Gardeners help Iola go green

By ANNE KAZMIERCZAK
Register Reporter

Anne Kazmierczak/Register
Claude Vail holds a “mysterious squash” grown from his expansive garden on Nebraska Road.

Anne Kazmierczak/Register
A watermelon ripens in Claude Vail’s garden on Nebraska Road Saturday. The melon has the company of corn, beans, squash, cucumbers, cantaloupe and pumpkin.

Claude Vail isn’t sure what his garden grows. He just knows what he planted.
“They were Straight Eight cucumber seeds,” Vail said of his mystery squash patch. Instead of the classic slicing cukes, Vail’s patch yielded Armenian cucumbers and a 10-pound cucurbit that tastes great cooked, he said. In fact, Vail turned the giant squash into cucumber pie.
Adding spices to the cooked squash, Vail said, “It tasted almost like pumpkin pie.” With one notable difference, Vail said.
“I added brown sugar to give it a brown color, because I don’t like a green pie.”
Cantaloupe and muskmelon and watermelon vines also sprawl along the shaded ground. Vail readily shares his produce.
His cantaloupes are sweet and buttery. He loves them, but can’t eat them in his house.
“My wife, Edith, can’t stand the smell of a muskmelon. When I take one home I have to eat it out in my shop.”
Vail also grows sweet corn, green beans, and fruit trees on his land on Nebraska Road, south of Iola.
“We bought these 10 acres seven years ago, and I thought it would be a good place for a garden,” Vail said.
It shows that Vail knows in gardening, what you give is linked to what you get.
“I work leaves into it every year,” Vail said of his garden soil. “We have a lot of trees at home and I chop them up and rototill them in.”
As a result, Vail’s soil is fluffy and light: perfect for a home garden.
The gophers agree.
“I have a hard time getting tomatoes,” Vail said. “I have to pick them half-way green or that varmint gets them.” In addition, he said, “The squirrels and the deer eat most of my corn.”
And the weather got his potatoes.
“After all that rain this spring, the field didn’t drain. It flooded the potatoes. That’s the reason my garden’s not too good this year.”
Vail doesn’t seem to mind, though. He doesn’t garden just for the food.
“I grew up on a farm. I just like being out here,” he said, looking around.
Vail intended to build a home on the site until cancer stopped him. He’s cancer-free now, “but it just took it out of me,” he said.
Still, at 79, he’s out on his plot most every day.
“I’m just used to it, I guess. Every year I think I’m not going to do it, then I do.”

STEVE ZORTMAN has only been gardening three or four years, he said. Though he stands six-feet tall, his tomato plants tower over him. His ambrosia cantaloupe vine could span the circumference of a swimming pool. And his Anaheim peppers are long and glossy green. “They’re not too hot,” Zortman lets on. For heat, he’s got jalapenos.
Zortman is another dedicated gardener. He carefully tends his N. Third Street soil, especially around those tall tomatoes.
“I build soil up around them,” he said of the seven-foot tall plants. “And I stuff straw in the cages.” That cools the base and adds a mulch layer to keep in the moisture that Zortman is certain to provide.
“People don’t realize, peppers take a lot of water,” he said. “And tomatoes do, too.” And corn, and cantaloupe. Zortman moves his sprinkler to the other half of his enormous melon vine. “People in this house,” he said, “love cantaloupe.”
However, Zortman said, “thieves stole my three biggest melons.” Now he’s carefully watching the remaining orbs, most of which are still emerald green. Luckily, there’s a couple dozen there.
“They’ll change overnight,” Zortman said of the few that are ripening, straw colored, within the vine. “Tomorrow, they’ll be almost ready.” Looking at the sprawling vine, one would never guess this is Zortman’s first attempt at growing melons.
Besides the tender loving care he provides, Zortman’s secret is to start with healthy plants, he said.
All his tomatoes (he has about seven kinds) and his five different peppers came from TLC Greenhouse, he said.
And the weather helped, too, Zortman said. “The cool spring promoted good pollination of the tomatoes,” he said.

BACK AT Claude Vail’s, discussion turns to bugs.
“I had some squash bugs earlier on my cantaloupe. I just took my hand and mashed them and I haven’t had any problem since.” It’s an old trick known to organic gardeners. In addition, Vail said, “I’ve got all kinds of birds.
“Scissortails, mockingbirds, bluebirds, cardinals ...” Vail credits the birds with eating a lot of bugs that might otherwise get his plants. “I don’t spray,” he said of his plants.
But he keeps busy. Next he’ll work in the shed he built, or maybe mow the fields.
“I can’t go all day without doing something,” Vail said.
And because he has a plethora of oversized squash, he’ll keep busy with them, too.
So far, he’s cooked them a number of ways.
“I’ve tried them on the grill,” he said. “They’re edible, but not good.” Cooked with beans, potatoes and bacon, though, “it’s really not bad.”
But the mystery squash is best in pie. The next one he makes, Vail said, will be even better.
“I’m going to add pure maple syrup.”