Rural Missouri Magazine
Get Growing
Len Pense teaches gardeners how to grow more food with less work

by Jim McCarty

Len Pense put his skills as an engineer to good use designing a raised bed system that lets him grow incredible produce in a part of the state known for poor soil conditions. He shares his skills with other gardeners through a series of five classes he teaches.

Imagine a garden where no weeds grow, where sweet potatoes tip the scales at 4 pounds, where strawberries are as big as peaches and you can almost watch the green beans growing. Now imagine you can do this in the middle of a slab of concrete.

This dream is a reality for Len Pense, a member of Southwest Electric Cooperative who lives in the red clay hills near Strafford. When Len, a life-time gardener, moved to Strafford he discovered that land in the Ozarks doesn’t always come with soil.

“It won’t grow anything,” he says. “It’s just clay and rock and that’s all there is.”
Instead Len put his skills as an engineer to work designing a system that allows Ozark gardeners to dramatically increase yields while at the same time reducing the drudgery normally associated with gardening. Now he’s teaching these skills in a unique outdoor classroom.

Len drew on the experience of a friend who tried raised-bed gardening. “All he had done was bring some good dirt in and piled it on top of the ground,” Len recalls. “But he was having some pretty good luck with his stuff. I thought, ‘OK, that’s a start.’ “

He transformed an old sandbox into a garden spot, filling it with peat moss and manure. “I raised me the prettiest garden I’d ever had,” he says. “I thought, ‘let’s refine this and see what we can do with it.’ ”

The soil in Len's raised beds include a mixture of peat moss, fertilizer, compost, sand and charcoal.

Using common items from hardware stores like concrete blocks, PVC pipe and cattle panels, Len designed a system for gardening in raised beds. He claims his system can grow four times the vegetables of a traditional garden with one-fourth the work.

“What this does is make gardening fun as well as rewarding. There’s no weeds, so no hoe is needed. You don’t need any power equipment. You can grow enough vegetables in a year to pay for everything you bought to build that garden, and from then on it’s free.”

At the heart of Len’s raised beds are walls built from concrete blocks. He uses these for two reasons. First, they don’t leach chemicals into the soil the way railroad ties or landscape timbers would. They also have holes that he puts to good use.

Every 4 feet Len cements a short piece of 1-1/4 inch PVC pipe into the blocks. Smaller pipe can then be inserted, stiffened with No. 7 rebar and tied into a section of cattle panels that provides support for tomatoes, corn and climbing plants.

For those who want to get an early start curved sections of flexible plastic pipe can instead be fitted into the holes to form a greenhouse. Or the plastic sheeting can be traded for shade cloth to protect cold-weather crops from harsh sun.

The bed lengths are multiples of 16 feet because that is the length of cattle panels.
The raised beds are filled with Len’s own recipe for soil. Starting with a peat-moss-based potting mixture, he adds fertilizer, compost, wood ash, sand and charcoal to make a growing medium where just about any plant can thrive. The soil stays moist and because he uses sterilized ingredients few if any weeds ever get started.

Len leads a class demonstrating his garden techniques. The Strafford resident made an off-hand offer to conduct workshops during an appearance on a local radio program. By the end of the broadcast more than 50 students had called.

“It’s like a growing medium that any of your nurseries will use. This is a permanent thing so I changed it to get the long-term ingredients I needed to sustain growth.”

The loose soil mixture lets Len slip his hand under potato plants to rob them of a few new potatoes, like a farmer liberating a setting hen of a few eggs. “In the past if youwanted some new potatoes for your peas or green beans, you went ahead and dug the hill,” Len says. “But you don’t have to do that now. The soil is so loose you can noodle out your new potatoes without hurting the vine.”

Len never gave much thought to passing on his ideas when he designed his garden beds. But when a Springfield horticulturist gave him a guest spot on a radio show, he offered to teach classes on the method if any listeners were interested. Before the show ended Len had signed up 57 students.

He teaches one class on building raised beds and another on planning the garden.

“We don’t do rows anymore,” he says. “It’s totally different but they’re loving it. And it darn sure works.”

He encourages students to consider what they want to plant and to plant in two-week intervals so crops don’t come in all at once.

The walls of Len’s raised beds are made with concrete blocks. The blocks don’t leach chemicals into the soil the way railroad ties or landscape timbers would.

Once the harvest begins Len plans to offer other classes, including one on canning produce and another about making jams and jellies. He also wants to offer regular cooking classes. “So many people now, if it doesn’t come out of a box or can they don’t know what to do with it. They don’t realize if you cook them right they have flavors they’ve never experienced before in their life.”

Len says he gardens because he’s concerned about the safety of the food supply. “They are using the type of stuff now that’s been hybridized and genetically engineered so that it will have a thick skin and ship good. And all the taste is gone.”

He uses nothing but heirloom seeds from Mansfield’s Baker Creek Seed Company. These seeds come from plants that have been passed down for generations. “They have some of the most wonderful flavors. It’s what I was raised on 60 or so years ago.”

Instead of pesticides he plants onions, marigolds and garlic to keep bugs away. An 8-foot fence keeps deer out, and the squirrels that bury walnuts and acorns in his loose soil are just a minor distraction.

“I grew up in the Depression where if you didn’t garden you didn’t have it,” says Len, who just turned 70. “We had a big family and yes, we gardened. I wish my dad could see what I am doing now. He wouldn’t believe it.”

Len offers five gardening classes at $25 each or all five for $99. To learn more, contact him at (417) 736-3251.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

Photo Contest

Rural Missouri Merchandise Out of the Way Eats Subscribe to Rural Missouri Rural Missouri Prints Store

Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives

Rural Missouri
2722 E. McCarty Street
P.O. Box 1645 • Jefferson City, Mo. 65102

Subscribe to Rural Missouri's RSS FeedRural Missouri's YouTube ChannelRural Missouri's Facebook PageRural Missouri | Pinterest Homepage