Wild thumb, green dreams | VailDaily.com

Wild thumb, green dreams

Andrew Harley
Vail Daily/Preston Utley Rick Kaings waters his lettuce plants at the Brush Creek Community Gardens on Sunday in Eagle.
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Though every person has unique dreams, Rick Kangas’ dreams tend to be green. He once harbored a dream to grow heirloom tomatoes in our arid county, and he saw the dream through to fruition by growing 27 plants one year at the community gardens in Eagle County. It was a learning dream, as Kangas ended up with 400 pounds of green tomatoes because heirlooms require a longer growing season than exists in Eagle.”So now I’m a tomato lover who grows hybrids because I want them to ripen on the vine,” Kangas said.Kangas is among a select few who take advantage of the Brush Creek Community Gardens in Eagle.Kangas is the head chef at Grouse Mountain Grill in Beaver Creek. He comes from a farming family. His great-grandparents emigrated from Russia and Germany and settled in Montana – around Huntley and Warden – with farmland, where they grew sugar beets and corn and had gardens for the family. When he grew up in Montana, his family always had a garden at the house.”To me, the garden is just a miracle. It’s representative of life because some things make it, some things don’t. You coax some of them along, and they come through it,” Kangas said. “I go there every other day, and it just amazes me what’s transpired in 48 hours.”Community-garden historyThe community gardens were originally allotted a space that is now the Golden Eagle Senior Center. The county decided to build a high-rise for senior citizens in the land that was once for the community gardens.

“They wouldn’t let us garden there anymore. There was a big stink because we said, ‘Well, we want to garden here until you guys bring the dozers in,’ because they didn’t even have a plan for the building or anything. And we said we’d harvest up until the last minute,” Kangas said. “It was kind of funny. They said, ‘No. You’re not gardening here ever again.’ It was kind of like the Milagro Beanfield War.”Lucy Barker, who happened to be a senior citizen, was the manager of the garden at the time.”She tried to stick up for everybody, and we had a good thing going,” Kangas said. “You know, you don’t want to upset the soil and the things people have done over the years – the amenities and things that they’ve added.”At the time of the struggle for the original garden, Eagle Ranch was emerging. So the garden was moved to what is now across the street from Capitol Theater. And today it’s called the Brush Creek Community Garden.”It’s by the grace of the town (of Eagle) that it’s there,” said gardener Dean Kirkling. “So they should be credited for their participation.”It should also be noted that all of the refurbished beds are taken right now.”There are some other beds that could be refurbished, but we haven’t had time,” Kirkling said.Crops and garnish

As far as flowers and other fruits for the eyes, Master Gardeners hold down a lot of space to demonstrate what varieties will flourish in our Rocky Mountain climes.However, when it comes to vegetables, Kangas is king.”I guess they call me the king; the crazy guy. (It’s) because last year I had eight beds, not really because I wanted to have eight beds, but because they were beds that were open and I hate to see them go to seed or weeds,” Kangas said. “I have a friend down in New Castle who has a greenhouse, and usually, at this time of the year, she calls me up and says, ‘They’re going to the compost heap. If you want ’em, come and get ’em. They’re free.’ So I drive down there, and I pick up a truckload of vegetables and come back and just plant the beds that are open.”Kangas uses some of the extra vegetables at the restaurant, and he tries to get some of them to people who need it.As for the beds that Kangas tends specifically for Grouse Mountain Grill, they are mostly unusual herbs and vegetables, things that can’t be bought readily or stuff that, when Kangas grows it himself, tastes better.”It’s fresher than the stuff that we can buy off the market,” Kangas said. “Like arugula, for instance, has a real bright, peppery taste when we grow it, (compared to) what we can buy from our distributors.”Kangas does not appreciate certain bugs, marsupials and the occasional grazing deer.He likes to grow tomatilloes, greens, which he can clip on nearly a daily basis during the warmer months. And there is a lettuce that isn’t for sale on the market called “Deer Tongue,” which sprouts into the shape of a deer tongue and is green. But as the summer goes on, its hue reddens.In another bed, Kangas grows artichokes.

“Everybody just shakes their head or is in amazement that they grow up here,” Kangas said. “They’re actually a perennial, but not at this latitude because it gets way too cold for them. I’ve actually to mulch them and try to get them back every year, but they don’t come back. But they’re beautiful.”Last year, Kangas had 40 artichoke plants in one bed, and he probably only got a dozen artichokes off of them because of an early freeze.”That was very disheartening. So that’s one of the bad things about trying to grow at this latitude or in the mountains, is that we’re susceptible to early frosts and late, early frosts. Like the ones that come in early September sometimes, which took the whole crop,” said Kangas.This year, Kangas has only 18 artichoke plants planted, and he says it looks like they’re going to produce within the next two weeks.Kangas grows a French herb that can’t be bought here called borage, and green and black Japanese shisou mint. He grows many other varieties of mint, including apple, chocolate, pineapple, spearmint and peppermint. He is trying out 8-Ball Squash for the first time this year.”I’ve never seen it in the United States, but I’ve seen it a couple of times that I’ve gone to Europe,” said Kangas. “It’s a zucchini-type squash, or tastes like zucchini, but it grows in a pear shape. The first time I saw it was in Greece. They hollowed it out, stuffed it with lamb and rice and serve it whole baked in tomato sauce.”For more information on the Brush Creek Community Gardens, contact Dean Kirkling at 328-2174.Andrew Harley can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or at aharley@vaildaily.com.