High Sierra Gardening

When spring is in the air, and as the snow recedes and native plants bud and begin to leaf out, thoughts turn naturally to the cultivation of non-indigenous flora. The High Sierra, though not traditionally associated with gardening (much less farming), has been known to produce a wide variety of vegetation to delight the eye, the palate, and the wallet.

The earliest of local agricultural efforts blossomed from the need for animal feed. Prior to the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1868, oxen, donkeys, and horses supplied the motive power for all freight-bopund for the Sierra. The Comstock Bonanza in Viriginia City prompted a pervasive rags-to-riches philosophy and the eager quest for quick wealth chafed against sometimes unconquerable meteorological limitations.

While the work in the Comstock miners was not itself seasonal, access to the mining districts was severely curtailed by snow and mud for as long as six months when the roadways were considered passable ( a comparative term in light of today's standards), wagons often mired down to the hubs, requiring that they be winched out of the thoroughfare to give other vehicles the opportunity to progress.

Intermittent access to the Tahoe Basin drove freight prices up beyond all reason. Silage with which to feed the teamster's beasts of burden brought $250 per ton in 1860, a price considered high even on the current market. Thus, a booming sellers' market developed. While some sought out their fortunes hauling hay and straw on the Great Bonanza Road to Washoe", others exploited Tahoe sources of these essential commodities. Soon acreage in and near the Tahoe Basin was producing hay for sale.

Squaw Valley's expanse of meadow was blessed with a natural stand of Timothy hay. The partnership of Fish Ferguson, Coggins, and Smith cut and hand-pressed a substantial crop as early as 1860, transporting it by high bed stake wagon to Tahoe City. There the hay was loaded aboard the "Iron Duke, a sixty-foot, two-masted sailing vessel owned by the partnership.

This double-ended vessel, proudly known as "The Duke", had a freight capacity of 125tons. It also served the fledgling hay market within the Basin, stopping at the present sites of Incline, Broakway, Tahoe Vista (then Pine Grove Station), Carnelian Bay, Chambers' Landing (then McKinney's Hunters' Retreat), and Meeks Bay (then the headquarters of Murphy Brothers and Morgan).

The same difficulties attendant upon the importation of stock fodder were experienced by purveyors of vegetables in the Sierra. The needs of local hosteleries and encampments were soon supplemented by truck gardens, some of rather grand proportions.

Captain Homer D. Burton of Burton's Island Farm had what was perhaps the largest and most successful of local gardens. Burton was a character given to superlatives, and, taking advantage of the constant sun on the Lake Forest island which he cultivated, he astounded visitors with his crops.

According to E.B. Scott in his two-volumn history, The Saga of Lake Tahoe, "One white turnip out of Burton's well-tended garden ran a whopping 16-and-a-half inches in diameter. Buyers in Truckee swore it wasn't possible even though they had seen it with their own eyes. His crop of oats grew to a height topping eight feet one season and he vowed it would have gone another three feet if Burton Creek hadn't gone dry".

Lake Forest has continued its reputation as an agricultural center locally, even producing corn in some good years. Other North and West Sore locations which are favored with constant sun enjoy similar productivity. Mile-high gardeners looking for success would be well-advised to emphasize short-season crops (such as peas, spinach, and lettuce) and root crops (carrots, potatoes, turnips, radishes, and beets), which are less susceptible to inclement weathers than the melons, peppers, and tomatoes of flatland gardens. However, as proved by former Tahoe farmers, almost any crop can be successfully raised, given the proper blend of meterological luck, location, and . . . a green thumb?

by Carol Van Etten

©Tahoe Country 1996-7