A garden that grows and grows

By LISA BRITTON Baker City Herald October 19, 2009 02:16 pm
Dale Story, 68, takes full advantage of plentiful warm days in Richland

Dale Story loves growing his own food and sharing his bounty. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins)
Dale Story disappears between the rows of trellised tomatoes, then emerges, in a bit of a crouch, with massive rosy heirlooms called Pink Caspian.

To his left grows some of the sweetest corn, and a little farther uphill are rows of juicy green grapes.

This garden, today bathed in the warmth of a late summer morning, is one of Dale’s favorite places.

His enthusiasm for gardening in contagious, too, and he can easily convince you that eggplant is pretty tasty — all you have to do is slice it, salt it for a few hours, then dip it in egg, coat it with cracker crumbs and cook in a pan lightly coated with olive oil.

Chances are, if you’ve ever stopped at the Baker City Farmers Market, you’ve visited with Dale, and maybe even tried the eggplant, or heirloom tomatoes he grows from seed, or that sweet corn.

“I really enjoy the market — meeting people and giving them good stuff,” he says.

And it all starts here, in a little warm valley near Richland.

Dale, 68, hesitates over the question of where he grew up.

Southern California, he says — then rushes to explain how he couldn’t wait to head north.

“I was a nature boy and a runner,” he says. “I wanted to get out of there and up to God’s country.”

He wanted to attend the University of Oregon, but the college didn’t offer a degree in fish and game.

“I wanted to run for Bill Bowerman,” he says.

Instead he went to Oregon State, where he set a record for running a mile in 4 minutes, 11 seconds.

“That was in 1959 — a long time ago,” he says.

And somewhere along the way he decided he wasn’t destined to be a wildlife biologist. He wanted to teach.

“One day it just clicked,” he says.

And thus began a 30-year career at Wallowa High School, where he taught biology, forestry, advanced biology and other subjects when needed.

But Wallowa’s weather and short growing season weren’t too conducive to Dale’s desire for a garden.

Of course, he still managed to grow some produce, which he shared with his students.

“The last five minutes of class, I’d pull out a watermelon and slice it up,” he says.

Then he and his wife, Paula, discovered the banana belt of Baker County.

“We stopped here one day and picked some peaches and grapes,” he says.

They moved to Richland in 1997.

“You can grow anything,” he says. “By mid-May we’re pretty frost-free.”

For example: carrots, beets, kohlrabi, onions, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, grapes, zucchini and asparagus.

The growing season even allows him enough warm days to replant after the first crop is finished, such as onions followed by zucchini.

“You can grow two crops in the same square foot of soil,” he says.

His garden is so prolific he can sell at the market, provide fresh tomatoes to Bella, El Erradero and The Little Pig in Baker City, and still have enough for his home use.

A peek in his pantry proves that his garden produces a bounty year after year.

“It’s enough for five years,” he says as he scans the shelves stocked with preserved meat and vegetables.

He dehydrates, too, and freezes veggies when everything is at the peak of freshness.

His sweet peppers, for instance, are sliced into chunks perfect for kabobs and then kept in the freezer.

“Then you’ve got really great stuff all year,” he says. “I like the idea of raising my own food, being self-sufficient.”

But he enjoys it all fresh, too.

“I love to cook. Every night is tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, kohlrabi. I just have a ball picking all this stuff.”

And as he harvests, he makes sure to collect seeds to save for next year — he’s been growing the same juicy heirloom tomatoes for years.

To save seeds from your favorite varieties, lay them out on newspaper or paper towels and air dry for at least two weeks.

Next, stick the seeds in an envelope and store it in a cool room until next spring.

Though he doesn’t run these days, he walks in the mornings and stays active in the winter with cross-country skiing.

He and Paula like to take cruises, too, and he grins at the mention of the smorgasbord available any time of day.

“I walk three to five miles on the deck,” he says with a smile.