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By Mindy Crandall
The expedition was long, right at an hour, to be exact. I was headed to Fair Grove, a small town just outside Springfield to learn more about gardening. To be honest, my first thought was, why do I need to travel so far to learn about such a subject?
As we headed down Highway 60, and with time on my hands, I began my typical reviewing of questions in my mind. I wondered what would make this trip so unique?
As a child, I spent many summer days watching and helping my own grandparents and parents work in the garden and religiously following the Farmer’s Almanac. I knew that it demanded time, dedication and the sweat of one’s own brow. I remember all too well the visual image of success, as we picked, pulled and dug each and every plant out of the garden to eat. These are memories that continue to bring a smile to my face and offer a bond created between myself and my parents and grandparents.
As we headed up the nicely paved driveway surrounded with white, pipe fence, I began to feel a bit jittery from nerves. This is quite typical for me, as with every interview I do, I still receive a bit of uncontained excitement and apprehension asking complete strangers questions. I was hoping that every word out of my mouth would make sense and that the conversation would flow as conveniently as water out of a watering hose.
Once the vehicle was parked and we crawled out of the truck for a short stretch of our arms and legs, we headed to the front door only to be greeted by one of the loveliest of ladies. Immediately I felt right at home as I was introduced to Jack and Janet Brooks. The aroma in the house was from warm, freshly baked cookies. Everything inside was neatly kept and in one quick glance, I noticed pictures of their family were present. This couple took great pride in their kids and grandkids. I, at that point, knew that this interview would be one of the best, because if I did not get any more out of it than just getting to meet a really great family, that was all I needed.
Jack joined us as we all sat around the table. I began explaining exactly what I was expecting out of this adventure. Jack nor his wife disappointed. It reminded me of sitting around with my grandparents listening to their stories. I was just as intrigued as if they were of my own blood and kin.
Jack, a retired fire fighter from Springfield, bought his 60-acre farm off of his wife’s grandparents. This property was only a piece of the 123 acres that was originally owned by her family. His wife, along with her grandmother and mother, were all raised on this little piece of heaven. Jack and Janet first started their gardening while still living and working in Springfield. Janet’s grandfather had passed away and they would travel down to the farm and help her grandmother make the garden, as she could no longer do it alone. Jack had always liked gardening and he learned several tips from his own Uncle Bob, who helped Jack up until he was 82. He showed me a picture of his first successful tomato plant. It was after the war, and he was just a little boy. The much-loved plant hung over his head in his victory garden. Even in the picture and that long ago, you could see his passion for such a thing.
Janet’s mom and her two sisters showed no interest in the family property. This gave them the idea to purchase a small section and continue the garden. Janet has always held deep regard for the family farm. She commented, “Who needs to go on vacation, when you love where you’re at. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
At that moment, Jack instructed me on the specifics of gardening. Just as thought out as every fine detail of his farm, was his way of planting. When asked when is the proper time to start the process, his comment was, “Cole crops such as beets, radishes and onions should be planted in April. Other than that, other things should be planted on the tenth of May, except watermelon, it should be planted May 5.” This advice came from his Uncle Bob and he still applies it today. With laughter in his voice, Jack retold of the conversation that they once had. He mentioned how his Uncle Bob always said, “Take my advice. If someday when you’re in the watermelon patch, you feel a kick in the hind end, it’s me talking to you from heaven.” The memory was so vivid that I felt like I was there when it was told. Jack was once picking and cleaning up his fields when he passed by the watermelon spot, and as the month of May was creeping ahead, he decided to stop and start working up the soil for reseeding. He looked around only to realize that his hoe had fallen out of the truck, and landed right beside the watermelon patch. Jack knew at that moment, his Uncle Bob was giving him a hint.
I can’t say that Jack is an expert gardener, but I can comment by saying, anyone willing to plant over 600 tomato plants, three acres of corn, raise 60 hives of bees, plant peppers, cucumbers, blackberry bushes, grapes, strawberries and watermelon, and never blink an eye, only to say he wanted something to do is a master in my book.
