Find Your Garden Mentors
By Penn Parmenter:
When we first moved here 30 years ago, a friend learned of our gardening aspirations and introduced us to the local legend who gardened on the northern slope of the Sangre de Cristos. This garden was so impressive and thriving that all the doubts sown by the locals on us aspiring ‘newbs’ were instantly washed away. After that, whenever people told us what we could not grow, we just smiled and carried on.
Clearly they had not met Helen Montgomery, seen her garden, or heard the stories of her mother’s garden, back when it was closer to the creek as they had no well. We saw loaded cherry trees, her precious gladiolas, waves of strawberries, and all the vegetables you could imagine. She planted garlic with a stick as she got older, simply adapting to her age. I visited regularly and helped her, just soaking in everything she told me.
Above: Young, strong Danielle working for us and learning to use the broadfork in front of "The Mothership". Very grateful for her insight and stamina. PHOTO: Penn Parmenter
Soon we discovered another, albeit less famous legend in our community. This unpretentious hay farmer walked us into a garden wonderland out in the open at 7,500'. She grew there for over 60 years. Immediately we were firing questions: why are there plastic jugs over your squash? (to protect them from wind and cold nights); How do you grow corn? (in blocks made from rows); How do you fertilize? (with compost and cow manure from a neighboring ranch); Where did you get your apple trees? (she grew them from seed). She was a tiny woman and when she bent over in the squash patch to gift us some produce, she simply disappeared in the giant plants.
Both of these women seemed to enjoy our attention and were more than happy to share information, and their abundance. Our first mentor, Helen, passed away many years ago, but Bertha May Ellison became my dear trusted friend and mentor for 25 years. She passed away this spring. As I was placing plastic jugs over my squash seeds this year, I talked to her as I worked, thanking her for this little tip that gave the squash a jump-start each spring, I spent a lot of time with her in the garden, and ate a lot of food from it as well, nourishing body and soul. Cord & I continue to share what these mentors taught us.
Above: Walking in the forest with Panayoti. PHOTO: Rich Murphy
Many of you know a much more famous mentor, who makes everyone feel like he is their champion and best friend. No matter the gardening experience level, Panayoti Kelaidis, (Director of Outreach and Senior Curator at Denver Botanic Gardens), has helped and guided countless gardeners of all kinds. How fortunate was I to have him come here and tour our gardens, and then proceed to network for us, always advocating, always connecting. He gives so much credit to his own mentor, Paul Maslin, a Professor of Biology at CU Boulder, with whom he spent incalculable hours in his youth, helping, listening, learning.
About 5 years ago, Panayoti came and helped us teach Seed School here. We took a group into the forest to look at tiny plants – ha! These are his passion; he is current President of the North American Rock Garden Society. People who have admired him for years came to be on that walk and we all made a thousand notes and felt in awe of someone with such encyclopedic knowledge. To walk with him in my sacred places, the mountaintops and hillsides that I frequent, was a profound gift. Not to mention, he’s hilarious and so much fun!
Who are the garden legends around you? When you are out walking your dog and you admire an urban garden, have you ever knocked on the door or struck up a conversation? Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, all ages, all ways. They don’t have to be famous, or even well known, but they could be two doors down! Take the plunge, come bearing gifts; offer to help in trade for knowledge.
We are all friends in the garden no matter what our values or belief systems; it is a wonderful common denominator.
Even though I’m certain I’m still just 24, young people have been coming here for many years to learn in exchange for work. They usually leave me with more gifts and knowledge than they acquire. I’m grateful for their insights and certainly their stamina. One young woman mentioned how important it was to find mentors like me and to listen and learn, and I thought, “Me? How can this be?” I am learning from other gardeners everyday and still feel like a newb at this.
Losing my beloved mentor this spring has spurred even more commitment to sharing whatever I can with other aspiring Rocky Mountain gardeners. And so can you. You know much more than you think you do. We all have different ways to grow, have experienced failures and successes, and often there are no witnesses. We can tend toward a loner mentality in the garden – I adore my time alone with the plants – but when people come to learn, my cup always runneth over.
Social media and technology have made it possible to learn without ever leaving our homes. But nothing beats being in an actual garden, learning from a real live person, talking shop with sweat pouring down our faces and dirt under our fingernails.
Share seeds, loan books, give encouragement, introduce each other, be bold, trade squashes, make lunch, listen, watch, admire. Go find them!
Penn & Cord Parmenter garden and grow food and seed near Westcliffe. Both are regional high-altitude gardening instructors and the founders of Smart Greenhouses LLC and Miss Penn’s Mountain Seeds.