Len Pense teaches gardeners how to grow
more food with less work
| Len Pense put his skills as an engineer to good use
designing a raised bed system that lets him grow incredible produce
in a part of the state known for poor soil conditions. He shares
his skills with other gardeners through a series of five classes
Imagine a garden
where no weeds grow, where sweet potatoes tip the scales at 4 pounds,
where strawberries are as big as peaches and you can almost watch the
green beans growing. Now imagine you can do this in the middle of a
slab of concrete.
This dream is a reality
for Len Pense, a member of Southwest Electric Cooperative who lives
in the red clay hills near Strafford. When Len, a life-time gardener,
moved to Strafford he discovered that land in the Ozarks doesn’t
always come with soil.
“It won’t grow anything,” he
says. “It’s just clay
and rock and that’s all there is.”
Instead Len put his skills as an engineer to work designing a system that
allows Ozark gardeners to dramatically increase yields while at the same
time reducing the drudgery normally associated with gardening. Now he’s
teaching these skills in a unique outdoor classroom.
Len drew on the experience
of a friend who tried raised-bed gardening. “All
he had done was bring some good dirt in and piled it on top of the ground,” Len
recalls. “But he was having some pretty good luck with his stuff.
I thought, ‘OK,
that’s a start.’ “
He transformed an
old sandbox into a garden spot, filling it with peat moss and manure. “I
raised me the prettiest garden I’d ever had,” he
says. “I thought, ‘let’s refine this and see what we
can do with it.’ ”
soil in Len's raised beds include a mixture of peat moss, fertilizer,
compost, sand and charcoal.
Using common items
from hardware stores like concrete blocks, PVC pipe and cattle panels,
Len designed a system for gardening in raised beds. He claims his system
can grow four times the vegetables of a traditional garden with one-fourth
does is make gardening fun as well as rewarding. There’s
no weeds, so no hoe is needed. You don’t need any power equipment.
You can grow enough vegetables in a year to pay for everything you
bought to build that garden, and from then on it’s free.”
the heart of Len’s raised beds are walls built from concrete
blocks. He uses these for two reasons. First, they don’t
leach chemicals into the soil the way railroad ties or landscape
timbers would. They also have holes that he puts to good use.
4 feet Len cements a short piece of 1-1/4 inch PVC pipe into
the blocks. Smaller pipe can then be inserted, stiffened with No. 7
rebar and tied into a section of cattle panels that provides support
for tomatoes, corn and climbing plants.
For those who want
to get an early start curved sections of flexible plastic pipe can
instead be fitted into the holes to form a greenhouse. Or the plastic
sheeting can be traded for shade cloth to protect cold-weather crops
from harsh sun.
The bed lengths are
multiples of 16 feet because that is the length of cattle panels.
The raised beds are filled with Len’s own recipe for soil. Starting
with a peat-moss-based potting mixture, he adds fertilizer, compost,
wood ash, sand and charcoal to make a growing medium where just about
any plant can thrive. The soil stays moist and because he uses sterilized
ingredients few if any weeds ever get started.
|Len leads a
class demonstrating his garden techniques. The Strafford resident
made an off-hand offer to conduct workshops during an appearance
on a local radio program. By the end of the broadcast more than
50 students had called.
like a growing medium that any of your nurseries will use. This is
a permanent thing so I changed it to get the long-term ingredients
I needed to sustain growth.”
The loose soil mixture
lets Len slip his hand under potato plants to rob them of a few new
potatoes, like a farmer liberating a setting hen of a few eggs. “In
the past if youwanted some new potatoes for your peas
or green beans, you went ahead and dug the hill,” Len says. “But
you don’t have to do
that now. The soil is so loose you can noodle out your
new potatoes without hurting the vine.”
Len never gave much
thought to passing on his ideas when he designed his garden beds.
But when a Springfield horticulturist gave him a guest spot on
a radio show, he offered to teach classes on the method if any listeners
were interested. Before the show ended Len had signed up 57 students.
teaches one class on building raised beds and another on planning
“We don’t do rows anymore,” he says. “It’s
totally different but they’re loving it. And it darn
He encourages students
to consider what they want to plant and to plant in two-week
intervals so crops don’t come in all at once.
walls of Len’s raised beds are made with concrete blocks.
The blocks don’t leach chemicals into the soil the way railroad
ties or landscape timbers would.
the harvest begins Len plans to offer other classes,
including one on canning produce and another
about making jams and jellies. He also wants to offer
regular cooking classes. “So many people
now, if it doesn’t come out of a
box or can they don’t know what to do with
it. They don’t realize
if you cook them right they have flavors they’ve
never experienced before in their life.”
says he gardens because he’s concerned
about the safety of the food supply. “They
are using the type of stuff now that’s
been hybridized and genetically engineered
so that it will have a thick skin and ship
good. And all the taste is gone.”
nothing but heirloom seeds from Mansfield’s
Baker Creek Seed Company. These seeds come
from plants that have been passed down for
have some of the most wonderful flavors.
what I was raised on 60 or so years ago.”
of pesticides he plants onions, marigolds
and garlic to keep bugs away. An 8-foot fence keeps
deer out, and the squirrels that bury walnuts and
acorns in his loose soil are just a minor distraction.
“I grew up in the
Depression where if you didn’t garden you didn’t
have it,” says Len, who just turned
70. “We had a big family and
yes, we gardened. I wish my dad could see
what I am doing now. He wouldn’t
Len offers five gardening classes at $25 each or all five for $99.
To learn more, contact him at (417) 736-3251.