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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2008



A Jungle Oasis

Intermingling plant types and utilizing "trap" plants and companion pairings, Blythe Whiteley has created a lush and productive garden in little more than a year.

If you were a vegetable — let's say an eggplant — in Blythe Whiteley's garden, you needn't expect to begin life in some humdrum row.

southwest garden
Blythe Whiteley's garden. (Photos by Vivian Savitt)

Mais non! You would be grown in a bed of good earth among highly regarded eggplant varieties like Ichiban, Fairy Tale and Dusky. Herbs and flowers selected for both their beauty and protective attributes would ensure your good health, devoid of pests and maladies. All other vegetables throughout the land would be green with envy over your pampered life.

Blythe describes her gardening style as "jungle oasis." It's accomplished by intermingling vegetables with ornamental plants, herbs and fruit trees "for the beauty of how they go together." Gazing out at her lush and serene almost one-acre spread, it is astounding that the garden is only just over a year old.

Blythe and her husband, Jerry, moved to Silver City in July 2007. They were accompanied by "a greenhouse on wheels," she says, including planted vegetable starts and packets of favorite seeds from their previous garden in Washington state.

"Moses Lake (Wash.) is in the Columbian Basin Desert on the east side of the Cascade Mountains," Blythe says, "an area of desert and high desert with a climate similar to Silver City's — except winters there are colder."

Soon Blythe was digging out her tried-and-tested garden bed forms, including 5x7 and U-shaped ones, which allow easy access to each plant for watering, pinching off pests, spraying on Neem oil and, of course, gathering the garden's bounty. "Beds stay soft and fluffier than rows," she adds.

Jerry hauled and shoveled sand, peat moss and compost to transform the local caliche. Now he is at work on a greenhouse. "Jerry," Blythe explains, "is Mr. Neat Guy (a Virgo), who helps weed, prune, mow and build fences."

She enjoys reading the Old Farmer's Almanac and plants seeds based on moon phases.

Another aspect of Blythe's gardening ethos is using "trap" plants — certain species of herbs, flowers and vegetables that are more attractive to pests than the main vegetable growing next to them. In this way, she may either ignore the pests on trap plants or spray them with a natural bug repellent like Neem oil.

The lovely, robust and poisonous larkspur, for instance, is a distraction for pilfering Japanese beetles; Blythe takes advantage of the larkspur's lovely scent to help protect broccoli and cauliflower. Other pretty and effective trap plants include nasturtiums, wild nightshade and marigolds.

"Companion" planting is based upon the premise that certain plants benefit each other when planted together. Blythe says that petunias and chile peppers "flourish" when grown together, as do garlic and roses, parsley and tomatoes. All you eggplants out there should buddy-up to beans, peppers and marigolds.

Blythe began gardening at age six when her grandfather scaled down a hoe so that she could help work five acres of Washington heartland. "I was stamped by that experience," says the third-generation gardener, who has passed her skills to her own children and grandchildren.

"My eldest grandson took over a gardener position that I held at the Sleeping Lady Resort in Leavenworth, Wash., where we cultivated vegetables and herbs for the resort's guests," she says. "Later on, he was assisted by his three children."

Blythe knows first hand the importance of sharing experiences with other gardeners. She worked in a nursery in Moses Lake with a woman who was a "walking encyclopedia of plant propagation. Only once in four years did I see her stumped by a customer's question!"

Shortly after Blythe's move here, a neighbor told her about a couple who grew produce to sell at the Farmer's Market. That turned out to be Dianna Winn and Terry Timme. From them, Blythe became involved with High Desert Organic Gardeners (HiDog) and picked up tips and information on gardening here.

Actually, Blythe had family ties to the area as well: "My dad was born in Las Cruces and lived in the Mimbres, where his father was a game warden." She believes that the family was totally self-sufficient, utilizing what they raised and hunted.

This winter, Blythe will mulch the beds with straw and use a 3x10 cold frame to grow "green leafy stuff. I'll use onions, garlic and winter squash for making soups." She cans a variety of items including relishes and chutneys, an apple and green tomato mince and muffaletta (see recipe). She'll also use the winter months to concentrate on her silk painted pieces, which are sold at the Common Thread in Silver City.

"Next year," she adds, "I'll grow quinoa (it's also a pretty plant) and bake my own bread."

The recipe below for muffaletta wowed me and an "assistant palate" at Ditch Cottage recently. Blythe likes it as a spread with cream cheese and crackers, adds a dollop on meat or grilled vegetables and uses it to jazz up pizza, sandwiches and spaghetti sauce.

Blythe's Dried Tomato Muffaletta

Approximately 3 packed cups of either sun-dried or dehydrator-dried tomatoes. (use more if you want)

1 1/3 cup chopped onion

1/3 cup freshly minced garlic

1 large sweet red pepper, chopped small

2 cups of any kind of pitted olives that you like, but use more than one kind, including canned black or green olives or the more wonderful varieties

1/2 cup olive oil (more if necessary)

1/4 cup Tamari, Sho-u or other good quality soy sauce.

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar or lemon juice (or some of each)

Start with 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet. Add onion and saute the mixture until it begins to turn translucent. Add minced garlic and continue to saute until the bite is out of it. (Don't overcook.)

Add dried tomatoes, sweet pepper and tamari. Stir and cook on low heat another 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Add vinegar/lemon juice and remaining olive oil. Stir all together. Taste and amend with salt or more olive oil as needed.

Muffaletta can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator about two weeks. Or can using a hot-water bath or pack into freezer bags and freeze. The taste gets better with age.

If you over-dried your tomatoes, add some fresh ones to juice up the muffaletta a little.

Optional: add basil and/or finely chopped parsley to taste; for a hot version, add red or green chile peppers.

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