and the squash’s sprawling leaves act as a natural mulch to keep the ground moist.
“Now the folklore portion of it is, well, basically the squash has these modified stems that are kind of like thorns, and that [supposedly] keeps the rodents away from your harvest,” Mazet said. “Personally, I know squash doesn’t deter rodents, but I found some beautiful rattlesnakes hiding underneath mine, so they really didn’t care.”
Bet the farm
Craig Frezzette, owner and operator of City Green Gardens, relies on both evidenced-based technique and decades of local growing knowledge to produce fresh vegetables for his family—and several Reno restaurants—year-round. He consults NOAA’s frost charts every year, but usually waits to plant till Memorial Day, just to be safe.
“That’s a pretty solid plant date,” Frezzette said. “Now, I’ve seen snow in June here. But they have some really good products out that protect those plants.”
Frezzette subscribes to the Square Foot Method of gardening, first popularized by Mel Bartholomew in his 1981 book, which is designed to plant crops as densely as possible for the most efficient yield. Bartholomew’s math-based system, Frezzette said, is perfect for managing his 0.64 acre-farm, but he still sticks to more than a few old traditions.
“Always plant your peas on St. Paddy’s Day,” said Frezzette. “If you can work the soil on Saint Patrick’s Day, if it’s not frozen solid, good. Put your peas in.”
Far from any religious origins, most climbing peas are frost tolerant so planting as early as March won’t hurt them. “Peas on St. Paddy’s” is just a helpful mnemonic. Other little-known frost-tolerant plants include flowers like violas and pansies, and an edible variety called nasturtium. (Which, to this reporter, tastes kind of like an apple sprinkled with black pepper.)
Frezzette also believes an old planting tradition is responsible for the grove of fruit trees in his back yard: “Plant fruit trees on the north side of the property.”
The idea is, as Reno is prone to unseasonably warm days in spring followed by killing frosts, the shade produced by your house will prevent the trees from blossoming too early.
“If they’re in the sun out there, they’re going to start going, ’Oh! I think it’s time to get a little frisky,’” Frezzette said. “So, the sap’s going to start running back up, and then things are going to start moving and the flowers are going to form and then, bam, here’s Reno, you know, there’s your hard freeze come after a couple of weeks of nice weather.”
Some other maxims Frezzette perscribes include: Don’t plant your garlic upside down, plant vegetable where there’s morning sun and afternoon shade and find “day neutral” onion varieties for a shorter growing season.
“Our grandfathers all knew how to do this stuff,” he said. “Our parents forgot.”
Of course, learning the literal lay of the land as a gardener takes years of dedication and patience.
Tamara Baren grew up in Indio, California, and has been gardening since her 20s. Adjusting to Nevada dirt, she said, was one of her biggest challenges.
“When I first started gardening in Nevada, I lived out in the desert, and all I had was pure sand,” Baren said. “Gardening in pure sand is a totally different experience from gardening in river soil, which is what I had out in Verdi or what I had down on Mayberry Drive. And what I’ve got here is pure clay.”
Beginners facing a similar problem should find soil amendments that promote a “sandy loam” consistency, but be prepared for an afternoon of hard work. Reno soil is notoriously hard and rocky. Otherwise, said Baren, build a bed.
“When you build up and put it in a bed with compost, you can develop your own friability—how easily it comes apart—which means how easily the roots go into the soil,” Baren said. “You can have the soil tested or you can test it yourself. Check the pH, say, ’What does it need in terms of minerals?’ And add some to it.”
Baren doesn’t hold much stock in old wives’ tales about gardening, but she doesn’t disregard their premise either.
“I don’t disparage old wives,” she said. “When I hear those, I ask myself, ’What’s the kernel of truth here and has our circumstance changed that this doesn’t apply?’ But oftentimes there’s a kernel of truth we disregard or dismiss because it’s old.”
However, after moving into her home in Northwest Reno four years ago, she heard a saying from an unlikely source that she was astonished to see come true so vividly in her own backyard.
“I learned this from the most unusual gardener I’ve ever known,” Baren said. “[She] taught me, when you’re putting a plant in and it’s going to be one of your permanent plants, she said, ’The first year, sleep; the second year, creep; and the third year, leap.’ And you can see right out there in the yard, the plants that had been there for three years. Oh my god, the leaf on it is amazing.”
Baren built her gardening knowledge on resources like the Rodale Press series of gardening books, and any number of online digital resources. She subscribes to a method of gardening called permaculture, which is less interested in maximizing short term vegetable production, and more in creating a landscape consisting of edible plants.
“So, in a permaculture garden, you might have a grove of trees, food trees, but there’ll be berries planted underneath them, or there’ll be herbs planted underneath them,” Baren said. “And there’ll be different levels of plants that are edible and are harvestable but are not in any kind of row format.”
Baren’s attitude of living with her plants instead of taking from them has led her to consider each of them as individuals instead of just part of the overall yield of her garden. After a long time spent observing her surroundings and her own interactions with different plant species in different weather, she’s learned to look for the signs.
“Eventually, you’ll have to ask yourself, ’I wonder what this plant wants,’” Baren said.
In more ways than one, Baren feels like she communicates with her plants, and finds a sense of communion in the simplicity of helping a plant grow.
“The act of growing plants was a sacred and very ancient act,” Baren said. “And when we engage in it with respect, without using poisons and pesticides, we are tying ourselves deeply to the mother, and the mother is nourishing us deeply through those plants. And that’s why I talk about them as persons.”
Permaculture can include semi-advanced gardening systems like building hoops houses and composting, and even advanced techniques like grafting limbs from different fruit trees onto a single trunk to produce different fruits every spring. But the more difficult aspects of gardening are mastered with time, Baren said, and if gardeners of any level are looking for sage words of wisdom or advice from past growing seasons in Reno—you might as well go to the source.
“As you mature as a gardener, yeah, you know, you’re looking at climate, you’re looking at which plant you’re growing, is it happy, what about the soil and where is it in the scheme of the entire environment?” Baren said. “But that’s a long-term thinking project. So, the best thing a new gardener can do? You just hook up with an old gardener.”