Life

This couple's small Cedar Rapids backyard garden is a jungle of tasty produce

Vertical gardening helps grow a lot in the small space

CEDAR RAPIDS — Sub and Pat Drahos don’t have grass in their backyard. Instead, they have rows and rows of onions, spinach, radishes, peppers, broccoli and more, bordered by tall wooden trellis frames supporting tomatoes, cucumbers and beans.

The backyard of this southeast side house is just 22 by 30 feet, but it grows enough produce to feed the Drahos family and their five children who live in the area, support a robust canning effort and still have enough to donate excess produce to Mission of Hope.

“You can fit a massive amount in a small amount of space,” Sub said.

The beans and cucumbers — he grows two cucumber varieties: one for eating fresh, one for pickling — grow on A-frame trellises, tall enough to walk under for easy harvesting. He also has 12 large square trellises in two neat rows, with four tomato plants clustered inside each frame, one tomato variety per frame.

“I just keep adding stuff to get more out of less area,” Sub said.

A labor of love

He builds all the wooden trellises himself, to his own design. He also makes and sells them by order from his garage workshop each spring.

The couple moved into the house on Cedar Rapids’ southeast side in 1981 and started the garden soon after. Sub said his skills have grown since then, along with the plants. He keeps a careful register of every growing season, including what varieties he’s planted, their care and what kind of yield they’ve given. That can change depending on the weather and growing conditions each year.

“I grade my tomatoes every year, from best to worst,” Sub said. “Which ones do well changes year to year.”

He flips where the tomatoes grow each summer.

“I’m a rotation farmer, just like my dad,” he said.

Sub was born on a farm west of Mount Vernon and got a start as a child in the big kitchen garden his parents had there. His father’s rule, he said with a laugh, was you had to be 5 years old before you could ride the tractor.

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His father grew corn, oats and beans on hilly ground, and Sub said he planed in furrows to prevent erosion.

“It was new then, and Dad called it ‘rotation contour farming,’” he said.

An array of vegetables

This year’s garden includes six pepper varieties — three sweet, three hot — huge zucchini plants, pole beans, creeping melon vines and feathery asparagus plants.

Not every gardening experiment is successful. The couple tried growing sweet corn this year only to have the plants decimated by raccoons. Next year they plan to go back to the ornamental tall corn they’ve grown along their back fence in years past.

Pat enjoys eating fresh cherry tomatoes straight off the vine.

“You can’t get tomatoes in the store,” she said.

The flavor just doesn’t compare, she emphasized. That’s part of what inspires the couple to can huge batches of homemade tomato sauce and salsas, along with cans of tomato juice and whole tomatoes.

Sub just put up 14 quarts of hot pickles for the season, using cucumbers, hot peppers and dill from the garden.

They also can pickled relish and green beans, freeze produce and dry hot peppers with a dehydrator.

“I like not having processed food,” Pat said. “I like knowing where my stuff comes from.”

For weed control he uses wood mulch and grass clippings. All that mulch has made his soil lean to the acidic side, he said.

“Which makes it good for everything but onions. My onions are small.”

That doesn’t stop them from curing bunches of them to use in the winter.

He doesn’t fertilize the plants, but does add a spoonful of Miracle Grow to a watering can when he hand waters his tomato plants. He’s only had to do that a few times this summer, pouring water directly onto the plant’s base. He prunes the bottom leaves and suckers from the tomatoes, encouraging them to grow tall and preventing blight. As the plants grow, he ties them to the trellis with pieces of old T-shirts, which are both strong and have some give to keep the stems from breaking.

‘It’s good therapy’

Caring for all this bounty takes time but is a labor of love.

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“I think it’s good therapy. It keeps you out of trouble. I like to watch things grow, especially since I start them from scratch,” he said.

“Winter is tough,” he added.

To fight the seasonal blues, he peruses seed catalogs and plans out what varieties to plant in the winter.

He grows most of the plants from seed in his garage, which is heated, with a wide ledge next to sunny windows. The garage was their own design, and though Sub laments that building it took up some of his garden space, he enjoys the workshop space that lets him start gardening a little earlier in the year. Similarly, the large deck they added off the back of their house ate into the garden, but it also provides the perfect place to enjoy the garden, a spot to sit in the evenings with a bloody mary made from the tomato juice they can each summer.

“We really enjoy the outside,” Pat said. “For a small yard, we really get a lot out of it.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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