If you have ever turned up the hill from 9th Avenue, heading up Walnut Street toward Yost Pool, you may have noticed the neat rows of corn, tomatoes growing in buried plastic buckets, and big sunflowers towering over the fence. If you are a gardener yourself, you may have even stopped to stare enviously at the huge vegetable plot, daydreaming about what you might grow if you had such an abundance of space. How has this mini-farm survived for so long without becoming the foundation for some new construction project?
After strolling past this small farm so many times, I grabbed my chance to talk to the Farmer when I found him out there one day, dressed in overalls and boots and looking like a twin to his scarecrow. The small farm has survived, as it turns out, because it has only exchanged hands once since the Great Depression.
The Farmer and the farm’s former owner, old Cooper, met around town and hit it off like good buddies. Cooper lived in the little white and red house until he was 100 years old. He never had kids and his wife died about 20 years before him. Cooper and the Farmer became good friends over time and when Cooper died, the Farmer inherited his house and land.
“Real estate developers think I am nuts,” the Farmer says. “They come around trying to buy the land off of me, thinking it’s crazy to use it for growing vegetables, and I just ignore them. Then they really think I am nuts.”
Cooper had the land since the depression, says Farmer. He built the garage first and then lived in it with his wife until the big house was ready to live in. “The house is pretty much the same, even the old wood stove,” Farmer says. When I told him that the photos I was taking would end up on the Internet, he said he would tell his kids. “I don’t have a computer. I don’t have a cell phone. I have one of these phones,” he mimed, holding a separate ear piece and mouth piece. “They call it a candle stick phone.” He said he didn’t mind me taking photos of the plants; people stop and do it all the time he says. “One guy set up a tripod, was taking pictures of the sunflowers. Sometimes they talk to my scarecrow. They think it’s me! You can take pictures, just none of me,” he says, “And leave out my name,” he added. So we’ll call him Farmer.
Cooper worked his land for decades. Farmer has been at it for six years. “This is not what I thought I would be doing with my retirement. I thought I would be working on old cars, until I got this house,” he said, peering out over the rows of tomatoes. “You can’t just put it out and leave it. It’s like having kids — you gotta keep up with it.”
Farmer has lived in Edmonds for a long time, and he collected a lot of stories from Cooper. He knows that the property was used for promotional photos for the Merry Tillers catalog, an Edmonds company that started manufacturing the gardening equipment in 1947. Farmer has one of those old tillers posed next to the scarecrow stationed at the top of the yard. The Merry Tiller owner used to wear overalls and looked the part of a farmer, says Farmer. “And he could grow corn in concrete.” (We found an old Merry Tillers catalog to share here.)
“If you dig down, the dirt gets pretty hard,” Farmer explained to me. “You’ve heard of the term skid road? They used to do that here — skid the logs down the hill to the water. They had four or five mills down there at one time. Making shingles mostly. I’ve found old bottles and such in here. No bodies though.”
The vegetable plot is a full city lot of its own and is a lot of growing space for one man. Farmer has his own system down well and if there is one thing that you notice when you drive by, it is the neat rows and the organization of it all. “I don’t know if you would call it rotational, but I do move what I plant every year,” he explains. “Next year, the corn and pumpkins will be up here and I’ll put the potatoes at the bottom. It’s a cold spring, so you take a risk planting corn. but if you don’t, you miss your chance. You know what they say — it should be knee high by 4th of July — but I have only had that twice. You get corn if it’s warm enough to germinate, you just get it late.”
This year, he is growing early varieties of tomatoes, like Oregon Spring, Walla Walla onions, telephone pole peas, a few kinds of summer and winter squash, raspberries, plums, corn and “a mess of different potatoes.” He grows more than he can eat on his own, so he enjoys being generous with his neighbors, keeping them in fresh vegetables for part of each year.
He leaves room every year for a patch of pumpkins. A group of preschool kids come down annually and pick their own pumpkins. “Because, you know, they think those pumpkins grow in the back of the supermarket.” He likes doing his part to teach them differently. “A lot of kids, they don’t like to get dirty, but out here they don’t seem to care.”
With some luck, there will still be places to get dirty and grow seeds when those preschoolers are old enough to retire to their own gardens.
A culinary adventurer, Lara Alexander grows, cooks and writes about food from her home in Edmonds. You can read about her garden and kitchen fun on the blog Food-Soil-Thread.