Home Garden Interview with Catherine Long Gates

Interview with Catherine Long Gates

She’s been farming since her first baby steps and today credits her success to flexibility and the ability to “go with the flow.” Photo by Cliff Grassmick

By Carol Brock

Q. Let’s talk about the history of Long’s Gardens. Your grandfather, J.D. Long, originally started the gardens as an extension of his seed business?

A. He was like a lot of people who came to Colorado in the late 1890s. He had tuberculosis. He worked at various jobs, but got a job in downtown Boulder at a variety story named Noah’s Ark.

It was in quite a few places, but ended up at 2043 Broadway, just north of Savory Spice. They never owned a building, just rented. He got a job as a clerk and saw a lot of potential to improve things, especially the seeds and the bulbs, because there wasn’t a lot of that going on. In 1905, he had a chance to purchase the business with a silent partner, I.T. Earle, the Earle House on Broadway that was a B&B for a while, he was an early-day mayor or Boulder and a man of means, so he backed my grandfather. In 1908 he changed the name to JD Long Seed Company because he shifted the emphasis and thought, ‘If I put my name on it, I’ll want to live up to it.’ He came from a farm background, but my father told me that Woolworth’s actually came to Boulder in 1908 and that was a great impetus to find another niche rather than compete. I always tell people about that, cause it’s really no different than today because Woolworth’s was the Big Box store of that era and it was moving into town and the little retailer was threatened. So his way of coping with that was to find a specialty to fill.

She’s been farming since her first baby steps and today credits her success to flexibility and the ability to “go with the flow.” Photo by Cliff Grassmick
Photo by Cliff Grassmick

So he got heavily into flower and vegetable seeds and sold locally, but immediately started building up a mail-order business because they weren’t a lot of people around here back then. And that’s what he really built the business on was the mail order and he had a mail-order catalog. He didn’t have a lot of physical strength because of the TB, but he was a very gifted writer and very folksy. So he sent out this catalog with all kinds of gardening advice. He loved alliteration and there were things like, Pansy Pointers, Glad Gossip and Dahlia Don’ts in the catalog, and people really ate up that stuff because in the early 1900s, mail was pretty important—people weren’t getting a lot of information and so they glommed onto things like that. So it really built quite a business.

In 1916, he realized he needed space to grow more of what he was selling, because he was buying things from other growers and also his family was growing, and he needed a bigger house, so they bought the place here in 1916. He said in his catalog, ‘we bought a place north of town,’ and we’re only a mile north of town! But people were still riding horses back and forth then. He and his wife purchased 3 acres and bought more when they could. Over the years we’ve sold a few parcels, like where the recreation center is now, but we still have 25 acres, which is a lot in the middle of the city, and to be a farm. So over the years, the seed business remained. My grandfather became very interested in gladiolas and that became our main crop. He became quite an expert and was known worldwide for gladiolas, but they’re very labor intensive. You have to harvest them every fall and store them, and then replant them. They’re bulbs from more tropical climes originally, so they couldn’t survive the winter here. So the irises were a part of things, but a smaller part. When my dad took over the business in the ’40s, he started phasing out the glads and doing more with the irises, because they were much less labor intensive, much more drought tolerant, and the glads—also to grow them without a lot of chemicals—you have to grow them on new ground, which meant we were leasing ground out in the county and it became less agricultural. So we transitioned out of the glads and eventually out of the seeds, so ’69 was the last year we sold seeds or glads and became exclusively irises. In recent years, we’d love to diversify a little more, but the last 20 years or so, especially the last 25, the deer have kind of kept us from doing that. They’re such a nuisance, and we have a great concentration of them that like to live here with us. Irises are sort of toxic and they tend to leave them alone.

So unless we want to get into a lot of fencing and everything, we’re a little bit limited. We think about that, though, because basically growing one crop, mono cropping is not the most sustainable system. So we do a lot of rotation, keeping fields fallow and putting in a lot of cover crops. We can’t even keep our huge vegetable garden we used to have in the field, because it’s just feeding the deer. It’s interesting how much more wildlife we have as we have become more urban. When I was kid, we didn’t see deer in town, or foxes. We had skunks and raccoons and rabbits, maybe, but we certainly didn’t have mountain lions or bears. I think with the deer, a lot of it was when we had such an expansion of people moving into the foothills and the deer were displaced, and once they moved into town, it was like, ‘whoa, gourmet smorgasbord!’ Once the deer start breeding and having their young here, it imprints that this is their home territory. We just try to learn to adapt and live with them and all the other creatures that move in. With the deer, we can’t really frighten them, because we see enough of them get hit on Broadway, and that’s their main predator in town is the car.

