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West Jordan Journal

When Pinterest fails: real gardening tips that actually work in West Jordan

May 17, 2017 04:56PM ● By Natalie Conforto

The Olers’ “food forest” spans the south end of their backyard. From fruit trees to medicinal herbs to root vegetables, everything is edible. The forest is mostly dormant in the cold weather, but herbs grown here are still potent in the winter.

By Natalie Conforto | [email protected]

Sarah Oler, a stay-at-home-mother of four in West Jordan, cultivates her garden as a hobby, a true food source and a way to teach her boys some table manners. She has found methods to make her backyard blossom as the rose, even in this tough, rocky West Jordan soil that has foiled many a hopeful local gardener. Her secret is letting nature’s recycling program do the work, with a little help from manure, eggshells and worms.

How many 5-year-olds voluntarily eat asparagus? Oler has found that when her boys watch something grow in the garden, or better yet, harvest it themselves, they are more likely to eat it when it appears on their plates for dinner.

“I love that they can just pick some asparagus to eat when they want a snack,” Oler said. “I don’t think we’ve ever brought raspberries into the house—they all get eaten in the backyard,”

The Olers have 15 raspberry canes, which they keep productive all summer by mulching often with the pruned clippings of their own fruit trees. This sustainable cycle keeps expenses low and yield high.

A “food forest” spans the south end of the Olers’ backyard, where perennial plants grow basically maintenance-free, supporting each other in their own ecosystem. Unlike annual garden plants, which stifle each other when grown too closely together, the plants in the food forest thrive in close proximity, mimicking a real forest. It contains a larger canopy of apple and cherry trees, a sub-canopy of larger shrubs and bushes such as goji berries, gooseberries, valerian and roses, medicinal herbs including comfrey, oregano, and thyme, groundcovers of strawberries, caledula and mallow, and root crops of onions, carrots and beets.

“Mother nature likes to keep herself covered,” Oler said, citing that groundcovers help retain water and suppress unwanted weeds.

Four garden boxes line the Olers’ north backyard, where they grow typical annual garden plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce and kale. In the winter, they let everything naturally erode rather than yanking out all the dead plants. Leaving the plants intact helps to preserve the soil structure, while pulling them out would collapse the networks created by the roots and stems. Dried husks of last year’s tomato plants are still evident in March. When planting time arrives after Mother’s Day, Oler will prepare her beds by going through with a shovel and breaking up the soil and dried stems, which will just add to the soil makeup for this year.

“Don’t till your soil,” Oler said. “Just gently fold in soil additives so that your soil structure remains intact and microorganisms can thrive. The microorganisms are what give you healthy soil.”  

The Olers don’t have to shell out the cash for fancy compost. Instead, they make their own.

“I’m not a vegetable farmer; I’m a soil farmer,” Oler said, adding that she couldn’t emphasize enough how important compost is for her soil. The Olers keep an empty 5-quart size ice cream tub on their kitchen counter, where they deposit leavings such as banana and orange peels, peach pits and overripe fruits and veggies. Every couple of days, Oler will empty the waste into one of her “worm tubes” in her garden boxes, or bury it in her garden compost trench, adding shredded newspaper or dead leaves as a carbon to balance with the nitrogen of the food waste. The food in the tubes attracts the worms that are already in her yard, and their “castings,” (ahem, poop) further enhance the soil. Months later, the waste will decompose into fine compost. For more information on worm tubes, visit

“Don’t throw away any of your organic matter,” Oler said. She doesn’t even toss her weeds. Instead, she lays plucked weeds back onto the soil and allows nature to devour them, incorporating their substance into rich compost.

Eggshells are another part of Oler’s soil nutrient regimen. Each week, one of her boys is tasked with smashing the eggshells left after breakfast into a 5-gallon bucket in the garage. By early April, the bucket is half full of fine eggshell bits, and ready to be scattered into the garden beds. Oler said that the eggshells “add calcium, and help prevent blossom-end rot in tomatoes.”

Oler explained how she enriches her compost for free.

“In West Jordan, there are plenty of horse properties, and many people are willing to give away their manure,” she said. “Just make sure that it’s been sitting there for a full year, and it will be superfine and light: the perfect top layer for planting seeds or starter plants.” Oler knows the manure is ready for her garden when it doesn’t give off that barnyard fragrance.

Oler’s methods not only economize the available organic matter from her yard, but they also conserve her family’s budget. She has found that her harvest-time grocery bills are significantly lower, and her family of six feasts on fresh, nutritious produce all summer long.  


Backyard gardener Sarah Oler recommends these gardening holidays.

New Year’s Day

Order seeds

Plan your garden plots

Valentine’s Day

Prune your trees and save the prunings

Start tomato and pepper seeds indoors

St. Patrick’s Day

Start watermelon and cucumber seeds indoors


Prepare garden beds:

·      Roughly chop dried stalks, organic matter with a shovel

·      Empty worm towers and replace in the ground

·      Add any soil amendments like crushed eggshells

·      Sprinkle on other organic matter such as fall leaves, dried grass stalks and deciduous tree prunings (not pine) cut into short twigs

·      Top dress with a few inches of manure compost

·      Plant cool climate crops: peas, carrots, garlic, onions, lettuces, spinach, broccoli, kale (mid-April)

Mother’s Day

·      The week before planting, harden off seedlings grown indoors

·      Water your seedlings well and plant into the garden. Make sure the soil in the pot is level with the garden soil.

·      For tomatoes, remove bottom set of leaves and plant your seedling 1–2 inches below the next set of leaves.

·      Plant zucchini, winter squash, green beans, cucumbers, melons, indoor seedlings and any other vegetable seeds

·      Water well

·      When plants emerge, add mulch such as older grass clippings, leaves, straw or untreated wood chips