It was eight years ago that I pulled down the driveway to meet Mirek and Irena Wilczek at their three-acre Wilton parcel to do my initial garden design consultation.
When I put my car in park, to my amazement, I looked into the back third of their property to a garden that looked like a snapshot from a Miracle Grow advertisement in Sunset Magazine. Their vegetables were huge and so healthy – like a garden in Alaska, receiving 19 hours of sunlight a day. It was clear to me that my new clients were professional gardeners.
Now years later, I contacted Mirek and Irena to share their horticulture history and special love with gardening, especially in these days when everyone is seeking tips on how to grow a beautiful garden.
As youngsters they grew up in southwestern Poland during the oppression of the country’s communist government. Local country markets offered the basics; however, fresh produce was difficult to come by. Winter gardens were not possible due to the cold winters in Poland; however, summer gardens were a necessity.
The Wilczeks fondly recalled how the whole family came together to prepare the soil, plant, and mentioned as youngsters the torture of weeding. However, that even changed as they got older and began appreciating the process more and more. They saw firsthand how all this work provided fresh produce through the summer, and any excess was processed into jams, jellies and other canned goods.
Mirek told me, “This is how we started our gardening adventure.”
His horticulture skills were further honed in his professional career in collective farming for the Polish government. He was a production farm manager in charge of mostly grain production. So the couple wasted no time after moving to California and acquired land to garden year-round. They were eager to grow two crops a year, which was new territory for both of them. They noted that Brandywine is their favorite tomato variety, accompanied by zucchinis, cucumbers and the summer basics. By late September, they eagerly prepare to plant cold weather crops, such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage varieties, onions and carrots.
They recently planted 252 blueberry plants that are represented by six different varieties, which is important so the crop ripens at different times, thereby extending the production season. Blueberries need an acidic soil, and so they located in 100 yards of a special forest humus that was composted from forest matter. This material was trucked in from a distant supplier located in the mountains. Mirek noted that they should have plenty of blueberries for them, as well as the birds and neighbors.
Their approach to gardening was summarized as follows:
• They try to use a natural form of fertilizer.
• They supplement our garden soil annually with the addition of compost.
• Most plants are started from seed.
• Drip irrigation provides necessary watering which helps to control weeds.
• The large size of the garden allows them to rotate crops every year.
• They have their favorite plants, but we are experimenting with new varieties each year.
• To extend summer growing season for zucchinis, they stagger planting throughout the season. Their fruit and citrus tree varieties were carefully selected to stretch their harvesting season based on each ripening time.
• They also enjoy processing the excess fruits and vegetables by dehydrating, making salsa, preserves, pickles, or marinara sauces.
When people visit the couple’s garden, I’m sure they ask them, “What’s your secret – why are your plants so big and healthy?” I also asked Mirek this question, looking for some secret tips, as I have never seen such huge, healthy vegetables grown locally. He laughed and said they simply love what they are doing. And with that, and years of involvement, things become second nature.
But here are some important tips:
• Plants are on furrows so water drains from crown.
• Plants are watered twice a day for a short period of time during the summer to make sure plants stay evenly moist.
• A drip system with inline emitters every 12 inches are used.
• Soil preparation and management are critical.
In closing, few will undertake such a large garden as Mirek and Irena; however, after meeting them and seeing their success, I now have proof that we can grow vegetables here like people do in Minnesota, Sonoma County and Alaska.
Rod Whitlow is a Certified Arborist, Certified Nurseryman and Plant Science Editor for the Sunset Western Garden Book