Local Gardener Cites Rim Country Challenges

LIVING

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The first thing most diehard gardeners do when they show you around is to apologize for something that isn't quite growing like it should.

For Diether Koerner, it is a small lawn with some big brown patches in it.

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Star Valley gardener Diether Koerner is justifiably proud of his homemade compost, produced from kitchen garbage, straw, trimmings and grass clippings -- "anything that isn't deceased." Koerner also keeps two goats for manure.

"I got some grass seed that's called buffalo grass," he said, "but there was some clover in it and it took over. "I sprayed with Weed Be Gone, and after two weeks the clover curled up, but it didn't die. I sprayed it again, but it was too much."

Koerner's Star Valley home, which sits on a parcel a little larger than an acre, is one of six featured on the 2003 Mogollon Garden Tour.

The tour takes place Saturday, June 7, from 8 a.m. to noon, and Sunday, June 8, from noon to 4 p.m.

Koerner, a native of Germany, and his wife, Eileen, built their house nine years ago when they moved here from the Valley to retire. Originally a pastry baker, Koerner spent many years in the insurance business.

Gardening has always been a passion of the Koerners, but the Rim country has proven to be a challenge.

"When we came up here, we thought we could change the world," Koerner said. His wife, who hails from Minnesota, finished the thought.

"We came here and it was cool and we thought, ‘You can plant all these things and they're just going to grow,'" she said. "But it's not like Minnesota."

The Koerners are just a bit modest about their gardening accomplishments, because you don't make the Mogollon Garden Tour with a garden that is less than spectacular.

Their garden features lots of native junipers, pines and chaparrals, supplemented with a cornucopia of annuals and perennials to add splashes of color.

And speaking of splashes, the Koerners have a beautiful pond and fountain area plus cherry, weeping peach, apple and other fruit trees -- and even a special breed of oak tree from Germany.

But just as interesting as his garden, is Koerner's philosophy of Rim country gardening based on the area's less than ideal conditions.

"Water is one thing," he said. "This is arid country -- Arizona.

"And then this is all gravel -- there are big rocks under here. The water doesn't hold in it unless you really mulch, and mulch, and mulch, and mulch again."

Koerner has two goats for mulch from manure. They serve the dual purpose of entertainment for the grandkids.

He also has an area in the back forty where he makes his own compost.

"I use anything organic," he said, "anything that isn't deceased -- kitchen garbage, straw, grass clippings. It only takes about two weeks in the summer.

"There are enough nutrients in the soil -- even in the gravel. But it doesn't hold that water. You need something organic to hold that water."

And to make the water go farther, Koerner built a custom drip system which "definitely saves water." He also uses wastewater from his house to water the lawn.

Another gardening issue in the Rim country is a wide range of climates.

"You have so many micro-climates," Koerner said. "This is probably one of the coldest spots in the Payson area."

"We had a big frost last Saturday night," his wife added. "It's because we're lower than the people up there."

The Koerner's home is at 4,600 feet. Payson is at 5,000. Koerner explained the apparent contradiction.

"Here the cold settles on a calm day," he said. "On a stormy, windy day we're probably a little warmer than Payson."

Koerner plants some vegetables, but hasn't had much luck, primarily because he lives on the edge of the forest.

"There is so much wildlife here," he said. "As soon as the carrots come up the rabbits shave them off. The elk come in and strip all the leaves off the trees. We also get deer and quail."

Koerner's advice for those who would like to try their hand at gardening in the Rim country? In a word, xeriscape.

"Unless you have your own well, that's the way to go," he said. "Otherwise, it's too expensive."

He also recommends planting "mostly natives. Don't be blinded by what they advertise," he said.

Knowing what he knows now about the challenges of gardening in the Rim country, he would do it again if he were starting over.

"Our kids have something to do with it," he said. "They live down in the Valley, and this way we don't live in their back yard. They can come up here and have quality time with us."

Besides, when the rigors of gardening start to get to him, Koerner simply retreats to his woodshop, where he makes cabinets and all kinds of other complex things out of wood -- including a Noah's ark complete with pairs of wooden animals.

Koerner is also an inventor of sorts. He has a patent on a piece of playground equipment that looks kind of like a three-dimensional rope ladder."It looked so ugly when I made it, but the next day I came home and the kids were using it as a helicopter," he said.

The tour

You can see Koerner's invention when you take the self-guided garden tour. Besides Koerner's garden, others on the Rim Area Gardeners tour this year include:

  • The Roehr Garden in Diamond Point, a year-round extravaganza thanks to a "banana belt location" and a greenhouse.
  • Spirit River Ranch in Star Valley, a bed and breakfast featuring several gardens that incorporate the principles of feng shui.
  • Gila Community College, featuring an excellent example of nature-friendly water-wise techniques like roof-water harvesting and use of native plants.
  • The Harman Garden in Payson, combining vegetable and flower gardening in a small area using raised beds.
  • The Bohlmeyer Garden in Payson, utilizing natural rock formations to highlight roses and many interesting and practical low water-use plants.

Tickets for the tour are $5 and are available at Ace Hardware, Plant Fair Nursery, Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, Payson Public Library, Pine Library and at each garden during the tour.

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