OCEAN PARK — It was a taco salad night early this year when single-dad, Gordon Jensen, went into a local grocery store to buy lettuce. He was shocked to see the price, almost $5 a head. When you're feeding two teenagers, high food costs can sometimes get in the way of healthy eating.

Gordon is a skilled gardener, who learned at an early age that families can live mostly on what they grow themselves and normally, he would be doing that. But it was still too soon for planting his outside garden. The weather was still quite wet, with far too many light frosts occurring. The soil in his sustainable 26x26-foot allotted garden space was too soaked for tilling or serious planting. So what's a guy to do?

The $5 price spurred him into action. At least for starters, he would rely on ingenuity and a great free find to get the ball rolling. Someone had given him a big glass terrarium, a former snake habitat, complete with a lid. That would make an ideal cold frame-greenhouse set up, he thought. A little soil, a few lettuce starts and also some seed, and soon he had what he called, "Lettuce up to here." Taco salad nights were back on, regularly.

The Jensens reside in a mobile home on a small corner lot in Ocean Park. Both kids, Micheal, 15, and Justice, 18, are FFA members at Ilwaco High School and active in a lot of areas. And thanks to their dad's gardening expertise, they are also healthy eaters.

Micheal seems to have inherited his dad's interest in gardening. He often works alongside Dad in the garden. There are huge sunflower plants in a row that Micheal planted from seed and he also started potatoes earlier this year. For his summer job, he mows area lawns for several people, so he can arrange that schedule with helping out in the garden and also fishing with this dad. They have been stocking their freezer with surf perch and Gordon said that soon, they will be going after salmon.

Intensive planting, stacking

Gordon is always on the lookout for free or cheap containers he can use for plants. They range from plastic storage containers and coolers, to buckets and old kitty little tubs. He has amassed quite a collection and uses them year after year, adding others when possible. He has found that "stacking" in the garden offers him more growing space. He's made supports out of old lumber and concrete blocks for many of the tubs.

"This saves room, when you don't have a lot of space," he explained, while standing near a row of these elevated containers. He pointed to the tubs and commented, "I have cucumbers and zucchini in there." He said that when these start producing and grow out, they'll drape down over the tub edges and the vegetables never lie on the ground, which takes away the risk of rot. Good thing, because he said he needs all the zucchini he can grow. "The kids love it fried, so it doesn't last too long."

His gaze shifted to the ground below the squash and cucumbers. "I can plant stuff underneath these containers," he explained. "I've got onions and chard growing there now."

Another row of elevated containers has potatoes growing underneath. And also below are several buckets and tubs with cherry tomato plants. If they get too tall, they can easily be moved elsewhere.

Gordon commented, "The only tomatoes I plant are cherry tomatoes and the kids usually keep them wiped out. They walk out, pick them and eat them right there."

In-ground soil amending

When he can afford it, Gordon does occasionally buy a few bags of potting soil on sale to use in containers, he has found that he can improve the sandy soil quality with no cash layout. When Micheal mows lawns, theirs or others, he can bag the cut grass and put it in the garden. Before Gordon became too disabled to do that kind of work, he also used to mow for people.

He recalled, "I brought all the lawn clippings back and stacked it in the garden. When I first moved here, this area was pure sand." So, he not only amended with cut grass, he also got rabbit and goat manure given to him by "a lady in Long Beach." And, he collected a lot of hay mulch. That mix, tilled into the garden plot, worked wonders. Anytime he raked leaves, he always saved them for the soil.

"It's still predominately sand, but every time I find anything that will work like mulch, I put it in there."

It's working. The entire area is full of thriving plants, so much so that once in a while, he has to cut a few back to make a small path for access. It is truly an intensive planting situation, with a lot of varieties growing close together.

Luckily, this property has a well, so daily watering doesn't break the bank. Because of the sandy base, Gordon says that water, "Just sifts through." It doesn't go down that far, though. He said that while it might look wet on top, "You can dig down a foot and it's dry.

Freezing for year 'round eating

While this bountiful garden is thriving and both the Jensen kids can be seen picking and eating strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and a host of vegetable varieties right off the vines, this won't last forever. The Peninsula growing season isn't that long. So, Gordon makes sure to freeze everything possible for eating later in the year. Sometimes, he has to supplement it with the occasional "store bought" produce, but growing all this at home greatly slashes his financial output.

"I pick the snap peas and put them in the freezer. I'm going to do the same thing with the beans this year," he said.

He also explained how he makes his own bags of stir fry mix for freezing.

"I can't grow broccoli here because of the white cabbage butterfly moths, so whenever broccoli gets down to about 99 cents a pound, I buy huge quantities of it." He does the same with carrots. But then from his garden, he can add a variety of produce, including onions. "I chop it all up, slap it together and freeze it."

In his garden, strawberries and blueberries are protected by a wood framed bird netting set up he made. This discourages birds and wildlife, but does not necessarily prevent daily picking by hungry teenagers, so it's a toss up, if these or the raspberries on the other end of the garden, will make it into freezer bags. But isn't the whole purpose healthy eating?

Farmer from the get go

Gordon's upbringing taught him the benefits of self-sufficiency.

He recalled, "I farmed for a living from the time I was about 7 years old until I was about 35."

He had two brothers and two sisters, three of which were 13 to 15 years older than Gordon. "It was like they had two litters," he laughed. The family had to be careful about how much was spent on food. When the parents finally became financially able, they bought a 10-acre farm in La Center for $2,000. Grow your own became the family's plan.

By the time Gordon was 8 years old, he had established two gardens, each about "20 times bigger than this one," and he cared for them himself. He also raised bottle-fed calves for meat and the family plan was to also have a couple milk cows and pigs.

That sure cut the grocery bills. He said, "We'd go to the store and buy salt, sugar and pepper. Things like that. That was the extent of our grocery shopping. We raised everything else."

Productive on a smaller scale

The early on-the-job training educated Gordon and still today, he uses the practices to grow what he can. It's not on a 10-acre farm now, but rather a 26 by 26-foot plot, but he says that even so, "I sure get a lot of stuff off of it."

Gordon's garden offers more than just filling stomachs and freezer bags. He loves gardening. He flashes a contented smile and says, "It keeps me sane."

Sometimes, when the teens are in school or off doing other activities, Gordon will plop a chair down in the middle of his garden and just sit for a while, looking around at what is growing.

"It's my sanctuary," he admits.

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