WEST FARGO — Have you ever visited a home, stepped into the backyard and been completely unprepared for what greeted you? It happened to me recently when I visited Richard Witte.

Richard and his wife Leslie’s home is located in a neighborhood of equally neat, trim houses, and Witte’s front foundation plantings include pleasant flowers and a grape vine growing leisurely on a cleverly installed support system. But oh, the backyard.

A vegetable gardener’s dream-come-true greeted me as I walked from the front yard to the back. Richard’s garden ranks among the best tended and most innovative I’ve seen. The home is situated on an average-sized city lot, but the majority of the backyard is occupied by a vegetable garden and small greenhouse, with only a tiny area of lawn. His garden is about 2,500 square feet.

Richard’s gardening goes back to his days on the family farm near the southwestern North Dakota town of Regent, and like many families, gardens were a necessary food source. He went on to teach agriculture as a volunteer for his church in New Guinea, then farmed his grandfather’s homestead for a number of years before joining his church’s mission in the Central African Republic, where he worked in rural development. Richard and his wife have lived in their current West Fargo home since 1999.

Richard, 81, now spends about 20 hours a week in his vegetable garden, and his diligence and experience are evident. His methods offer solid examples that others can easily duplicate.

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Raspberries are enclosed in a walk-in structure covered with netting to keep out birds. David Samson / The Forum
Raspberries are enclosed in a walk-in structure covered with netting to keep out birds. David Samson / The Forum

For example, have you ever been frustrated that birds harvest your ripe raspberries shortly before you get a chance? Richard’s raspberries are planted alongside his garage and are covered with a walk-in structure constructed simply of PVC pipe and covered with bird netting.

The garden is surrounded by an efficient, sturdy 24-inch fence of easily assembled PVC pipe and fittings. The half-inch wire mesh fencing, fastened between the pipe frame, excludes even the smallest nibbling rabbits.

Richard Witte uses vertical structures for efficient vine crop space and to make easy picking of string beans. David Samson / The Forum
Richard Witte uses vertical structures for efficient vine crop space and to make easy picking of string beans. David Samson / The Forum

To make the best use of all available space, Richard grows vine crops like cucumbers and squash vertically, instead of letting the vines gobble up ground space. Plants grow vertically on frames constructed 6 feet high, occupying only a narrow footprint.

ARCHIVE: Read more of Don Kinzler's Growing Together columns

Picking string beans causes backaches for many of us. Richard has solved the problem by growing pole beans that climb vertically on steel fence posts. The tall-growing string beans are easily harvested while standing instead of stooping.

Nothing grows plants like nature’s rainwater. The age-old practice of collecting fresh water is making a resurgence, and Richard is doing it in a big way. The roof’s downspouts are connected to water tanks tucked mostly in unused space under the home’s deck. Several tanks together hold 900 gallons of fresh rainwater.

Tanks below the deck store 900 gallons of rainwater, stored for use with Richard Witte’s drip tape watering system. David Samson / The Forum
Tanks below the deck store 900 gallons of rainwater, stored for use with Richard Witte’s drip tape watering system. David Samson / The Forum

Richard uses an automatic watering system to pump the stored rainwater to heavy drip tape buried slightly below the soil surface along the rows of vegetables. Watering only the soil, instead of overhead sprinkling, greatly reduces disease problems.

To control weeds, the garden is mulched with clippings from lawns that haven’t been sprayed with herbicide. Hoeing weeds while small and not letting weeds go to seed greatly reduce future weed problems as well.

Richard improves his garden’s soil by spreading 3 inches of leaves over the surface and rototilling them in each fall at the season’s end. During the winter, Richard starts most of his own plants under lights indoors and moves them to a small greenhouse in early April.

Richard Witte uses a backyard greenhouse to start plants. David Samson / The Forum
Richard Witte uses a backyard greenhouse to start plants. David Samson / The Forum

Their garden supplies Richard and Leslie with vegetables for the entire year. He also shares his bounty of fresh produce with Churches United for the Homeless and several elderly friends who no longer are able to garden.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at kinzlerd@casscountynd.gov or call 701-241-5707.