Local couple has over 300 species planted in three acres on their property, Mountain Jewel
Editor’s note: Wren Haffner and Ini Giesbrecht love connecting with locals and those interested in growing food, medicinal offerings or other plants. They also sell a wide variety of seeds and plants, including many unique varieties they grow. Email them at OzarkMountainJewel@gmail.com. To find out more about the couple and to follow along with their homesteading life, visit their website, OzarkMountainJewel.com.
Gardeners: Wren Haffner and Ini Giesbrecht of Gainesville. (Wren provided answers to the Garden Spotlight questions, with help from Ini.) Our property, Mountain Jewel, is located in the Ozark Plateau bioregion, Bryant Creek watershed, along Caney Creek off FF Highway. We own 18 acres but actively cultivate around 3.
Describe your garden:
We have about a quarter-acre of intensive cultivation, including a high tunnel filled with warm-season annuals and perennials.
It has taken a lot of rock removal and soil building to be able to grow food here on our rocky ridgetop. Our rock piles get bigger every year, but so do our yields!
We lay out mounded permanent beds 2 feet wide with 1-foot pathways. Here we grow the bulk of the annuals we eat and put up, like potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, beans, squash, sweet potatoes, etc.
We do many trials with new crops each year and are always trying to find varieties that thrive in our conditions (which means low-fertility and low-humus soil, hot and dry summers with wet springs typically).
Cow peas, or ripper beans as they’re sometimes called, have been very impressive in their ability to grow vigorously in droughty conditions, and we grow them for food as well as a cover crop.
Amaranth is another drought-hardy annual we grow that yields a lot of high protein seeds in rugged conditions.
We grow plenty of no-fuss staples like sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, okra, tomatoes, leeks and potatoes, as they meet our needs relatively easily.
Each year we also make sure to grow flowers to add the touch of beauty in the gardens.
We also prioritize eating weeds and wild greens that require nothing of us beyond harvesting. Herbs like purslane and lambsquarter are great green, hot-weather crops that do very well with no attention from us. In spring, we love harvesting nettles and watercress.
We also have sprawling forest gardens over a wider area of perhaps 3 acres. These are designed to mimic natural forest ecosystems by including many layers of habitat such as roots, understory, vining, shrub and canopy. Just as one finds communities of associated forbs (herbs), shrubs, trees and fungi in wild areas, we are seeking to duplicate that here by showcasing hardy select perennials and choice natives, when applicable.
We grow pawpaws, persimmons, several kinds of blackberries, skirret, heirloom roses, blueberries, many kinds of raspberries, currants, mulberries, elderberries, chestnuts, apples, plums, pears, aronia, elder and more. The list is very extensive and grows every year. We have over 300 species so far. Over time, less input will be required of us as the perennial systems evolve.
We are in our fifth year here and are establishing a plant nursery focused on edible native perennials with a highlight of pawpaws. To learn more about our efforts, check out our website, www.ozarkmountainjewel.com. We also raise ducks and bees in our gardens. So, in addition to the produce, we harvest the flowers in the form of honey. The ducks transform grass and grubs into eggs and meat.
How long have you been gardening? Are you influenced by anyone?
We both began growing food (independently) while working on organic farms more than a dozen years ago. Throughout our 20s we both spent time working in various garden/farming endeavors, learning diverse styles, techniques and ecosystems.
What began as organic annual gardening was informed by our introduction to permaculture, a design system that emphasizes increasing ecosystem health while meeting human needs. It’s a framework for working within nature’s boundaries and making connections between members of the community, be they human, plant, fungal or otherwise. We have been experimenting with perennial food plants since moving to Ozark County four and a half years ago.
Ini responds: One of my great-grandfathers worked on horse-drawn wheat-threshing crews on the Canadian prairies and always kept a large garden, although I was too young to ever visit. He lived to 101.
My Oma (grandmother) always kept a big garden, and the most memorable times were spent picking luscious red raspberries that often ended up smashed into vanilla ice cream. I also remember swinging in a hammock beneath a crabapple tree. She used the crabapples to make jelly.
She made the best hash browns in her large cast iron pan with her homegrown spuds. On our land, we are establishing more raspberry plantings every year and have a crabapple we are using for propagation.
Wren responds: One of my grandfathers was a cattle farmer in Iowa during the Great Depression. He said they didn’t even feel the effects of the Great Depression because they were pretty self-sufficient on the farm. That type of thinking is definitely what fuels us! My mom also told me stories about how her Pa (her grandfather) would bring in squirrel and frog legs for the table in Indiana. We like to recover and highlight these wild food traditions by eating raccoon, armadillo, squirrel, deer and other wild meats.
Favorite thing to grow? How do you use it after it’s grown?
It’s tough to pin down one favorite. This year I’d have to say the winner is yardlong beans. They have been grown in Asia for centuries, but this is our first time growing them. Yardlong, a type of cowpea also known as asparagus bean, does very well in our hot climate here. We can harvest four to six regular “green beans” worth of food just from a pair of yardlong beans. We toss them into almost every meal in summer. Young, mature, steamed, fried… It’s all good and tasty. We will can some this week and see how they fare preserved that way.
Garden tips or tricks?
Our best tip is to take the rocks out and put soil where they used to be. Then you can grow food here.
In all seriousness, mulching has been one of the most useful tools for building soil, retaining moisture and suppressing weeds. We import as much organic matter as we can get our hands on, and we’ve seen great improvements in soil texture, water retention and life in the soil.
For our perennials, we mostly use woodchips or aged planer shavings over cardboard for major weed control.
For annuals, we use hay/straw (without seeds) or composted woodchips.
We also grow fertility plants (so named because they add fertility to the soil. They are also known as “dynamic accumulators”) like comfrey, indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa) and a host of cover crops (buckwheat, peas, ripper beans, clover, oats) to “chop and drop,” a method of mulching that is basically how it sounds, chopping up the fertility plants and then dropping them across the ground to mulch. Doing this adds biomass, builds soil over time and feeds the soil food web.
Along this same line, we employ a technique called lasagna gardening to create new garden areas. We put down layers of compost, some manure, cardboard (without staples and tape) and then top-dress with more mulch and more manure. It’s a great way to suppress weeds and give your back a break from digging out rocks in these Ozark hills. It’s an easy way to build gardens, and we recommend it!
What is your favorite part of gardening?
Perhaps the most rewarding part is sitting down to homegrown and cooked meals day after day. The satisfaction of eating summer’s bounty in the depths of winter certainly makes the hard work more manageable. It’s also great to share food with friends.
What is your least favorite part? Squash bugs! We have had a hard time with squash bugs decimating our summer and winter squash. These buggers suck the life out of the vines just when the fruit starts coming on. It’s hard to pull up suffering plants and see all the hard work gone. But it’s not lost if we can learn something from it. This year we’re trying a wider range of squash varieties, including different species (mainly moschata) and using types of gourds for summer squash. We are trying to find great Ozark winter squash heirlooms. So if you know of any, please connect with us.
Stories from the garden? When we first moved here and our gardens were still just a brushy field, our neighbors invited us to put in a garden down on their land. We put in tomatoes, potatoes and zucchini that year. It was one of our first experiences getting to know the kindness that typifies the Ozarks.