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Self made Vermont: A 20-year garden oasis

Posted June 26, 2012

Faith Ingulsrud (right) and Eric Avildsen have spent 20 years building an extensive garden at their home in Underhill. In this picture taken last week, they stand before a vegetable bed on the lower level of the terraced garden. / GLENN RUSSELL / Free Press

Burlington Free Press: Phyl Newbeck June 23, 2012

It’s not as though Faith Ingulsrud and Eric Avildsen have a lot of spare time on their hands.

Ingulsrud is the planning coordinator at Vermont’s Department of Economics, Housing and Community Development and Avildsen is the executive director of Vermont Legal Aid. Still, this Underhill couple takes their gardening seriously. They have built a series of arced, terraced walls to create three distinct layers of gardens at their Cilley Hill Road home. Ingulsrud chronicles their efforts in her blog, Zone 4 Zest.

The couple bought their house 22 years ago and immediately set out to improve on both the dwelling and the yard. The house with southern exposure had only two small windows facing out, so they removed the front wall and put on an addition, as well as a porch. The two windows were replaced with 11 larger ones, resulting in significant solar gain.

Creating the garden took longer and eventually required the help of a neighbor with an excavator. The bottom level of the garden is vegetables, followed by a collection of perennials which provides good ground cover and habitat for a variety of creatures, including insect pollinators. The next level used to be a tidier collection of perennials until Ingulsrud realized her energy for them was waning while her interest in food was growing. The result is what she describes as a Mediterranean garden with herbs, in close proximity to the kitchen.

A planner in both her professional and personal life, Ingulsrud starts perusing seed catalogs in January to come up with a blueprint for the garden. The beds are rotated annually and at this juncture the couple has more than 100 species in the garden. Slug patrol is performed by a trio of geese who also provide the couple with eggs.

Growing year-round

The latest addition to the property is a hoop house which was built against a stone wall to provide thermal mass. The root cellar is built into the slope in the middle of the hoop house, ensuring that only one path has to be cleared through the snow in the winter.

According to Avildsen, one of the keys to their success is bringing certain plants inside at the end of the growing season.

“In the winter our house is solid green,” said Avildsen. “Every window and sliding door has a plant in front of it.”

One interesting twist is the couple’s polycultural plots. Dill, cilantro, radishes and lettuce, which will be ready in the early summer, share a plot with cabbage, Brussels sprouts and parsnips, which will emerge later in the season.

Ingulsrud has successfully experimented with more unusual plants such as miniature kiwis, Meyer lemons and limes. Avildsen bakes bread every week and the couple grow poppies for their seeds. They even have a small plot of lemon grass for Asian recipes.

“I’m not a tidy gardener,” said Ingulsrud, “but having some formality in the vegetable garden helps for maintenance and making you want to be there. This is where I come down first thing in the morning. Maintenance isn’t a chore; it happens.”

“We were eating lettuce in March,” said Avildsen. “The hearty greens wintered-over and we had asparagus a month before everyone else. Right now we buy virtually no vegetables from the supermarket except for the occasional ingredient.”

The couple tries to avoid growing surplus, planting only enough for their needs and what can be stored in the root cellar. “We pick food from April into the winter,” Ingulsrud said. “We’ve done a good job if we can go into December.”