Getting into the Dirt with Rudy McEntire

Sky-high squash, homegrown worms and hügelkultur highlight a garden gone wonderfully wild.

In the spring of 2019 we visited our new Rhinecliff neighbor Rudy McEntire, recently arrived from the West Coast. Interested in growing food on his expansive sunny lawn, he enlisted Backyard to Table to install two raised garden beds. Rudy’s experience with gardening was minimal: “Ten years ago, I planted herbs in a planter box. They all died.” But it was quickly apparent that what he lacked in experience he more than made up for in enthusiasm. Over the course of the past two summers, those two beds have evolved to nine, supplemented by a clutch of straw bales (infused with nitrogen and topped with a layer of soil) that host zucchini plants so ebullient they’re toppling their cages. A posse of container-grown plants (squashes, melons) are socially distanced on another reclaimed patch of lawn. The wood moving crate that ferried his flat screen from San Francisco is home to a watermelon patch. Let’s not get into the seedlings he thinned but couldn’t bear to part with and scattered throughout the property. Or the experimental hands-off rows of squash making their way by a baby creek.

Rudy, who scoured gardening sites and watched YouTube videos to inform his approach, began planting in April this year, seeding peat pots and putting them under grow lights in the basement. “I had a helluva time,” he said. “They sprouted, but they were super spindly. Then I used a fan to stress them, so they’d grow a stronger base. Seemed to work.”

When spring came, the operation moved outdoors. “This is all a work in progress,” he says, giving a tour of the teeming beds with assistant Andre, a 144-pound Bernese Mountain dog whose response to the “Down” command is immediate and earthshaking. The abundance and health of Rudy’s plants, even in mid-August when so many gardens (hand raised) are wilting, is remarkable. There are tomatoes and herbs, beans and peas, carrots, spinach, amaranth, cucumbers, lettuce, butterfly weed and squash, squash, squash—zucchini, black futsu, center cut, yellow, and cucuzza, a baseball-bat size Italian variety with pale green skin and sweet flesh. Grown from seeds given to him by BYTT founder, Sue Sie, Rudy’s cucuzza vine is upwards of 16 feet tall, supported by a bamboo/pvc trellis which has, so far, stood its ground despite the weight of its prodigious bounty and a spate of storm winds. It was a jubilant day when another strong-tendrilled vining plant appeared among the cucumbers—a surprise cucuzza. “No way!” Rudy remembers thinking. “Another one! I love you!” He doubled down on the vertical security for this newcomer, which has been growing some 5” a day, by bolting the trellis frame to the wood sides of the bed.

The medium is the message in Rudyland. This gardener is all about the dirt. For starters there’s the hugelkultur mound: After digging a 3’ deep ditch and filling it with the substantial trunk of a tree that had fallen on the property, he layered in limbs, twigs, hay, straw, compost and biochar (carbon-rich charcoal). “It just becomes a spongy mess,” Rudy explains, releasing nutrients as the matter decays and creating an ideal environment for growing roots. To further enrich his soil, he bought a starter militia of 1500 red wiggler worms on Amazon and set the happy gaggle ​up in buckets in a shed. They dine on scraps from the gourmet meals produced by Rudy’s fiancé, Jen Mills. “I grow, she cooks,” Rudy says. “Everything seems to work out.” In return for their luxe room and board, the worms create more worms and donate their castings for worm tea, a natural liquid fertilizer brewed in aerated buckets of water tinged with molasses. One fine permaculture loop.

“You just have to start somewhere,” says Rudy, who’s already planning next year’s vertical garden. “If you have enough knowledge to grow a tomato plant, you can take it from there.”

—Margot Dougherty