What was your childhood like, running around here?

It was great. I think a lot of it, don’t we always look back and realize how lucky we were but at the time maybe not so much? As a kid, there was always plenty to do here, and my sister and I were expected to do things, lots of chores like weed and harvest, to support the family. I certainly complained like any kid, but as I got older I realized how fortunate I was because there was a great purpose to things. I had friends who had a harder time in life. I think a lot of it was I knew from the beginning I was needed and there was something worthwhile to do and it helped keep everything going. That’s good. You just learn to get into things and enjoy getting things done. I think it’s too bad that we sort of don’t allow kids to have as much responsibility. We’re so worried about protecting them. I think people thrive on knowing that they count and what they’re doing counts, and that can start really early in life. I think I was fortunate but I certainly complained as much as anyone.

My dad would have us do things like pick strawberries, and that wasn’t too bad because you could eat the strawberries, or he’d have us weed because we were closer to the ground—that was always the line he used. My sister and I were lucky because we had all this land and we had horses and we could keep them here and go riding with friends and nothing was built up then. I’d go off on my horse or my bike. I had to check in, but we could go do things, like build a fort. That’s the other thing—kids are so supervised today. So I love all the programs, like our tenant Growing Gardens, which gets kids out. The whole thing about people not being in touch with the natural world, I can’t help but think that’s a bad thing.

Did you know your grandfather well?

No, he died before I was born. He was very fortunate in that his doctor in Iowa told him to go to a high dry climate, because that’s about all they suggested for TB at that time, and he might live another six months or so. He lived 50 years after we came here. Our generations are pretty spread out, so he died three years before I was born. I know him through all his writings, particularly his catalogs and things. I knew my grandmother a little bit, but not too much.

Were the gardens always open to the public?

Yes, always have been. Even in the very early time when my grandparents first started growing things but still had their main store downtown. There maybe wasn’t as much encouragement, but people were always welcome to come. During the iris bloom time we were open and have maintained that. When we used to grow more irises and sold cut flowers in the spring, particularly because people did a lot more decorating of graves around Memorial Day, that was a huge deal. We’d cut hundreds of thousands of irises. People would come from other places that they’d moved to and decorate family graves and they’d not only get the irises, but it was also a social event and they would catch up with people. Growing up, that was a big part of my spring. Some cemeteries kind of hastened the demise of that tradition, because people would bring fresh flowers and leave them and it was a cleanup problem for them. I know there were rules at some places, but it’s also just a change in what our society does. I have one family that worked for us a long time, they don’t live here anymore, but they come and I give them flowers and they take them to the family grave. There are a few more, but I see that tradition as pretty much gone.

What’s changed since then, and what’s stayed the same?

Well, the grave decoration is not such a big part of spring anymore, but we’re still open and we still encourage people to come. They don’t even need to come to buy something. We encourage them to come and just enjoy the gardens. We get a lot more people these days that ask if there’s an admission fee, and no there isn’t. Especially with growing flowers, that’s part of it is to be shared cause they’re only in bloom for a short time. We still do a mail-order business. We don’t grow as many things as we used to, but maybe that will shift again, too. Gardening and growing things is always a very changing thing because you’re subject to weather changes, availability of water, and like any business, what the public wants, and labor supply. It’s all those different factors. I think when you’re a farmer you have to be pretty flexible. You can plan, but you can’t plan a lot. You always have the weather that’s the controlling factor that you have no ability to change. So you get pretty good at adapting to things. You may have your long-range plan, but you get pretty good at day-to-day, moment to moment. I think it’s good. That’s another thing that kind of gets lacking in our society. People have gotten to where they think they have a lot of control over things, or they want to have, and they try maybe. That’s not the way it works. There’s a whole huge world out here that interrelates, and we need to just try to go with the flow a little more, maybe.

