Bill Johnson steps gingerly through his garden where water hoses snake around the plants and piles of straw help keep the weeds down and moisture in. As he describes his backyard garden, he swoops down occasionally to pluck a weed out, a never-ending task. Nearby, his dog Lucky can’t resist the golden honey bunch tomatoes and gently pulls the ripe fruit from the vines, munching on them while a small decorative windmill slowly turns.
It’s been a bountiful year for Johnson and he rattles off the names of the herbs, vegetables and fruits that he’s grown: basil, thyme, rosemary, spinach, swiss chard, arugula, dill, cilantro, parsnip, mint, thyme, oregano, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers, asparagus, rhubarb, tomatoes, Concord grapes, black and red raspberries, apples, pears, sour and sweet cherries, peaches and plums. Johnson grows enough herbs, tomatoes and peppers that many go to a local restaurant and a member-owned grocery store that sells organic, local and natural products.
For Johnson, gardening is a passion and many of his neighbors have no idea that he has such a large garden. After all, he grows everything in his backyard in landlocked Upper Arlington, a Columbus suburb.
“My wife teasingly says that I would plant corn in the front yard if I could. But I keep everything low-key. From the road you’d never know that I have a large garden because the front of the house is relatively normal,” said Johnson whose garden takes up less than one-fourth of his 1-acre lot. When he bought the property in 1983, it only had one row of marigolds. Over the years he’s added about 50 trees and bushes.
“Some people think having a garden is expensive but all you need are seed, water and scissors,” said Johnson, a Franklin County Farm Bureau member who also serves on the county Farm Bureau’s board of trustees. “I started growing a garden because I wanted my kids to see they could do it on their own.”
Johnson’s interest in gardening started when he was a child growing up on 1 1/4 acres in Portage County. His family always had a large garden and at age 12 he started helping out on a nearby dairy farm, not with the milking but with the fruit trees. He learned how to graft trees, which involves joining a bud or shoot from one plant onto the trunk of another so the two unite and grow together. With the help of tree grafting, Johnson today grows about 30 different varieties of apples – all on just seven trees.
“With an urban backyard, you don’t have a lot of room for trees but this way you get not only a lot of different types of apples but you extend the picking season because they don’t all ripen at the same time. You also get better pollination,” said Johnson, who gives talks throughout Ohio on tree grafting. He and his wife, Denise, have three grown children who were in 4-H.
Johnson has a favorite apple tree – and he is still waiting to find out what type of apple it grows. It’s a certified Johnny Appleseed tree that reportedly will grow yellow Granny Smith apples used for cider and vinegar. He’s also interested in growing pawpaws, Ohio’s native state fruit, which tastes like a cross between a banana and a mango.
“It has a very short shelf life and is skin thin. It’s not something most people have. I like the challenge and that it’s part of Ohio’s heritage,” he said.
Tradition and heritage are a big part of Johnson’s garden. He loves growing heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables and does everything organically. He’s constantly tinkering with his planting plan, whether it is with the plant or the method. This year he’s using an experimental soil sock to grow his Genovese basil, which is susceptible to a virus. The black sock helps keep the soil from becoming contaminated.
Johnson, who sells computer systems for his “day job,” said that since his gardening space is limited, he carefully decides what to plant. He grows highly productive herbs and vegetables such as basil, tomatoes and peppers and grows them vertically. Viney plants such as squash are avoided because they take up too much space. By saving his seeds, Johnson says he has a constant, cheap supply for next year’s crop.
“The key is to grow things that you can get a lot of yield out of in a small space,” he said. “Being in an urban setting is ideal because you’re so close to the market and you can harvest quickly. Freshness counts.”
For Roger and Lynne Genter, gardening is a return to their roots. Roger grew up on a farm in northwestern Ohio and Lynne came from a family of 11 where the kids learned at a young age how to not only grow produce but how to preserve it through canning.
“I remember how the peach juice would just drip down my arms,” Lynne said. “The mornings were long with all the work but the afternoons were filled with swimming.”
For the past 30 years, the couple has lived in the Clintonville neighborhood in Columbus where shallow backyards are typical. For years they have mixed flowers with herbs and vegetables in pots, making weeding, watering and landscaping easier. A few years ago, they were inspired by their then 19-year-old daughter to learn more about where and how their food is grown. Lynne joined a local buyers’ club where members would visit farms to buy fresh produce and meat. Lynne decided to take the buying local approach to a new level – bring the farmers to the neighborhood.
In July 2003 she founded the Clintonville Farmers Market, which is set up on Columbus’s busy High Street. That first year there were six vendors; today there are 55 stalls and 65 vendors from across the state.
At about the same time that Lynne was concentrating on buying local, her husband was becoming more interested in growing large numbers of sunflowers and herbs to sell to florists and restaurants. The first year he grew sunflowers at his family farm but the drive to northwestern Ohio was too much. He then rented land in Circleville for a year. In 2005, Lynne met Val Jorgensen, who has a 65-acre farm in nearby Westerville, and the Genters were able to move their garden even closer. Roger uses about 1 1/2 acres of Jorgensen’s farm to grow sunflowers, basil and zinnias and in return he helps around the farm with whatever is needed. It’s the perfect relationship for both families.
“I couldn’t do it without him,” Jorgensen said of Roger who works several days a week on the organic farm where Romney lambs, chickens, turkeys, eggs, flowers, bees and herbs are raised. “Over the years it’s become a real partnership.”
That partnership is also perfect for Lynne. Growing the sunflowers, basil and zinnias in her backyard was not feasible because the couple would have had to “plow up the whole backyard.”
“I love that Roger has his big garden and that mine is just outside the back door and in containers that are not only pretty but keep the weeds down and are easy to water,” she said.
Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.