A bucket list of growing tips
Story and Photos by Maureen Heffernan
Five generations of his family, beginning with his great-great-grandfather, have farmed and gardened on Jared Dean West’s 102 acres in Ada. Of this acreage, 52 acres were part of the original Indian allotment lands of the late 1800s. His great-great-grandfather made his way out to Oklahoma and married a Choctaw woman and both worked hard to build a life on this land.
Jared continues his family’s legacy of growing on the land and it’s clear that Jared has inherited the family’s work ethic, optimism, and a trait of looking and moving forward, in how he gardens and sells his crops – ways that his ancestors would never imagine.
Jared doesn’t grow most of his crops in the ground nor does he sell his edible garden plants at a local farmers’ market. Rather, he grows them in buckets and sells them online, on a Sell Message Facebook page. While the work of growing plants is never easy, selling quality edibles has become easier. Instead of packing up a truck at dawn to drive to a market, Jared sells a wide variety of in-season edible crops – vegetables, herbs, greens, and fruits – online with customer placing orders that can be delivered locally or picked up at his farm. Keeping it open to all without a large upfront payment like a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), Jared sells to anyone and when the produce is at its mature, freshest peak.
At this point in his life he wants to help the next generation and will further work to develop the foundation and its educational programs that teaches growers how to successfully grow and market their crops.
Another difference his horse-and-plow ancestors would find astonishing is how he grows these crops. Through trial and error, he learned that it is easier and more efficient to grow most of his crops in a variety of plastic pots, buckets, and tubs that range from 3, 5, 15, to 30 gallons.
He fills the buckets with his own “secret soil sauce” he willingly shares – a mix of Marcum’s Rich Mix with some composted pine bark mulch and a little perlite to lighten it up. This soil mix enables him to successfully grow nearly any edible plant you could think of – basil, thyme, lettuces, greens, broccoli, cucumbers, corn, squash, tomatoes, peppers, beans, and more. Some crops that most would consider unlikely to be grown anywhere but in the ground, such as onions or carrots, even do well in 3-5-gallon pots.
Since tomatoes are the most frequently grown edible in home gardens, Jared recommends some that he has grown and found to do really well in Oklahoma’s challenging climate: ‘Better Boy’, ‘Early Girl’, ‘Homestead’ (an heirloom variety) ‘Juliet’, and ‘Cherry Belle’ cherry tomatoes.
For the crops that he does grow in the ground – such as some small fruits – he highly discourages the use of tillers, because over time, they can deteriorate soil structure. Instead, he swears by a broad fork hoe that breaks up soil to loosen heavy clay without excessively tilling the soil too fine, which can cause it to erode more by wind or water.
He even grows the “three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash) in 30-gallon tubs. Corn, beans, and squash are referred to as the “three sisters” because they work together to ensure they all thrive. They do this with corn serving as a vertical support for the bean to grow up with squash acting as a ground cover to retain soil moisture and keep weeds down; additionally, beans fix nitrogen to provide a natural “fertilizer” in the soil for corn and squash to thrive.
Jared gardens in rows on permeable black mesh grow fabric that allows water to drain through it and eliminates the unending task of weeding. He notes that he has fewer insect pest problems growing plants in containers placed on the fabric. Plants are watered by a drip irrigation system consisting of micro-irrigation tubes connected to PVC pipes. This is a system that would be easy to use a backyard garden.
Since container plantings can dry out fast in the high heat of summer, I asked him how he keeps the soil from getting too dry between waterings. He said that selecting a growing site that is shaded in late afternoon by a farm building is a big help.
While he currently gardens and farms full-time, he had worked for about seven years as a manager of a pest control business, which he later owned and operated. He said working with those pesticides led to a “road to Damascus” moment when he went back to full-time growing and farming because he realized he was on the wrong path and needed to greatly limit the use of chemical inputs in his gardening and farming and grow as sustainably and as organically as possible.
While still growing and farming full-time, Jared decided to go back to school a few years ago and in May of this year, he will receive an associate’s degree in applied science for horticulture from Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City. Why, with all of his years of growing experience, would he find this program helpful? Jared said he initially wanted to just gain more knowledge about his personal growing operations. However, as his outlook broadened, it also awoke a passion for spreading the importance of horticulture and its impact on our everyday lives. That passion led to his founding and serving as board president and lead developer of The F.R.E.S.H Foundation, a non-profit teaching farm and farm incubator, which enables graduating college horticulture students to begin farming without crippling debt.
He said at this point in his life he wants to help the next generation and will further work to develop the foundation and its educational programs that teaches growers how to successfully grow and market their crops. This will lead, he hopes, to them helping others pass down their Oklahoma farms and land to future generations.