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A Mountainside Garden

August 20, 2020

A Mountainside Garden

By Joshua Stevenson

As a kid, I grew fascinated by the idyllic image of a garden, complete with banana trees and flower bushes bursting with colored blossoms, suspended on a mountainside. Perhaps it was some sort of mental amalgamation of pictures I’d seen of the Andes Mountains in kindergarten and my own obsession with green growing things. 

And I certainly was obsessed. At about six years of age, I grew a deep orange and red Magnolia from seed to mature flower in a cup-sized pot. When I passed into my 13th year, the gardening bug hadn’t grown old, so my parents purchased a plastic shelf with multiple trays for growing seedlings. My father arranged the contraption beside the window in the kitchen—a genuine but only half-effective attempt to create a “green-house.” 

But still the picture wasn’t complete in my mind. Somehow, I couldn’t seem to separate those two ideas, despite how different they appeared on the surface: a garden on the mountain. I needed to see them united, for them to grow up together—hand-in-hand. I had to see the garden germinate into life in the cool air on the mountainside.

The Plan

With my childhood desire tucked in my back pocket, I set out some years ago to make it happen. I’ll build that garden on a mountainside! I decided, but if I’m being honest, I had no clue how I’d do it.

Conveniently, I live in the foothills of Colorado on a sunny hillside facing out to the West that boasts a view to beat any Andes-Mountains photograph. So while I knew I couldn’t have fruit trees (I live at about 8300 feet of elevation, which is far too high for most tropical plants), I already possessed the first ingredient: a mountainside.

The first part of my dream was complete, but one major roadblock still stood in my way: the mountain was just that—a steep hillside that sloped away from the house at an almost cliff-like angle, riddled with decayed granite boulders and tough mountain weeds. Simply put: it wasn’t going to be as easy as grabbing a rake and hoe and digging some furrows. 

After consulting with some family and friends, I concluded that it could only be done if I built terraces, which would provide flat spaces for the garden and deep enough soil to accommodate the plants’ root systems. As I said, around my home, rocks (mostly decayed granite boulders) lay like dead soldiers killed in some ancient battle. Of course, I could have always purchased conventional bricks from the local Home Depot, but I couldn’t get past the thought that those granite boulders would make the perfect building blocks for a rustic and rural garden wall. How could I pass that opportunity by? 

My scheme had only one problem: each granite boulder weighed between 100 pounds and a couple tons. In short, I would need a little help. 

So my father and I teamed up and concocted a plan. We’d lug the smaller rocks up the mountain to the construction site using a dolly, a wheelbarrow, or our own callused hands, but we both knew that wouldn’t work for the larger rocks. Try picking up a one ton rock in your spare time, and you’ll know why.

“The best way to move the big ones,” said my father, “is to use the come along to pull them.” 

(For those who don’t know, a come along winch or a “cable puller” is basically a hand-operated winch with two large hooks on each end that allows the user to pull heavy objects like rocks or vehicles.)

“We could also use the truck,” I put in. The driveway lay close to the garden site, which would allow us to hook up to a rock and pull it with the truck. My father agreed it was a good idea.

We had our plan. Now all we had to do was put it into action. 

The Build

To say it was backbreaking work is most definitely an understatement. If you ask me, especially if done manually, moving rocks and dirt is one of the hardest, dirtiest jobs out there, particularly when you’re dragging two-ton boulders up a steep hillside. But soon we gathered enough rocks to start building the terrace walls, and the meticulous work began. 

When constructing a wall out of multi-sized, odd-shaped, natural rocks, you have to be sure to seat the rocks together—almost like a jigsaw puzzle. The same goes for the first layer of the wall, which I anchored into a solid, flat trench spread with soft dirt, allowing the large rocks to sink into the soil and fit snuggly.

After constructing my trench and the first layer of my garden wall, dragging the largest rocks into place with the come along winch, I set out to add successive rock layers to the wall, which is where the art came in. Finding just the right angle to seat two or more rocks together proved to be a challenging game of twisting, turning, and flipping smaller rocks by hand to find just the right fit. Sometimes, my father and I discovered, it helped to put a little dirt between the rocks to fill in the gaps—sort of like mortar. We also had to keep in mind the basic concept of leaning the rocks slightly inward rather than outward. This helped them to settle into the soil berm inside the terrace and not fall outward and tumble down the mountain. 

After the wall reached about five feet in height, the time came to fill the terrace with gardening soil—no small task, considering the quite enormous area to fill. In the end, we chose to purchase cheap fill soil from Pioneer (a local landscaping supply) and have it delivered by dump truck. This soil would form an excellent bed for the garden.

We ended up building two additional garden terraces and filling all three with two massive dump truck loads of fill soil. After spreading a layer of rich potting soil mixed with horse manure on the top and working it in, we stepped back and admired our work. The garden, at least in terms of construction, was finished. 

The Garden

With construction now complete, the garden was primed for planting. Of course, I was chomping at the bit to get started, my heart thumping inside my chest and my fingers nigh to tingling with anticipation, but I also knew that planting would require just as much care as the build. 

I carefully planned out the garden layout, making sure to place plants with deeper root systems on the farther, deeper edge of the terrace, and leave enough room for walkways and dirt berm dividers. I even experimented with the “Three Sisters Method,” an ancient gardening technique used by several American Indian tribes. The Three Sisters Method proscribes planting corn, climbing beans, and squash (the three sisters) in close proximity. The corn stalks are perfect for the beans to climb, while the beans enrich the soil for the corn and squash, and the squash’s large leaves help shield the soil underneath the three sisters from excessive sunlight, keeping it cool, moist, and free from weeds. 

By using The Three Sisters Method and other techniques, the garden was soon popping with green leaves and bulging produce every summer. When I look out my window today several years after I first set out to build a garden on the mountainside, mature cornstalks, zucchini leaves the size of dinner plates, and even a strawberry patch speckled with tiny berries—the closest I can get to a fruit tree—look back at me. My gardening bug still hasn’t grown old, and I’m convinced it never will. While my garden on the mountainside isn’t exactly the same as my idyllic dream from kindergarten, it’s still a testament to the fact that a little hard work and a lot of persistence can make a dream come true.

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