What is your philosophy of growing?

We’ve grown other types of irises that need more water, and we thought about selling them. Not only do we want to be selling things that are appropriate to people, but we also don’t want to be propagating something that uses a lot of water or resources. I know sustainability has been overworked and I know people get tired of that word, but I’m not sure what’s a better word. With any system, and particularly with farming, how do you make it sustainable? How do you reduce your input that you’re bringing in? So, instead of doing like we used to do, using chemical fertilizers, we try to grow organically. But even then, we still buy some organic fertilizer and stuff. So how do you do things, like with cover crops that you’re not counting on so much being brought into the equation, that you can actually keep things in some kind of a cycle. It’s an ongoing thing is how you figure that out.

It’s probably different from your grandfather’s day.

We’re actually getting back to the ways he used to farm. My dad, like most everybody in the ’50s, got caught up in, ‘Wow, we can produce a lot more and here’s pretty cheap fertilizer available because of the petroleum industry,’ so yeah, why not? It’s very easy to get caught up in that. Then something happens, like prices go up or you become aware of what that may be doing, bigger picture, and you think, whoa, maybe that’s not the way to do things. How can we step back a little bit here? And a look at the past is usually a good thing, because obviously, people didn’t even have the opportunity for a lot of inputs. They couldn’t just go buy stuff, so like local foods, being more seasonal, realizing you can’t have strawberries in the middle of winter. I have them when they’re in season. I love that aspect of things. I can’t necessarily grow everything, or grow the numbers that I did, because I shouldn’t be counting on bringing in a lot of fertilizer or whatever it is, or using more water. Let’s try to find a balance. And I guess that’s my overall philosophy, is that whole sustainability. Being an urban farm, it’s also how do I do things and live my neighbors. Even though people say, ‘I love that you’re here,’ they wouldn’t necessarily love it if I got up every morning and got on my tractor at 7 in the morning, when I’d like to, when it’s cool, and go by their house. But I don’t do that because they’re probably not necessarily up, especially on the weekend. Or like when we used to spread raw manure on the fields, or even better, like when we used to burn the fields. That was wonderful, because we eliminated a lot of our weed problems. But there’s no way we can do that now.

So there are a lot of adjustments that you make. Not only from trying to do things in a better way, but also because of your situation changing, so as things become more urban it changes the way you do things. It’s no different, I mean, you always have to learn to live with your neighbors—at least you hope you do. I’ve just got a lot of neighbors—and changing ones. We get people that call that are thinking of buying a house near our property or along our property, and they’re always calling to see what our intentions are, if we’re going to keep doing, which I understand. But it’s also, all those people that have called and asked all that, they’ve moved on to somewhere else and we’re still here. My husband (Dennis) is a little less tolerant of that. A couple of times lately he’s said, ‘Well what are your intentions? Are you going to scrape that house off?’ Part of it is also having a lot of land, I understand people want to know what you’re doing, but it’s also an invasion of my privacy. We’re here, we’re doing what we’ve been doing, is it really any of your business?

How many different irises do grow here?

It’s hovered around 2,000 different varieties at any one time, and I’ve really made an effort to cut that down. For one thing, it’s sort of a nightmare keeping track of all of them. And I’ve realized that offering a lot of different varieties can actually turn off the customer. It’s like too much choice, which one do I pick? So we’ve tried to cut down on that. But the bearded irises we grow are hybridized rather extensively, so there are actually hundreds of new varieties that come out every year through the world, so part of it is deciding which ones you grow and which ones you don’t. Sometimes that boils down to two species that look very similar, but one has a better name, and business-wise it’s probably going to sell better. So silly things like that.

What do you do with the ones you don’t want?

Those usually go into what we call the anonymous field, it’s probably got 5 or 6,000 plants in it, and it’s a little less than an acre. It’s a field where we put in a lot of things that are probably fine, but maybe the name isn’t good, or it’s just too similar to another thing we’re already growing. So you either take potluck, or if you see something blooming and you like it, you dig it up right then. It’s very popular, actually. Into that field also go all the plants that get mixed up, often by the crows, which are another one of our ‘problems,’ because the crows this time of year (fall) when we’ve just planted things, the crows are kind of bored and they come into the field and they think it’s great fun to pull the plants up. And they don’t just necessarily pull them up and drop them down where we would know exactly what they were. They have a tendency to pull them up and flick them because that’s fun, and so everything gets mixed up. So thanks to the crows, there’s a lot more in the anonymous field than there used to be.

