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Gansner Gardens is all about families learning together and being together in positive ways. Front, from left: Bambi Wallis, 11, her grandmother Bambi Pope, and in front Wilhelmina Wallis, 10, and her mother Jodie Wallis as they lift one of the raised beds for the garden program. Photos by Victoria Metcalf

Abandoned courts blossom with new purpose

It’s easy to see why a good game of tennis hasn’t taken place on the Gansner Park courts for some time. Cracks are a good place for weeds to take hold, and the surface dips and buckles in various places. Dried leaves, not abandoned tennis balls line the parameter of the chain link fencing. Hopefully by late summer, rich crops of vegetables will have taken over.

Long disused tennis courts at Gansner Park are being repurposed — as family gardens.

Instead of black asphalt with grass and weeds growing between the cracks, this summer it will be a place where vegetables and fruit grow.

It’s definitely a case of out with the old and in with the new in more than one sense. When Plumas County Literacy abandoned its Garden Behind Bars program, it was time to move to a new location.

With permission from Plumas County Facilities Services Director Dony Sawchuk and a nod from Supervisor Lori Simpson, and of course the key to unlock the long unused gate, the new program began.

Last summer and fall, inmates began removing soil and disassembling raised boxes and a redwood greenhouse that took up the back portion of the Plumas County Sheriff’s Corrections Center. Originally, the task began when Plumas County Literacy was told that a large greenhouse was going to be installed. The greenhouse didn’t materialize, but the dirt and materials were piled for future use.

That first summer of Garden Behind Bars in 2013 was filled with plans and promises. Thanks to a dedicated crew of inmates, including a former contractor who seemingly could build anything provided he had the wood and the tools — the program grew and grew. Inmates had the opportunity to enjoy a wide variety of fresh tomatoes, salad greens and much more.

But then new programs, work opportunities, electronic monitoring and house arrest reduced the number of inmates available to work in the garden.

Gansner gardens

The new program is called Gansner Gardens: Net Yields for Families and Friends. It’s a simple plan. It’s all about putting materials and some know-how where family members and a few special friends can come together to raise some of their own fresh, close-to-organic food.

So why is a literacy program, designed to teach adult basic education, assist people with pre-testing for the GED, learn about English and other education avenues, involved in gardening?

Sherri Curnow, owner of Gray’s Flower Garden in Quincy, muscles a bag of steer manure from a loaded pickup and through the gate of the old tennis courts at Gansner Park in Quincy. Commercial steer manure is one of the chief soil amendments added to the raised beds.

There isn’t a subject that can’t be taught without using a garden theme.

Math — that’s easy, how many rows of seeds and how far apart do those seeds need to be placed to use a package of carrot seeds? How many dried kernels of corn will it take if the bed is 36 inches wide and 16 feet long?

And writing is important. Participants will be encouraged to keep a journal. What went right and wrong this year? Gardeners are always trying to remember what they did the previous year to rid their gardens of a serious outbreak of pests. Or what variety of tomato far surpassed other varieties in taste and abundance?

Science? Learning about soil is a science. Discovering the benefits and detriments of good and bad insects is scientific. Learning to mix a safe kind of insect spray is science. Hot sauce and garlic with a bit of liquid dish soap to make the mixture stick is great on ridding plants of aphids. But then so are removing them by hand and gushes of water that knock them off.

History? Yes, again. How did early humans find their food? Did they eat only meat or did they gather shoots, leaves and berries? What about the beginnings of agriculture, especially in the early years of the United States? Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were avid gardeners, though their approach was much different. Jefferson was interested in learning the differences among varieties, say — of peas.

And the list of educational opportunities goes on.

Learning for everyone in the family is part of the program. If the kids are studying bugs and attempting to find some in the garden, then parents are also involved.

PCL uses an almost organic approach to raising a garden. True organic gardens have stringent regulations that must be followed before they receive a stamp of approval. In this process, that’s bypassed, but organic soils, compost and open pollinated non-GMO seeds are a must. And no pesticides are used.

There are no harmful chemical fertilizers used either. Instead, commercially produced manure is used. While the idea of getting manure from the college or one of the local ranches is attractive, it can also be problematic. For a home garden, there might not be such a big concern, but other people are involved, and manure that hasn’t undergone appropriate treatment to inactivate pathogens within the manure, is asking for potential trouble — a case of salmonella or E. coli could arise.

Some gardeners have success composting their manure before using it on the garden. Here again, it’s a matter of how long to compost it and the temperatures required. One university agriculture site advised that salmonella could live in manure for up to 100 days and E. coli for up to 300 days. Another site advised that manure must be left to rot for a minimum of five years before it can be safely used.

What’s growing?

Tomatoes — no store-bought tomato can compare to even the blandest, ugliest tomatoes grown in a garden.

That first year in the jail garden, one of the inmates remarked, “a tomato is a tomato, right?” And then he found a small red cherry variety that lit up his taste buds. He couldn’t believe the difference in taste between one variety and another.

Not only red tomatoes will be grown in this garden. Black, purple, yellow, orange, and red and orange mixed varieties are popular.

Up next is a wide variety of lettuce — both head and leaf. A lot of careful washing is desired before eating because slugs love lettuce, and dirt from watering tends to find its way between the leaves.

Swiss chard, spinach and kale are popular. Cauliflower, broccoli, rapplini and Asian greens are also planned.

Carrots, radishes, turnips, potatoes, cucumbers for fresh eating and for pickling, and summer squash will have their places. Pumpkins and winter squash will also have their places.

Companion planting

Although there are many books available that promote companion planting, it was the first version of “Carrots Love Tomatoes” by Louise Riotte that captured my attention in a big way.

Tomatoes do very well when planted with carrots. They’re after different things in the soil, so they don’t compete, and they grow at different heights with tomatoes typically a lot taller so they don’t fight for sunshine.

Add basil, because it’s supposed to enhance the flavor of tomatoes and doesn’t compete with other plants. Basil is a very friendly plant and goes well when planted with so many things.

While pole beans do well near potatoes, bush beans don’t. They are about the same height and compete for sunlight.

Three plants that always do well together are corn, beans and squash. These are known as the Three Sisters in planting and legend has it that American Indians taught the first colonists to use the method to save space and for healthy benefits.

In studying companion planting, it’s been proven that some plants don’t do well together. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of height and competition for sunlight. Other times it’s the pests and diseases they might attract. And in some cases its soil and nutrient competition that deters growth.

Some flowers are great planted amongst the vegetables and fruits. Marigolds are known to deter a number of pests, but then they don’t get along everywhere in the garden. Nasturtiums are good and not just because they’re pretty. Borage attracts bees, but it does take up a fair amount of space. Bee balm is also good.

Who’s welcome?

Flyers have gone out to county departments and are posted around Quincy inviting families to participate.

I’ve interviewed many gardeners over the years. There’s only one thing for certain amongst them — everyone does it differently.

For more information on Gansner Gardens, contact me at 283-6413.

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