Just as patient as he is with his plants, he explained the process and types of plants he buys. Jack gets most of his plants from a nursery and then very carefully plants each crop rotating every two years. He is very lucky in one aspect. His property contains a spring that feeds into one of three ponds. He is able to use the ponds for watering with the help of a Honda pump to siphon through a three-inch pipe with six or eight sprinklers.
Jack went over every fine detail with me. He explained to me the difference in indeterminate and determinate tomato plants. He grows both. His indeterminate plants, which are vining tomatoes that continue to grow until they are killed, are first planted in rows. Each row contains a soaker hose, a layer of black plastic and a layer of straw. Once the plants begin to come up, a cattle panel is then placed in the upright position, allowing for the plant to grow in an upward motion. Later and once the plants get bigger, they are then tied for more stability. These type of plants will continue to produce tomatoes up until the point that the plant dies. Of course, Jack prefers to plant Pink Girl tomatoes as they contain fewer seeds, have low acid and are meaty.
When talking about indeterminate tomatoes, which tend to reach a fixed height and ripen all their fruit in a short period of time, the process is handled a little differently. Jack starts with the same technique, laying down the soaker hose, black plastic and straw, but instead of placing cattle panels up, Jack uses concrete wire folded over and placed overlapping in a row, to ensure that no tomato touches the ground. Jack likes to plant Mountain Fresh and Goliath.
Three out of the five acres of garden spot is used to grow corn. Ambrosia, a sweet corn, is Jack’s only choice. This year he is planting his corn in six rows with wide pathways, allowing room for his four-wheeler to spray the silks.
Although Jack is the one that plants the blackberry bushes, it is his wife that gets all the enjoyment of picking them. He has planted several kinds over the years, but has found Triple Crown, Black Satin and Chester to be the best. He once planted Apache thornless blackberries, which have a large, sweet berry, but found that Japanese Beatles seem to enjoy them even more. He jokingly said, “I’d like to mail them back to Arkansas, where I got them.”
The more Jack talked, the more I realized how much time he and his wife of 52 years spent on gardening and bees. How could he call this a hobby? Once I truly listened to what Jack was saying, I could see past the hard work and see the real meaning behind all of this adventure. He had invested time with people he dearly loved. He had so many memories that he could replay in his mind and that brought just as much enjoyment as anything else.
After much laughter and talking, it was time to walk outside and witness for myself the beauty. In no time at all, I understood exactly what Jack was explaining to me inside. It was more than having great plants, it was more than hard work, it was more than anyone could visually take in. This was Mother Nature at its best. While standing out there, I was one with the earth. I now saw Jack as self-sufficient, and for no other reason, but love.
I could close my eyes and see his wife picking blackberries and perhaps humming her favorite hymn. There was a definite feeling of peace and comfort.
As we wandered past the bees, and listened to Jack tell the story of buying his first hive in 1965 from Sears and Roebucks, I now understood life. It’s precious, it’s quiet, it’s still and the best growth is done overnight.
My life was changed that day, maybe perhaps because I allowed myself the opportunity to see the world as good. I had interviewed a man that still believed in the honor system. He works hard day and night, picks the produce, places it in the shed for selling and allows customers to come and pick out what they want, weigh it and pay.
Jack, I am truly amazed by your spirit. Immediately, I felt so at home. I can only imagine that is how your customers feel. After thirty years at the Farmer’s Market, you have earned the right to be called the tomato man.
Even though Fair Grove is a little out of the way, I have every intention of taking my children there. This memory will last a lifetime.
When I was a little girl, it was the sensation of dirt between my toes as I ran down the aisles of the garden and the pride in being grandma’s little helper. Today, I see it from a more mature perspective. There is a lot love and hard work in a garden, so tend to it well.