Original Urban Gardener: Carl Walton
Urban gardening and sustainability are hot and trendy within certain circles now. But we are well behind the curve. Some have been both urban and sustainable for decades. On the west side of Chicago lives one such pioneer.
Mr. Carl Walton planted his garden in 1970, soon after arriving from Mississippi. It is not expansive, but an average city lot of about half an acre including the house. For Mr. Walton being green or sustainable is just common sense. Sustainable gardening, which limits your inputs and outputs, is both productive and cost effective. His methods include:
Mr. Walton will be 90 years old on October 8th. You would never guess it. His warm face, encyclopedic memory, firm handshake, and fashionable leather sandals are more typical of a man decades younger. Gardening keeps him young. He states, "It's my daily exercise. That's why I am still here. Most people my age are gone, either dead or in a nursing home." He also credits daily doses of a homemade concoction of pokeweed, mint, sage, garlic, and honey for keeping him vigorous. I'll have to trust him on that one.
From the street the modest front yard with arborvitaes, sunflowers, and impatiens conceals a productive urban farm. The speckled butter beans were seven feet high. Even though Mr. Walton had just harvested them all, the vines were still strong and green. As they fade, he will pull the beans down, till them into the soil, and sow more collards for autumn harvest. He keeps his garden at peak production throughout the season.
Extra produce is given to the community. A stack of giveaway bags and rubber bands are a testament to his garden's bounty. My wife and I were not allowed to leave without taking a couple bags of food.
The number of fruits and vegetables in his small lot is expansive and surprising. There are several varieties of tomatoes, beans, celery, eggplant, cucumber, collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, kale, onions, garlic, pokeweed, sage, mint, pear tree, peach trees, apple trees, grape vines, strawberries, a walnut sapling, and a thin-shelled pecan sapling.
The yard is packed. There is just enough room to maneuver through the rows of beans, tomatoes, pokeweed, and cucumbers. You have to squeeze under the grape vines to get to the rear section of the garden. There, mustard and turnip seedlings are emerging near an apple tree. The only down time is middle of winter and even then he can harvest onions.
But he is not just limited to produce. He has a love for flowers. And it was obvious from the bursts of color throughout the garden and front yard. A magnolia tree, canna, hardy hibiscus, cosmos, sedum, rose bushes, tiger lilies, ferns, datura, hollyhock, violas, and bleeding heart were some of the ornamentals I noticed. He says I have to return in spring to admire all the early bloomers.
But make no mistakes, this is a garden is about producing food. Mr. Walton is nearly self-sufficient. He buys meat, sugar, cooking oil, and a few other necessities; but his garden supplies all his produce. He freezes and stores the summer's excess for the long Chicago winters. His garden also indirectly helps him get animal protein. Like most old-school gardeners, Mr. Walton seems to be a jack-of-all-trades, and that includes fishing and inventing. His homemade electric probe is used to shock worms from the wet ground. He takes those worms to Lake Michigan and other local fishing holes in search of bluegill, crappie, and catfish. I learned of another skill, when he showed me his grape harvest.
In a barrel near the pear tree most of the harvest was fermenting into wine. Truly, a man after my own heart! I could only smile at this Chicagoan making Concord grape wine (on top of everything else) from his little urban plot. The only wine-making secrets he revealed were yeast, sugar, and a wooden masher. But later he slyly took me inside and gave me a bottle of last year's brew, when my wife was not looking. I tried it when I got home and it was good. A little too sweet for me, so I cut it with equal parts chardonnay and sat on my rooftop contemplating this man's accomplishments.
Mr. Walton makes me reluctant to call myself an expert. He has practicing sustainable gardening longer than my mother has been alive. Before I was born, he was already an accomplished urban gardener on the west side of Chicago. In these odd times, what's old is new again. Resource conserving methods that date back to 19th century Mississippi are in vogue. I feel honored to have been welcomed into his garden, and hope to eventually follow in his footsteps.
Mr. Walton is a living testament to the benefits of urban gardening. Actual proof that urbanites can live sustainably. But he would not call it sustainability, permaculture, environmentalism, or any other trendy name. It is simply the best way to garden. Saving seeds, collecting rainwater, composting, crop rotation with legumes, and enriching the soil are all examples of top-notch horticulture and they save money. Meeting him has made me re-evaluate my gardening practices.
If a 90 year old man with a quarter acre of growing space can feed himself and his wife, then what am I doing? As food prices continue to increase along with the demand for fresh, local, nutritious produce, Mr. Walton's lifestyle will become more valued and hopefully emulated. He proves that even urbanites can sustain themselves with a little land and a lot of effort.
But when you watch Mr. Walton it doesn't look like work. He is having fun in his garden and he is proud of it. And that's the key. Sustainability is not a task to check off on your list, it's a lifestyle to live and celebrate. So here's to you, Mr. Walton, cheers.
William Moss, landscape architect on TLC's Town Haul, found his calling after taking a master gardener course in 1996. William's first gardening-related job was a supervisory position with the Chicago Department of the Environment. He immediately impacted the community by overseeing the installation of gardens citywide. In the spring of 1998, Moss moved his expertise to the Chicago Botanic Garden's Community Gardening department, where he continued to make a difference within Chicago communities by installing more gardens and teaching home gardening classes. Visit William at: http://www.wemoss.org/
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