Archive for Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Featured gardeners took to passion as children

June 4, 2003


So far this spring I've described my visits with three northeast Kansas vegetable gardeners, and I have more gardeners on tap in coming weeks. But before we venture on, I want to take time out to reflect on a pattern that emerged in these first three conversations.

First, let's recap where we've been. We started in April with Rick Seiwald, the guy with the greenhouse near Perry Lake. Seiwald, by the way, picked his first ripe tomato in early May, from a Celebrity he transplanted into the garden.

More recently, we called on Paul Heitzman, who grows snow peas and other vegetables on Kansas Highway 10, between Eudora and Edgerton, and John Keller, who has soybeans (and rabbits) in his garden in Lawrence.

All three of their gardens are distinctly different and reflect their personalities. Keller's, which is full of volunteer herbs and vegetables and deviates from the traditional row-garden format, is the quirkiest, but even then it's far from the most unorthodox vegetable garden I've seen. Heitzman's garden contains the widest variety of Oriental vegetables and Seiwald is experimenting with raised beds alongside his big garden.

Just as no two people decorate their living rooms exactly alike, no two gardeners grow their vegetables quite the same way. Step into a vegetable garden and you get a depth of insight into its caretaker far more reliable than any scientific measurement could ever provide. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory is a poor second to a garden tour.

Even so, what impressed me as much as the differences among these gardeners were the similarities in their stories. All three are at least 50 years old and all three have made gardening one of their lives' passions.

All three have been gardening since they were children and each of them mentioned their parents right off the bat. In fact, all three suggested that not only did their childhood gardening experiences figure heavily into their love for gardening as an adult, but all three also indicated that they think a great deal about their parents when they garden.

Although Seiwald has moved up to a Troy-Bilt, he still keeps his dad's castiron Merry tiller next to the garden. After his father passed away about 12 years ago, Seiwald tilled up a small garden of his own, and that tribute has now grown to nearly half an acre.

Keller learned to grow vegetables when he helped his father in the family garden. His father had grown up in the Depression, and growing vegetables had always been part of his life. "That's how I learned organic gardening, only we didn't know what organic was," Keller said. "It was just a matter of making piles of whatever was around and eventually throwing that on the garden."

Heitzman's parents grew vegetables and he learned to garden from them. He had his own inaugural gardening experience planting a Victory Garden for a Boy Scout project during World War II. "Dad and Mom are both gone, but every time I plant a row of seed I think of Dad, and every time I cut seed potatoes I think of my mother," he said.

All of this strikes me as a reassuringly sane response to the passage both of time and the people who loved us best. Every time each of these gardeners pulls a weed, he is tracing a wrinkle in his personal history, right on back to a time when gardening was an act of family communion, of shared labor to put food on the table.

But no matter how great the sense of continuity and well-being that comes with each swing of the hoe, these gardeners also can find something reassuring in the individuality of each of their gardens. For all the comfort of tradition, these gardens are uniquely their own, and that's a good thing, too.

-- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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