John Schencke spent his career defending America. Now he spends his time defending his garden.
At first glance, you might not see the elevated screens supported by bungee cords in his house’s side yard on Central Boulevard in Rapid City. But the contraptions are impossible to miss in his backyard.
Schencke’s innovative layouts of window screens, webbed tarps and PVC pipes are there to protect his garden from every gardener’s worst nightmare: hail. He is more than happy with the results.
Schencke, who retired from the Air Force in 1994, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., where it never hails, he said. His parents planted gardens in upstate New York and continued gardening after they moved to Rapid City to be closer to their son.
“When we first moved here, the hail just about blew us away,” said his mother, Dorothy Schencke. “I’ve been here 20 years now, and it’s hard to get used to the hail.”
After seeing the damage hail can cause, her late husband, Charles, devised a protection device using plastic snow fence. Schencke told his father that the material was too difficult to work with, so he started testing other things. He currently is using a heavy netted fabric that was given to him and his mother.
“We modify it periodically,” he said, noting that the screens work well but can be expensive to replace. “Now we’re using the material that was donated to us, so the price was right. When that material wears out, we’ll have to go back to screens.”
Schencke said he is used to people’s mystified reactions to his hail protectors, which stand about 4 feet off the ground and look like roofs over his garden beds.
“They do work,” he said. “If you’re not home and you get a hailstorm, you won’t lose your plants.”
He never worries about his garden while at work as project chairman for Black Hills Area Habitat for Humanity.
In addition to guarding against hail, his garden roofs provide shade.
“That wasn’t the intention, but now all of our gardens are shaded,” he said. And because the surface is flat, the tarps and screens catch the hail, which later melts, drips down and waters his plants.
He does not cover the berries in his yard because the leaves usually protect the fruit. And there isn’t much he can do about protecting his plum, apricot, apple and sour cherry trees. And when his corn gets too high this summer, he will have to remove its protective cover and hope for the best.
Schencke also protects his vegetables from cutworms, which are known for cutting off young plants at or above the soil line. He surrounds each of his plants with partly buried recycled cans that have had the top and bottom lids removed.
To help control weed growth, increase mulch and keep his plant roots moist, Schencke recycles his Rapid City Journal by burying pages on top of soaker hoses and covering the newspaper with grass clippings. By the end of the summer, the paper will have decomposed and helped enrich the soil.
The yard is decorated with keepsakes the mother and son have picked up in their travels around the world. As a tribute to his father, who was a firefighter, Schencke built a replica of a fire box telephone, where he stores a few of his gardening tools.
Schencke said after the garden is planted, he and his mother might spend 45 minutes to an hour at a time working to maintain it. He has planted potatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, broccoli, corn, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, elderberries, squash, muskmelon, pumpkins, onions, parsley and chives.
“We have a little of everything,” he said.
They also like to try newfangled gardening items they come across, such as potato grow-bag fabric pots, purple green beans and blueberry bushes that promise “gobs” of berries. They don’t seem to mind whether the products work or not.
“We just like to try different things,” Dorothy Schencke said. “Somebody’s got to do it.”
The best advice John Schencke has for other gardeners is to not count on what you’re producing to live on.
“Do it for fun. If you get tomatoes, great. If not, it’s not a big loss. But at the same time you will have the fun of doing it. And when you’re done, you may have something to eat,” he said.
His favorite part of gardening is when he takes his vegetables out of the garden and receives his reward. His mother cans and freezes what they do not eat fresh. She picks raspberries for breakfast and cooks freshly picked corn on the cob in a pressure cooker.
“And the scallions and lettuce—you can grab a piece and eat it right out of the garden,” Schencke said. “It’s just fantastic.”