Do you grow any rare iris?

The type of iris we grow, these bearded irises, are very tough and hardy. As far as the actual cultivar, yeah, we always get some brand-new varieties and we work with hybridizers who just created brand-new varieties, so in a since they’re rare because when we introduce the variety it hasn’t been in production yet.

After growing irises for so many years, what are your best bulb tips?

For the bearded irises, find them a sunny spot, at least a half-day of sun, and plant them in well-drained soil. If you have clay, like a lot of people have, you just want to avoid a low area where if you’re watering, it would tend to stay wet, because clay’s so tight and holds the water. People like to plant irises in a mixed border, and it might be getting sprinkled a lot, so you want to put the irises up a little bit so that the crown stays dry. Every few years you really do need to dig them up and divide them, or they’re not going to bloom as well. Those are the main things. They’re pretty easy, which is one of the nice things, especially for people who move here from a more moist area with nice soil. People grow a lot of them because they’re so easy, and then they get into the different colors and the vertical line of irises can add a lot of interest to the garden, because we have so many mounded rounded plants.

We talked about the challenges of operating a large agricultural enterprise in the middle of the city…

Aside from challenges, there are also great advantages. Having an agriculture business, where you’re selling your product directly and you’re right here on a busy street and people see it, you don’t really have to advertise very much.

What is involved in maintaining this large of a property, and how do you really like weeding?

(Laughs) I do like weeding, actually. I get tired of it and my body gets less inclined to do it. I think things like weeding are very satisfying, and the people who end up working here for very long, they have to be sort of the same mindset. You have to be someone that when you weed, and you look back, and you see that you actually accomplished something, that you get a sense of satisfaction from that. Sometimes when we’ve let the field go and we get a lot of weeds, you feel like you’re rescuing the iris from these invaders. Obviously, weeding is like cleaning or washing the dishes—you get that sense of accomplishment, but you know you’re going to have to do it again, and some people just can’t handle that. But it isn’t entirely engrossing, and when you’re out there it can be rather contemplative. The best thing is to not let weeds get big and to get them when they’re small, but we don’t always manage to do that. If you’re out there weeding, you’re observing your garden and that’s when you’re going to notice things early, like if you have an insect problem or some other problem. I like it if I can weed in a field farther from the highway.

What is your favorite iris?

I use the answer my dad used years ago, and that is, ‘the one I was just looking at.’ And it’s true, because we grow so many different ones and I’ve never been able to narrow it down. Flowers, there’s beauty in all of them.

What are your favorite memories of being here?

The freedom to be a kid, but also being part of a family business and participating in it. We used to lease the ground at Broadway and Iris where the county buildings are; we leased it for quite a few years. My dad would say it’s time to change the irrigation pipe and we would all troop up there, my mom, my sister and I, and we had to carry this aluminum sprinkler pipe. I’m sure I was no help, but it was nice to be included in things. That was so great to feel like I was helping too. I think we all tend to have that when we’re little, that we want to participate in things, and the fact that I got to. And I got to learn to drive a tractor when I was 8 years old. Wouldn’t most kids die for that?

What are some of the wildlife capers that occur on the property? I know you mentioned the crows.

For years we had the foxes, but this year they got mange and I didn’t realize that mange is fatal to foxes. They’re the most interesting animals. They’re such clever animals and so curious. They’re canines, but they have a lot of cat characteristics. They like to collect stuff, particularly when they’re young or just growing up, for teething and for toys, but they do it anyway. The Community Gardens are on the property to the east and people have a tendency to leave things out, like their gloves. The foxes would grab the gloves and bring them up here and leave them all around in our field. We started picking them up and putting them on a snow fence out back, which we call them our ‘foxgloves.’ They would also steal dog toys from people’s yards. Then they started getting into shoes and we started getting an amazing array of shoes showing up in the fields—Crocs especially, cause they’re easy and fun and you figure people leave them out, and sandals. But some of them were really nice shoes and you wonder why people leave them where the fox can get them.

