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Remembering an Old-Time Gardener

Alicia Geesman

Will Pitkin taught at Utah State University for 40 years, and after his retirement, grew a garden that inspired many more people.  He passed away on Sunday, July 21, 2013 at the age of 77.  KUER originally aired this story in July, 2011 but we chose to broadcast it again in his memory.


Retired Utah biology professor Fred Montague is lecturing to a packed house at the Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City a passionate crowd that hangs on his every word about organic gardening and sustainable food production. They're hearing about raised beds and the mineral content of soil as if the technique of growing your own food is something that had just been discovered.

But if sustainable gardening seems like something new to this generation of urban dwellers, Montague is the first to point out that a lot of people have been doing this for a long time. Over decades and even generations, they've learned what works in Utah, and what gardening does for the soul as well as the dinner table. That's why Montague often assigned students to interview the oldest gardeners in their neighborhoods.

Once the contact was made and the student expressed the interest, the problem wasn't how to get the gardener to share. It was how to break off the conversation. And so old-time gardeners have lots to share.

Will Pitkin is turning over his compost pile with a spading fork in his backyard garden in Hyde Park, just north of Logan. He looks much younger than his 75 years, with thick gray hair and a broad smile. He's long retired from teaching English at Utah State University. His gardening heritage goes back to his childhood in California.

I can remember as an 8-year-old carrying buckets of water about 50 yards to dump one bucket at a time on our hills of squash and so on. And, at the time, I hated it. I thought life couldn't get much worse. But somehow, it captures you.

Pitkin is just getting around to planting tomatoes and peppers in June because the spring was so wet and cold. But the garlic he planted last fall is two feet high - 20 varieties. It's his specialty - something he loves to share. And he may be on the verge of creating a new one.

I found that about one out of a hundred of these seeds was a nice pink color. And so I gathered up about 50 of em, which tells you about how many of em were on the floor of my barn, and planted em, y'know, in a barrel out there.

In Will Pitkin's gentle garden, the chickens lay lots of eggs, but they die of old age. Even pests like tomato hornworms get a break.

Well, I have, in the past, designated one tomato for the hornworms and when I find one, I'll take it over and put it on that plant. As you may know, the tomato hornworm makes a beautiful moth.

Will Pitkin says he's never met a gardener he didn't like and he's happy to learn from an older generation - someone like 96-year-old Ray Malouf, who's been tending a 900 square-foot garden for more than 50 years in the back yard of his home just a few blocks from the Utah State University campus in Logan.

I learned that gardening had to be done in the season, when it was ready, planted at the right time and the right variety and then . . . take care of em.

Doctor Ray, as his friends call him, grew up in Richfield, where his parents supplied travelers and others in the community with fresh produce. He points out one big advantage of growing your own food -- eating varieties that you won't find in any supermarket.

We grew squash - a Syrian type of squash, my folks were Syrian, Lebanese, and they had a special type of a squash that they liked real well and tomatoes that they liked real well and beans and all the other type of vegetables too. So we had a great variety.

Verle Breinholt doesn't get around as well as he used to. He'll turn 93 in August, and he needed some help this year to plant a garden on his acre of land in the Millcreek area of Salt Lake County. A retired bricklayer, Verle and his wife Gladys raised all the vegetables they could eat along with ten children in a sturdy brick house he built himself.

We had a garden from the very first, and our children grew up with the garden and had to help and now they have gardens and their children have gardens, most of em. Because that's what they learned to enjoy.

Verle and Gladys met in the years just before World War Two when they both served as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Alabama. She's from Georgia, and one year, Verle says he even grew peanuts. But not everything works in Utah the way it does in the South.

One thing - Verle, he tried watermelon once and it didn't get ripe, so he always said you couldn't grow watermelon. But I understand you can (laughs) if you get the right kind.

Today, young people from their LDS ward are helping in the garden, learning how to till and sow and use the Breinholt's two shares of irrigation water -- though Verle wishes they'd be more careful where they step between the rows.

And whether it's done with furrows and ditches or raised beds and shade cloth, these gardeners feel a spiritual connection to the food they grow that might elude the typical supermarket shopper.

Will Pitkin: I would hate to limit my diet to things that I had grown on my own, but yeah, it's certainly a noble goal to raise as much as you can.

Ray Malouf: The more we can provide for our own use, the better. We can raise our own and use our own.

Verle Breinholt: From this little tiny seed that comes out and makes a great big bush, a big vegetable that way and all seeds are different. It is one of those spectacular things that you have to recognize.

And for those who would approach eating in a thoughtful way, it's helpful to listen to those who've been growing their own food for a long, long time.


Here's a link to another story about Will Pitkin's garden from a local food blog:

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