Carl Walton (left) was generous with his harvest and his time when yours truly came to visit.
Urban gardening and sustainable gardening are "hot" right now. But some people have been practicing both for decades. On the west side of Chicago lives one such pioneer. Carl Walton planted his garden in 1970, soon after arriving from Mississippi. The garden is not expansive, just an average city lot of about half an acre, including the house. For Walton, being "green" is common sense. Sustainable gardening, which limits inputs and outputs, is both productive and cost-effective.
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, Walton's modest front yard, filled with arborvitaes, sunflowers, and impatiens, conceals a small urban farm. Make no mistake, this is a garden for producing food. The speckled butter beans were 7 feet high. Even though Walton had just harvested them all, the vines were still strong and green. As they fade, he will pull down the plants, till them into the soil, and sow collards for an autumn harvest.
He keeps his garden at peak production throughout the season, growing several varieties of tomatoes, beans, celery, eggplant, cucumbers, collards, mustard greens, turnip greens, kale, onions, garlic, pokeweed, sage, and mint. Fruits and nuts include a pear tree, peach trees, apple trees, grapevines, strawberries, a walnut sapling, and a thin-shelled pecan sapling.
Gigantic butter bean plants tower over Walton's grandkids.
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 grapevines to get to the back section of the garden. There, mustard and turnip seedlings are emerging near an apple tree. The only down time in Walton's garden is the middle of winter, and even then he can harvest onions.
Extra produce goes 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.
Walton loves flowers, too, and this is obvious from the bursts of color throughout the front and back yards. A magnolia tree, cannas, hardy hibiscus, cosmos, sedums, rose bushes, tiger lilies, ferns, datura, hollyhocks, violas, and bleeding hearts thrive there. He says I have to return in spring to admire all the early bloomers.
Walton's uses methods that many of us consider to be part of a sustainable approach:
Walton buys meat, sugar, cooking oil, and a few other necessities, but his garden supplies all his produce, and he freezes much for the long Chicago winters. His garden also indirectly helps him get animal protein. Like most old-school gardeners, 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.
Walton's half-acre garden keeps food on the table or in the freezer year-round.
I learned of another of his skills when he showed me his grape harvest. In a barrel 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 wasn't looking. I tried it when I got home and it was good. A little too sweet for me, so I cut it with some Chardonnay and sat on my rooftop contemplating this man's accomplishments.
Walton makes me reluctant to call myself an expert. He has been 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 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.
The man is a living testament to the benefits of urban gardening and proof that urbanites can live sustainably. But he would not call it sustainable gardening, permaculture, environmentalism, or any other "trendy" name. To him, his methods — saving seeds, collecting rainwater, composting, crop rotation with legumes, and enriching the soil — are simply the best way to garden. So here's to you, Mr. Walton, cheers.
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