And they even brought in two wallets. One belonged to a neighbor across the street, who evidently set it down or something. But one belonged to a fellow who lived up on Fourth Street and he had been at Whole Foods and he thought he put his wallet on the top of the car while he was loading stuff, and he drove up Iris and somewhere along the way the wallet came off and the fox found it, which was fortunate because it had his ID and money and credit cards. We found it out in the field and I called him up and he was so thrilled because he was about to leave the country in a couple of days and he was thinking, ‘Oh my god, I have to go through canceling all this stuff.’ When he picked it up, everything was there, except for a little credit card insert thing. It seemed unlikely someone took it because there were teeth marks all over the wallet. So I looked around the fields in all the places where the foxes tend to leave things and I found it. The foxes are entertaining because you never know what they were going to bring us next. They’re very curious and always watch us when we were out changing irrigation pipe, or whatever. But again, like all wildlife, they brought their challenges too, and they were bad about digging up plants, so it’s been a little easier not having them here this year. The other thing good about the foxes is they were really good at catching squirrels. And now that they’re not here, I’ve noticed more problems with the squirrels eating things. Again, it’s balance. And some people don’t understand that these are wild animals. We had someone who was feeding the foxes and I’d see them run across the field with pieces of cut-up chicken in their mouths.

People see the deer in our fields and they think they’re ‘our deer’ because they’re here all the time and the fields are open, and they don’t realize the deer are moving through the neighborhoods. So we get calls from people who tell us our deer has been injured by a car. Well, they’re not ‘our’ deer, but I’ll ask them if it’s a doe or buck and what leg is injured and I’m like, ‘oh, that’s been that way for a while.’ We had a woman out in our fields the other day who opened up our gate because she thought the deer wanted to go out and couldn’t. I think it’s great that people feel concerned and are worried about their fellow creatures, but they’re so clueless as to what these animals’ lives are really like, and that gets back to that whole being detached from nature. I know I complain about the deer and the crows and the foxes, but it’s been a wonderful learning experience. Growing up, it was a treat to see a deer. Now I think it’s not, but I’ve learned a lot about them. I never knew that deer talk so much; they talk to their young a lot. So there’s good and bad. It’s difficult to see them get maimed by the cars, and we’ve had people say, ‘Can’t you take it to the deer hospital?’

At the REAL awards (sponsored by Boulder Magazine), you mentioned that nothing is more native than a plant and that we should all be more like plants—being rooted, taking what comes, whether rain, snow, sun, etc. Can you address that further?

Plants are rooted to their spot, so they don’t have a choice. But in the larger sense, they do. Plants have mechanisms for moving on, whether it’s themselves or their seeds or roots. But they’re forced to deal with what’s there and the conditions that come about. That’s such a good lesson, because they learn to adapt to what’s there, and I think humans have a tendency to think, ‘Oh, I don’t like this. I’ll move on to someplace and it’ll be better.’ Well, everyplace is going to have its challenges. That’s not to say it’s not OK to move on, but why not try to deal with what’s there? So that’s a good lesson. We kind of think of plants as not living, and I see people buy a plant and expect it to perform like a machine—although with all these electronics, I don’t know why we would think things are going to perform—I see people not acknowledging that a plant is a living thing. I think people need to look at plants and realize it’s life in a different form, and there are lessons there to be learned. Plants are amazing chemical factories, they can protect themselves against invaders, they can warn other plants of invasions, and the mechanisms they’ve come up with to survive droughts. When you become more involved in the natural world, you are reminded that it’s a huge system and we have just a tiny understanding of it. Like the whole GMO controversy these days—it’s hard to know what to do, and we bumble along. There’s a lot of resilience in the whole system too, and I’m very hopeful about that.

You won the “Inspiring Individual” REAL award. What inspires you?

