It’s about upward growth at Candlelight Ranch forest garden
SMITHWICK — Lynette Holtz has a problem. The golden cherry tomatoes in the Martin Forest Garden are growing ripe on the vine, but there isn't anyone to pick them.
It’s a nice problem to have, one she’s gotten used to during breaks in programs at Candlelight Ranch, a Marble Falls-area nonprofit facility that serves special-needs youth and special populations of children.
“People really are amazed at how much they can grow in a small space,” said Holtz, who is the ranch program director. “Especially when you use something like this, you really can get a lot of vegetables in a small area.”
And it’s something the kids who attend Candlelight Ranch find almost as irresistible as sleeping in the facility’s treehouse. One youth, who hadn’t been at the camp since last year, found his way to a cucumber plant climbing up the fence that surrounds the garden. He reached up, and with the proper technique, twisted the ripe vegetable off the vine.
Holtz watched and asked if he had been growing cucumbers at home the past year. He told her "no,” to which she asked, “How did you know how to do it then?”
“I remembered from last year,” the boy answered.
“See? Kids remember things when they learn it out here,” Holtz said after recounting the story. “We use this garden as a place for kids to learn and so much more.”
The garden overflows with bean plants, tomatoes of different sizes and varieties, squash, eggplants, several fruit trees and more. The entire garden is maybe three to four times the size of the average backyard shed, yet it yields an abundance of produce.
Holtz and the facility utilize a method called “forest gardening.” Instead of spreading out plants over a wide area at ground level, this method uses much less space by growing upward, not outward, Holtz explained.
Along the fence line (the ranch uses a high, deer-proof fence to keep out deer), beans and other plants work their way up. One bean plant has even jumped into the branches of an overhanging mesquite tree to continue its upward journey.
Several fruit trees — apples, figs and peaches — cover another layer. The tomatoes erupt into bushes scattered about the garden, both from the ground and from a variety of raised beds.
By employing a “food forest” technique, Holtz said a family or an individual doesn’t need a lot of space to grow a substantial amount of food.
“The upfront cost (raised beds and plants) is the most you’ll have,” she explained. “Once it’s in, it really doesn’t require a lot of care.”
The vegetables and other plants growing close together block out the infusion of weeds that need to be pulled in typical gardens. Plus, the shade from the upwardly growing vegetables and other plants reduces water loss by evaporation — hence less water requirements. Even the shade of several nearby trees helps protect the plot from the overbearing sun. Holtz pointed out that the amount of shade the plot gets shows you don’t necessarily need a big, open area with full sun for a successful garden.
While vegetable production is a great benefit of the Martin Food Forest at Candlelight Ranch, Holtz uses it as a place kids can experience gardening and even grow in their own right.
“Kids really respond out here, out in nature,” she said.
Candlelight Ranch offers outdoor education and therapy for special-needs youth, certain youth populations and similar groups. The ranch has hosted inner city youth, groups from the Texas School for the Blind, Camp Phoenix of Marble Falls kids and many more. While the ranch boasts nature trails, a zip line, a tree house and other activities, Holtz sees a lot of growth in the kids right in the garden.
“They get so excited when they get to pick their own food,” she said. “You’ll see them head home, just so excited, and they can’t wait to tell their parents.”
With the fence surrounding the garden and gate at the front, Holtz and facilitators can simply let the kids go in the garden without worrying about them wandering off. Holtz doesn’t put a lot of rules on the kids, and camp leaders don’t hover over the youth.
“Sure, sometimes a plant gets stepped on, but the kids really are careful and do great around the garden,” she said. “They understand taking care of (the plants.)”
As the kids pick the vegetables, some, such as the golden cherry tomatoes, are immediately sampled. Others are gathered and taken to the camp’s outdoor cooking area, where kids wait for a taste of their bounty after it's been cooked over an open flame.
“You’d be surprised at the types of vegetables the kids will eat out here or try that they don’t usually eat at home,” Holtz said. “There’s something about that they get to pick their own.”
It’s not just about gardening and picking vegetables at Candlelight Ranch. Holtz encourages the kids to take home what they’ve learned about gardening to try it themselves. She’ll send kids home with several fresh-picked vegetables to show their parents or a potted plant to grow themselves.
“Gardening really is simple,” Holtz said. “And I try to show them that they don’t need a big space, or even a space like we have. If all they have is a patio or porch, they can grow some plants in a pot. You always have some place to grow them.”
The key, she acknowledged, is getting parents involved. That’s more challenging, since parents often don't accompany the youth to Candlelight Ranch.
“But if the parents see the excitement on their kids' faces, it can help,” Holtz said.
All it takes is just getting started.
“Don’t overthink it, don’t overbuild it, don’t overplant it,” Holtz said. “Start small and build from there.”
And if people like the idea of forest gardening, it’s just a little more work to grow a lot more food.
Gardening, after all, is about growing — the plants and the gardeners themselves.
Candlelight Ranch sometimes offers public events, and it is always seeking volunteers and donations to help serve more youth. Go to candlelightranch.org for more information.
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