“Grow what you want to eat” local gardeners focus on organization, practical planting wins new Spokane Interstate Fair garden category

For Gabriele Tilley, successful gardening is about beauty and smart use of space.

Tilley’s garden, which is located in front of her Long Lake home, is a mix of flowers, vegetables, and ornamental plants all neatly organized in raised beds. Tilley has been cultivating her small garden patch for over a decade and normally would have submitted much of what she grows to the Spokane County Interstate Fair for judging.

After this year’s fair was moved online, the organizers developed a new category to allow gardeners to participate, by allowing them to submit photos and designs of their entire garden for judging. Tilley was the inaugural winner, garnering praise from the judges for her neat, organized plan and productive use of a small space.

She said the secret to her gardening success is likely her focus on plants she enjoys.

“Grow what you want to eat, and then go from there,” she said.

Her garden includes kale, eggplant, tomatoes and basil, often sharing raised beds with flowers. She said mixing the plants attracts bees and other pollinating insects, and it allows her to maximize space.

Everything in her garden is planted in a raised bed and much of it is held up by home made frames. Her pumpkins are draped over A-frames she made from zip ties and hog wire and her tomato crates are built from rebar. The A frame has allowed her to keep her gourds and pumpkins neat and organized, and provide support for sunflowers, which grow through several A-frames.

She said the neat arrangement of raised beds, the grass clippings she layers on the paths between them and the mixed plants also creates a space she wants to spend time in, a place she can create and relax in for hours.

“For me, it’s meditative,” she said.

Tilley said her garden also is a good place to start plants for the Friends of Manito, an non profit that supports Manito Park in Spokane. Tilley volunteers for the organization and has owned a pet sitting business and has worked as an orthodontics technician.

She said she’s been gardening for 30 years and has picked up many tips and tricks to make her own garden successful, but added there’s always more to learn. She recalled a recent issue with hundreds of volunteer pumpkin plans she accidentally grew after she composted pumpkins. She said the seeds must have germinated at some point and in the spring as she was constantly surprised by unexpected pumpkins.

“Gardening is still an adventure,” she said. “You make mistakes, but then you learn from them.”

For runner-up garden category winner Barb Goehner, gardening is about sharing what she grows with others and the joy of being outdoors.

“People have other joys, but I love this,” she said.

Goehner normally enters 30 to 40 vegetables in the fair every year, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the reduced number of entries accepted into the fair this year, she only entered a pumpkin and photos and the layout for her garden.

She said she hopes the garden category, a new addition that’s only been available this year, becomes a permanent fixture because it’s given her a chance to show off more than a decade of work.

“At least I get to do something with it, I think this was going to be our best year,” she said.

The garden, located on Spokane’s South Hill, is in an empty lot behind their home, which they purchased in the early 2000s. The lot is downhill from rain run off and Goehner has dug a ditch around it and stacked concrete to protect her soil from being washed away. They also had to remove rocks, and other obstructions from the land to make it suitable for growing produce.

Goehner recently retired from Gonzaga’s law library, and said when she did work, she would often come home and garden until the sun goes down. Now that she’s not able to go many places due to the pandemic, she often spends six to eight hours working in the garden.

Her garden is a mix of raised beds, rows of corn and sunflowers, carrots, peppers, fruit trees and a pumpkin patch. One of the signature achievements of the garden is the bean tunnel, one of several solutions to the challenges of harvesting certain types of produce engineered by Goehner’s husband Randy.

She rotates her produce every year and the bean tunnel, fencing wire bent over a frame, will likely be used again, but will be in a different spot to ensure every plant has the nutrients it needs.

The garden also has an archery target and a horse shoe pit so Goehner’s husband also has something he enjoys in the space they share.

The garden yields 1,000 lbs of produce every summer, with plentiful zuccinnis, pumpkins, carrots, tomatoes and fruit. The couple shares their produce and flowers with the neighborhood, engineering a free produce cart with weights for wheels.

The food the couple grows also feeds them all winter long. They produce hundreds of jars of jelly from the grapes and raspberries they grow, can pickles and make snacks from sunflower seeds.

Goehner said she loves the mix of plants, both the productive and pretty additions to her garden, but her main focus is always growing her favorite foods, and the flowers she loves.

“We grow what we like,” she said.

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