How does your garden grow: gardener springs life from Badlands soil | Local

The Badlands are known for their dramatic rock formations and towering spires — not so much their fertile soil.

The unique terrain of the Badlands is referenced in the name itself, historically referring to the rocky terrain, lack of water and extreme temperatures.

For Nancy Horton, an avid gardener and retired dietitian, the terrain was no deterrent. Her green thumb has managed to spring life from the Badlands soil for the past 40 years.

Horton has been gardening near the Badlands as long as she’s lived there — since 1980. Her garden produces everything from tomatoes, broccoli and onions to what she refers to as her soul garden, where she plants flowers to “feed her soul.”

Flowers don’t typically grow well in the Badlands, Horton said, so she chooses ones that do. One of her favorites is called a “four o’clock,” named for when it blooms, also known as the Marvel-of-peru.

While flowers feed her soul, vegetables feed her belly, and she’s managed to grow plenty in the Badlands soil. Her lineup this year alone includes lettuce, spinach, potatoes, onions, peas, green beans, carrots, Swiss chard, sweet corn, summer squash, winter squash, cucumbers, broccoli, watermelons, green sweet peppers, tomatoes and celery.

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The planning process begins in the winter, with a seed catalog usually arriving in December. The catalog, she said, is a good place to get ideas and “get your mind going.” She’ll compare what she planted last year with what she wants this year, along with the layout of the garden.

“You don’t want to plant the same thing in the same spot every year,” she said. If it’s something she likes to eat, she’ll plant it. With the exception of okra — those she plants for the beautiful flowers.

Once she has her seeds ordered, she’ll till the garden — usually once in the fall and once in the spring.

Planting season can begin as early as April, with harvesting beginning as soon as May and going as late as December, in some cases. In between planting and harvesting, Horton is maintaining. This includes weeding and protecting the plants from the unique elemental hazards of the area.

Freezing is always a concern for gardeners in South Dakota, but in the Badlands, wind presents an additional obstacle. Horton combats the high winds by using cages that she covers with garbage bags.

She also uses carpeting to protect from weeds and lays down blankets when a freeze is coming.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of gardening in the Badlands, however, is the soil. Horton has a good spot scoped out by a creek, but she still does what she calls amending the soil. She brings in better soil, which she mostly gets from composted hay and straw.

“I bring it in and just pile it up,” she said.

Growing up in Armour, gardening has been a part of Horton’s life since childhood. She grew up on a farm, helping her mom garden.

She said she has always loved tomatoes, she said. And weeding.

“A lot of people don’t like weeding, but I do because you can definitely see that you’ve made progress,” Horton said.

She’s also had the joy of watching her four children carry on with gardening they learned from her. Even her husband Rick gets involved, rerouting the hot water from their deep well so it’s cooled by the time it reaches her garden.

“It’s pretty neat,” she said.

While Horton has been exposed to gardening her entire life, she leveled up on her gardening knowledge about 20 years ago when she completed a Master Gardener course through South Dakota State University Extension.

The program included a service commitment in volunteering her time as a resource for gardening questions.

“It was just wonderful, and they know so much, and I loved it all,” she said, highly recommending the course to anyone interested in gardening.

Gardening has fed Horton’s soul, mouth and even her vocation. A registered dietitian, she said gardening influenced her professional endeavors.

“Because I like food,” she laughed. “I like everything that’s involved in food. And, so of course, I know that fresh is always better.”

The benefits of gardening are stacked for Horton — in addition to feeding her soul and mouth, she gets to be outside, and its “great exercise.” She’d also tell you it teaches patience — something she claims to have in short supply.

“But God shows me that every day,” Horton said.

One thing Horton would tell anyone not familiar with gardening: “If you don’t plant, you’re not going to get anything.” The seeds don’t grow in the package, she said. “You’re discouraged and all that — you still got to try.”

She’ll continue battling the wind and praying for rain. Every year she says she won’t plant so much, but this isn’t that year. She even added fruit trees for apples and pears. She joked that her SDSU Master Gardner instructors said if you live in the Badlands, you should just buy your fruit.

Not Nancy Horton. She prefers to work the Badlands soil, feed her body and soul and continue to do so as long as she can.

–Contact Laura Heckmann at–

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