Long’s Gardens is a Boulder legacy, with roots that stretch to the early 1900s. Incredibly, it’s still run by the same family, but the challenges of running the farm have changed from generation to generation.
By Carol Brock
Photos courtesy of Long’s Gardens
Some urbanites may entertain the romantic notion of buying a farm and getting back to the land. But farm life isn’t always a bed of roses—or irises, as in Catherine Long Gates’ case.
Catherine has farmed since she took her baby steps more than 60 years ago. Her grandfather, Jesse Dillman “J.D.” Long, bought 3 acres at 3240 Broadway in 1916, which he passed on to his son, who passed it on to Catherine.
Farming is a way of life for Catherine and her family. Though it’s satisfying to grow things, it’s always a challenge, she says. And the challenges have changed over the generations and the 95 years her family has owned and operated Long’s Gardens.
For instance, her grandfather bought a variety store called Noah’s Ark in downtown Boulder in 1905. “My father told me Woolworth’s came to Boulder in 1908, and that was a great impetus [for J.D.] to find another niche rather than compete,” Catherine says. So J.D. shifted his inventory away from notions to bulbs and seeds. When Woolworth’s arrived, he changed his store’s name to J.D. Long Seed Company and created a mail-order catalog to supplement the store’s coffers.Farming is a way of life for Catherine and her family. Though it’s satisfying to grow things, it’s always a challenge, she says. And the challenges have changed over the generations and the 96 years her family has owned and operated Long’s Gardens.
“It’s really no different than today,” Catherine says, “because Woolworth’s was the big-box store of that era and it was moving to town and threatening the little retailer. [J.D.’s] way of coping was to find a specialty to fill.”
With a booming business and an expanding family, J.D. needed space to grow more of what he sold, so he purchased the Broadway property in 1916. “He said in his catalog, ‘We bought a place north of town.’ We’re only a mile north of downtown,” Catherine notes with a chuckle, “but people were still riding horses back and forth then.”Sporting folksy appeal and clever writing, J.D.’s mail-order catalog soon became a hit. “He loved alliteration and there were things [in the catalog] like ‘Pansy Pointers,’ ‘Glad Gossip’ and ‘Dahlia Don’ts,’” Catherine says. “People really ate up that stuff, because in the early 1900s mail was pretty important and people weren’t getting a lot of information.”
J.D. grew strawberries, tulips, gladioluses, irises and other plants at his farm, and purchased more acreage when he could. He became renowned as a gladiolus expert and taught his children, Elizabeth, Everett and Carleton, how to farm. When Catherine’s father “Ev” took over the family farm in the 1940s, he faced a different challenge.
After Ev took over, he phased out the glads and increased the farm’s stock of irises, which require less labor and water. But like most farmers in the 1950s, Ev got caught up in the cheap availability of petroleum-based fertilizers. “It was like, ‘Wow, we can produce a lot more,’ so yeah, why not?” Catherine says. “It’s very easy to get caught up in that.”“My grandfather was very interested in gladiolas, and that became our main crop,” Catherine says, “but they’re very labor intensive.” Because the flowers are originally from the tropics, their bulbs can’t overwinter here unless they’re harvested in fall, stored and replanted in spring. They also must grow on new ground each season if you want to avoid using a lot of chemicals, “which meant we were leasing ground out in the county,” Catherine says.
When Catherine took the reins, it was “absolutely” what she wanted to do. “I was in my late teens when my parents decided to scale back and I thought, ‘We can’t let this go.’” Her father was “very good about letting me take on more responsibilities without me realizing it,” she says, “like his father probably did to him.” Before long, Catherine was in complete charge.
Today, she grows and sells only bearded irises, and leases some acreage to Growing Gardens, which runs various farm programs, including the Community Gardens, ¡Cultiva! and the Children’s Peace Garden. One of Catherine’s current challenges is “finding balance” at Long’s, which now comprises 25 acres that she runs with the help of her husband, Dennis Gates.
They’ve also changed the way they farm to be thoughtful of their neighbors. Instead of tooling around on her tractor at 7 a.m.—“when I’d like to, when it’s cool”—Catherine waits until her neighbors awaken. She also doesn’t spread raw manure or burn the fields anymore. “That was wonderful, because we eliminated a lot of our weed problems,” Catherine says of the burns. “But there’s no way we can do that now. So there are a lot of adjustments that you make.”“With any system, and particularly with farming, how do you make it sustainable?” she says. So the couple tries to reduce the “inputs” they bring into the farm, including fertilizer and water, and to increase crop rotation, fallow fields and cover crops.
The farm not only strives to appease neighbors, it must coexist with wildlife—a fairly new development as the farm became engulfed by homes. “When I was a kid, we didn’t see deer or foxes in town,” Catherine says. “We had skunks and raccoons and rabbits, but we certainly didn’t have mountain lions or bears.”
Deer began roaming Long’s Gardens when urbanization forced them from the foothills. “Once they moved into town, [for them] it was like, ‘Whoa, gourmet smorgasbord!’ Then they started breeding and having their young here, and it imprinted 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.”
There is a plus: “Growing up, it was a treat to see a deer,” Catherine says. “Now I think it’s not, but I’ve learned a lot about them. I never knew deer talk so much.”
Then there are the minuses: “In recent years we’ve wanted to diversify, but the last 25 years or so, the deer have 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, so they tend to leave them alone. Unless we want to get into a lot of fencing, we’re a little bit limited.”
Deer aren’t the only creatures attracted to urban farm life. In fall, after Catherine finishes planting bulbs, the crows get “bored,” she says. “They think it’s great fun to pull the plants up. And they don’t 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 more fun. So everything gets mixed up. Thanks to the crows, there’s a lot more in our ‘anonymous’ field than there used to be.”
But well-intentioned, clueless people may be her most frustrating challenge. One day, she discovered a woman in the fields opening the gates to let the deer out. “She thought the deer wanted to go out and couldn’t,” Catherine explains. She also gets calls from people about deer hit on Broadway. “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.”Farm life also appeals to foxes, who are infinitely “more clever and curious” than the deer, Catherine says. They like to steal things to play with, and in recent years amassed a cache of garden gloves, dog toys, shoes and even wallets. Catherine finds their playthings in the fields, returns what she can to the rightful owners, and now has a meadow of “foxgloves” lining a fence.
Catherine handles all these challenges with grace and good cheer. Perhaps that’s why she won the “Inspiring Individual” award at last year’s REAL (Recognizing Everything About Local) Awards, sponsored by Boulder Magazine. Upon accepting the award, Catherine delivered a moving speech: “What’s more local than a plant?” she asked the crowd. “We should all be more like plants—rooted, taking what comes, whether rain, snow or sun.”
In fact, she says plants are what inspire her. And they’ve helped shape her philosophy on life and living, because farming is “a very changing thing,” she says. It’s subject to weather, water, labor, what the public desires and other factors. “When you’re a farmer, you have to be pretty flexible,” she says, “so you get pretty good at adapting to things. You may have a long-range plan, but you get real good at the day-to-day, moment-to-moment. And I think that’s good.
“There’s a whole huge world that interrelates, and we need to just try to go with the flow.”