I met Derice Pfefferkorn in an exercise class a few years ago. She was graceful and seemed close to my age so I noticed her. The mystique grew when someone mentioned that she had danced with Martha Graham, though that turned out not to be true. In our snippets of conversation after class I learned that she also sings with the Resonance Women’s Chorus, that she recently hiked the entire Colorado Trail from Denver to Durango, and that she is a lifelong gardener—at that moment one in search of a ginkgo tree.
I invited myself to see her home garden in Old Town Longmont, an unwatered front yard facing the street, full of mostly dryland plants. Many were in bloom—a riot of yucca, penstemons, desert four-o’-clock, poppies, sea holly, salvia, zauschneria, tiger lilies, and a rock garden-sized Mormon tea (Ephedra). Her irrigation system is “the sky”; only the newest plants get additional water.
The garden used to be all lawn in two and a half inches of topsoil atop compacted builder’s fill and bentonite. Baking in the sun it needed a lot of water. So she composted it, tilling in all the sod (double digging by hand), and adding manure, leaves, and straw. She created berms to raise the level, using several inches of pea gravel for mulch. Over the years it settled and, as the gravel worked its way down into the soil, created excellent drainage for the dryland plants she grows. At first she killed a lot of plants by overwatering.
This early March I visited again. She showed me where a ‘Low Grow’ sumac kept spreading until she finally decided to take it out. ‘The roots were this deep!” she told me spreading her arms wide. Removing it became a major production, but she managed eventually and that’s where the ginkgo, now 4' tall, found a home. “I wanted something very tough here that grows slowly. Ginkgos are disease resistant and ancient—they’re dinosaurs!” she said.
Other tough trees in the front garden are an Ohio Buckeye on the NE corner where it doesn’t cast shade, a healthy piñon pine that screens the house across the street, and a shrubby narrow-leaf mountain mahogany. “I love this plant,” she told me, pulling down one of its flexible branches then letting go so it bounced up. “It can take anything. A heavy load of snow is no big deal.”
Though few plants were up yet she pointed out draba, which has spread around rocks at the base of the piñon. A chunk of cleared ground near the house awaits a stone patio and alpine rock garden.
The west-facing back yard has several huge old trees. “They’re the reason we bought the place—shade!” But it’s too shady for growing vegetables so when her kids were young she got a community garden plot nearby and has kept it growing for 18 years. “I garden there with families I met when our kids were all in preschool; now they’re in college or older.” Beyond working the plot at Second Start Community Garden, a non-profit run completely by volunteers, she’s served in many capacities over the years, including as Board Chair for the last two. With 60 plots and roughly 100 people involved, it’s a real cross section of Longmont—all ages and races, all economic, ability, and experience levels, and all political persuasions. When I suggested that managing such a large, diverse group must be a big job she smiled. “Have you noticed that gardeners are very opinionated?” she asked.
What unites them all is the garden’s stated mission to garden organically and feed the Longmont community. As it says on the Second Start website, “Participants learn to cocreate in a communal environment, deepening their gardening knowledge and relationship to the earth and each other.”
Sharing community comes naturally to Derice. She was born and raised at Taliesin, the home, school, and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright on 800 acres in southwestern Wisconsin. Her parents moved there after hitchhiking around Europe together to visit architectural wonders when WWII ended. Her father, an accomplished carpenter who later became a highly respected architect, was hired to help Wright reconstruct several buildings that had burned down.
In those days the school, a creative hotbed apprenticeship program “integrating not only architecture and construction, but also farming, gardening, and cooking, and the study of nature, music, art, and dance”, attracted students, mostly male, from around the world.
Every year the Pfefferkorn family took a week to drive from Wisconsin through Colorado to spend winters at Taleisin West in the desert foothills of Scottsdale, AZ and back. Years later, when her first husband was offered a job in Boulder, Derice agreed immediately to move from Minneapolis. “Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a mountaineer and a guide, so it was ‘home.’”
Her mother, a big believer in self-sufficiency who grew and put up her own food, used to pack up the car with bushel baskets of produce for Derice's family and drive it to Boulder. She laughs: “That was intense—I had no place to store it.”
After working for 30 years as an independent garment designer while raising her kids, she retired and retooled, diving into ecology-based plant practices and learning skills like surveying and drafting.
She kept on hiking and met her second husband in the Colorado Mountain Club. For seven years she was an active Master Gardener in Boulder County. She still maintains a few gardens and helps clients as a garden coach. Recently she’s become involved with Boulder- and Fort Collins-based Wildlife Restoration Volunteers, an “impressive organization” that grows its own regeneration stock for public lands from locally collected seed.