Inside Lance Swigart’s adobe home there’s a delicious aroma of drying stalks of grain, bushels of garlic, recently-harvested apples and pears. And on this particular autumn morning, fresh-baked bread made from the wheat, rye, spelt, amaranth, and kamut he’s grown, harvested, threshed, cleaned and hand-ground into flour. Even the bread’s poppy seeds come from the flowers in his garden.
On an acre of land outside of Hotchkiss, Colorado, the wiry 58-year-old grows enough fruits, vegetables, grains and beans at 6,200 feet elevation to feed himself year-round. Surrounded by Rocky Mountain juniper, sagebrush and pinon pine, wintertime temperatures there often hover below freezing. “I want things to stay frozen,” Lance says. “A colder winter means less bugs in the spring.”
Wearing a straw hat to protect his face from the high desert sun, Lance gives visitors a tour of his famous North Fork Valley garden, started in 1979. A former “California beach boy” who grew up in San Clemente, Lance says he always wanted to grow his own food. Tea, salt, a few condiments, cheese, butter, and rolled oats are the only food items he purchases. Everything else is grown from seed he’s saved from his organic garden.
It’s September, and a lovely willow fence bordering the garden is covered with grapevines that have spread to a nearby mulberry tree. Golden calendula flowers pop against a lush green field that includes spinach, kale, bush beans, beets, cucumbers, and melons. Pink and orange zinnias grow tall in a bed of squash. “The butterflies and hummingbirds like the seeds, so I just leave them,” says Lance. Sunflowers grow companionably alongside cornstalks. “It makes everybody grow taller” as both plants reach for the sunlight, making it harder for raccoons to snag the lower ears of corn, says Lance.
An electric solar-powered fence keeps out the deer, porcupines, skunks and rabbits. An old-time remedy of saved urine (his), mixed 50-50 with water sprayed around the garden’s perimeter works pretty good, too, he adds.
Lance eats vegetables from his garden all winter long although he doesn’t can anything. He’s found simpler ways to preserve his food. In late October before the ground freezes, he digs a trench in the garden 12 inches deep, 16 inches wide, and 13 feet long where he places a mix of carrots, beets, radishes and kohlrabi. He covers the vegetables with straw or leaves, then dirt, followed by bales of hay. “Every two weeks, I dig up enough veggies for the house,” he says, for a winter salad of sliced cabbage, grated carrots, beets, onions, garlic and radishes dressed with Celtic salt, oil and vinegar. “I’m planning a root cellar at some point. The hole is dug.”
Other produce like potatoes, onions, garlic and winter squash are kept through the winter in what he calls his “garden room,” a tiny straw bale house intended originally as a meditation room until he needed the space. Here he also stores years’ worth of seeds he’s collected in five-gallon buckets and miscellaneous glass jars, each one labeled and dated.
In his house, gallon jars full of dried apples, apricots, pears, peaches, and raisins hold last year’s harvest. He freezes raspberries, but not much else. In a spare bedroom, five-gallon buckets store several varieties of grains and beans. These include pintos, black, Montezuma reds, Roma, Swedish browns, Anasazi, Sonoran gold, scarlet runner and cranberry beans. “I eat grains and beans year-round,” says Lance, who became a vegetarian 35 years ago.
“I eat popcorn year-round also. I store it on the cob. I take it off as I pop it. All grains store better on the seed head.”
Lance sows seeds continuously throughout the growing season: cilantro is planted every 10 days. Snap peas and pintos are planted in mid-July. A final crop of greens is started in early August. He plants the first of four 600-square-foot carrot beds during the last week of March. “I eat one a day,” he says, as he pulls a giant carrot from the ground, brushes off the dirt and takes a bite. Locals refer to his carrots as “candy” because of their sweetness.
From late March through mid-November, Lance works outside – whether it’s ten- to twelve-hour days in his garden, or doing yard maintenance for income. He also sells his produce locally to natural food markets.
His annual gift of dried fruit disappears fast among shelves of canned goods at a local food bank. Lance gives lettuce and other greens to the Kids’ Pasta Project, a weekly community dinner in Hotchkiss that raises money for charitable causes. He also donates vegetables to the Loving Spoonful Community Dinner in Paonia, a weekly gathering he attends during the summer when days are long.
Lance laughs when asked if he’s ever bored – he doesn’t own a computer, television or stereo – though he does listen to the local community radio station on a small radio in the kitchen. “Never,” he answers. “There’s plenty to do. And the night sky’s pretty nice. During the day, I listen to the birds, insects or just the silence.” Plus, there are friends to visit and potlucks to attend. He uses a land line, but doesn’t own a cell phone.
During winter after the garden has been put to bed, he collects firewood, cross-country skis in nearby Crested Butte or Gunnison, reads, chops wood, cleans seeds, go for walks and bakes bread. He also meditates each morning and evening.
Check out seeds
“I started saving seed ten to fifteen years ago,” says Lance. “I learned where to take it from the plant to increase production. There are some tricks to saving seed, such as growing enough of a particular crop to discourage in-breeding, and growing only one variety at a time to avoid cross-pollination.”
Earlier this year, at the behest of the Hotchkiss Public Library, Lance started teaching his technique to the public. “It really lined up well with what we’re trying to do,” says Kit Stephenson, the Delta County Library regional manager. “Getting people to start saving their seed.” In March, the library began checking out seeds to patrons, hoping they would plant, then later harvest their seeds and donate back to the library.
“We were inspired by the Basalt Library [after its seed library was featured last year on National Public Radio],” says library staffer Sarah Pope.
Seed libraries have sprouted up at public libraries across the country in the past 10 years in an effort to preserve the genetic and cultural diversity of plants. To get started building its own seed library, the Hotchkiss branch held a seed swap in January, and began collecting seeds over a three-month period from patrons and seed companies specializing in heirloom and open-pollinated varieties.
Lance shares his gardening knowledge every Tuesday at 6:30 pm during a program called “As the Worm Turns” aired on KVNF Community Radio in Paonia. “Someone else came up with that name,” says Lance. “I’m not that comical.” e