On the barren stretch of desert between Boise and Mountain Home lies a bounty of produce meticulously gridded across 2½ acres. Planter boxes house melons, nearby netted trellises protect raspberries and strawberries from scavenging birds, and the adjacent field will soon be filled with stalks of corn.
From Interstate 84, the Boise Stage Stop appears to offer your average truck stop amenities, but behind the scenes it’s becoming a fresh fruit and vegetable haven, thanks to Adam Villalobos, the Stop’s general manager, and his gardening partner, Laurie Graham.
Years ago, Villalobos got the idea to use some of the land surrounding the Boise Stage Stop to add some fresh options to the restaurant’s menu. When he first launched the garden in 2011, he took direction from his daughter’s mother, whose work at a local nursery offered the basis of knowledge that Villalobos needed to raise tomatoes, cucumbers, jalapenos and tomatillos.
“It was a small garden,” he says, “and I thought that I had it made.”
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It quickly became apparent that the small garden wasn’t going to be enough for Villalobos’ ambitions.
“As soon as the harvest was all said and done, we ran out immediately,” he says.
The next year, he tripled the number of crops he planted. In the four years that he’s been running the large garden, Villalobos has fine-tuned his planting to best fit the restaurant’s needs.
“I’m still minus about four months’ worth of product that I need to grow for this next year,” he says. “So this year will probably be the first year that we’ll be completely self-sustained in all the vegetables.” That’s thanks to 350 tomato plants — up from 200 plants in previous years — and a whole host of flash-frozen and dried veggies.
Now the homegrown tomatoes, peppers, squash, corn and more are featured in the restaurant’s sauces, salsas, eggplant parmesan and everything in between, and the kitchen’s coffee grounds, eggshells and myriad other compost items go right back into the dirt to enrich the crops.
In the years since Villalobos launched his fresh-food effort, his garden has boomed. He now has plans for a hydroponic pond filled with tilapia, which will provide even more nutrients for the crops, as well as an in-house stock of fish to cook from. With his handyman skills, he was able to build the pond and pump setup as well as a variety of planter boxes and other structures.
The massive growth of the garden itself has sparked even more healthful opportunities at the Boise Stage Stop: a walking trail that leads to the nearby Indian Creek Reservoir, a farmers market packed with fresh fruits and veggies for sale, and an aeroponic herb garden — a dining room collection of several 6-foot-tall herb-laden towers that customers can check out (and sometimes pinch a plant or two from) after they eat.
“For any business to start a garden, you have to have a passion for it in order to be successful, because to get it started takes a lot of hours,” Villalobos says.
The project’s benefits, though, have been far-reaching for the truck stop.
With the added income of the farmers market, and with most of the initial building costs of the garden finally out of the way, the Boise Stage Stop is breaking even on its growing investment.
“The first year, we definitely lost money because of the amount of money that it cost to build the whole watering system and all the beds. The second year we broke even, as far as what I spent on vegetables and what the garden produced,” Villalobos says.
“Last year, we were a little bit ahead, and then this year, we’ll even be more ahead. So once you get everything established, it builds. You have to look at it more as an investment.”
A look around at the surrounding desert — filled with sagebrush and hard, clay-rich soil — is a stark reminder of all the hard work that Villalobos and the team at the Boise Stage Stop had to undertake to get their garden growing.
“I think our success here has really proved that we can grow anything,” Villalobos says.
Nicole Blanchard, a copy editor at the Idaho Statesman, was raised in Mountain Home. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Idaho State University and a master’s degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
About the Stage Stop
Located near the Mayfield/Orchard exit on U.S. 84, about 20 miles southeast of Boise, the Boise Stage Stop has been around in some form since the 1890s. The truck stop offers typical fuel and food amenities, along with a dog run, horse corral, a farmers market on site, walking trail with reservoir access and a miniature Old West town that hosts occasional shootout re-enactments. Learn more at boisestagestop.org.
Try some natural pest control
Part of growing a successful garden, whether on a large or small scale, is attracting good pollinators and keeping away less friendly insects. By mixing flowers and herbs in with fruits and veggies, it’s possible to cut down significantly on pests.
“In order to keep you from having to spray all those pesticides in your garden, you have to grow a lot of flowers and you have to grow a lot of herbs,” says Stage Stop general manager Adam Villalobos. “Because all your herbs, they smell, and a lot of the bugs don’t like that smell. So we grow cilantro like crazy, we grow basil.”
Villalobos’ rule of thumb is about half a bed of herbs per one bed of plants like tomatoes. Plants like sage and dill are said to keep aphids and mites away, while marigolds and zinnias are popular “companion” flowers.