Well certainly the plants do, and that whole thing about the resilience of life and that things go on. As you age, you realize that even though things may seem bleak, they’re probably going to be fine, there’s a new day coming and all of that. I’m always inspired, like in the morning I love getting up early. I love it if I can watch the sun rise. It’s a new fresh day, with all kinds of opportunities. I believe in the general goodness of people. So I’m inspired by people but also by the natural world. That even though things may seem catastrophic at the time, things go on and you roll with the punches. Growing things, you have to figure out things, like why isn’t this plant doing well? What am I doing wrong here? We always want the easy answer, but there are so many things involved, so many variables.

How do you feel about taking on the family business? Was it something you wanted to do?

Absolutely. It was always something I wanted to do. Our parents supported us in what we wanted to do, but they left what we wanted to do up to us. I was in my late teens when my parents decided to scale back and I thought, ‘we can’t let this go.’ And my dad was very good about letting me take on more responsibilities without me realizing it, like his father probably did to him.

If you hadn’t gone into gardening, what would you have done instead?

I considered being a veterinarian, and also going into pathology.

If you were to describe yourself as a plant, what plant would you be, and why?

That’s a great question, for which I don’t have an answer. Hmmm, maybe a grass, a perennial grass that dies back in the winter and goes dormant. And it’s flexible—it blows in the wind. It shoots up in the spring, has a lot of activity and then dies back with the winter. I’m definitely that way.

What’s your best growing tip?

Just being out in your garden, observing it, spending time in it every day. Take your morning cup of coffee out and wander around. You’re enjoying it, but you’re also observing it. Just be out there and look at it and get to know it. And you should be enjoying it, too.

At this point in life you might be thinking about retiring. What would you do, what are thinking of doing?

It’s not something I think about, because what I do is who I am. And I can already see your physical limitations sort of tell you sometimes that you have to change what you do, but I don’t really see myself retiring. But we’re definitely trying to think about the land, so we’ve been embarked for several years on an interesting journey of trying to establish a conservation easement on the land so that the land will be here for agriculture, for whatever. Whether there’s some offshoot of Long’s Gardens, I don’t know. I hope there’ll always be some iris. We have this great tenant on the east part of our property— Growing Gardens—that does Community Gardens, ¡Cultiva!, the Children’s Peace Garden, Gardening for People with Disabilities, and I hope that that will expand as the years go by and that more of our land will be used that way. Because I think having agricultural land within the city is such an opportunity for it to be a place to teach people about agriculture. It’ll be production, whether it’s flowers or vegetables, but the fact that it’s so accessible to people to me makes sense that it’s more of a campus for teaching people so they can take that to their yard or to a bigger piece of land. We need more of that if people are really going to grow more of their own food, and to just have that connection. So that’s what we’re working on, to set up a structure so that the land is forever tied down to agriculture and can’t be developed. Then who’s going to be here to work taking advantage of that is another thing to work on. We feel we’re also answering the call of our neighbors and the community, because they’re always telling us to never develop the property. But in the meantime, I hope to be able to keep doing what I’m doing.

What is your biggest wish for the gardens?

That it serves the community. We’re a business that’s more a labor of love, and part of that is other people enjoy having us here. When you grow flowers, that’s a big part of it, and that’s why we encourage people to come and enjoy them. It provides something for people. We get a lot of feedback from people who tell us that when they come here, they slow down and feel like they’ve stepped back in time. That’s a wonderful thing cause we’re in a crazy world where everybody is going at warp speed, and they don’t stop to go out in the garden, to stop and take a deep breath. It goes back to being disconnected with nature. I went on a solar home tour a few years ago and I heard the homeowner say, “And the garden goes in next week,” and I thought, ‘A garden doesn’t just go in, it’s a process.’ But that’s true of a lot of people. They have somebody design it, put it in, maintain it, and that’s their choice. But I see more people getting out and doing stuff in their garden. And maybe if they’re just enjoying it, that’s enough. And they’re providing green space and habitat for the rest of us to enjoy. We all make different choices in life. But I think we could all benefit from slowing down a little and being more aware of what’s around us.

What’s your idea of perfect bliss for a day?

I love days when I can be outside, whether it’s here or somewhere else, and have it be quiet. Not have a lot of noise from vehicles or people. I love quiet and solitude. You can have other people and have solitude if they can be there and take in the moment. To have the ability to move to whatever is calling you at the moment. To let things lead you, instead of planning every thing. That’s a lovely thing.

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