As the last of a bumper crop of tomatoes is being sliced around the north country, A Guy on a Bike rode into a slice-of-life gardening tale one recent morning on a quiet road on Steele’s Point just past the village of Clayton.
For Patricia Keal, her predicament began last spring, as it did for many north country gardeners, when the old adage of “be careful what you wish for” is ignored and thoughts of garden grandeur, seeded on long winter days, overcome common sense. The result is such bounty that it seems to reach out to grab us.
“That attacks you as you walk past!” Mrs. Keal said, avoiding a butternut squash as she strolled by the fenced-in raised-bed garden in the back of her home. The squash had grown through the fence; the plant is on one side and the vegetable was hanging on the outside of the fence, as if pondering its next move in an escape.
The source of Mrs. Keal’s prolific garden is the raised beds she experimented with this year. That idea was planted when handyman George A. Karpel was doing some work in her neighborhood and wandered over and mentioned them to her.
“He’s responsible for this,” Mrs. Keal said.
Mr. Karpel is a soft-spoken man who is an advocate of raised gardens and has installed about six for various people since he became a convert about five years ago.
Mrs. Keal enters her fenced-in garden beds through a gate. Her plantings are in giant rectangular boxes, framed by 2-by-6 boards in various lengths, which are now hard to see with the overgrowth. Most beds are about a half a foot off the ground, but her green bean plants are raised waist high, creating especially easy pickings.
After Mrs. Keal noted she’s been enslaved in her kitchen lately canning and freezing her bounty, Mr. Karpel matter-of-factly mentioned his breakfast.
“I haven’t had a tomato sandwich for an hour now,” he said. “My breakfast is a tomato sandwich on toast with a side salad.”
Mrs. Keal has had a garden in the backyard of her Rivershore Drive home for about 20 years. But this year, her two 4-foot-wide raised-bed gardens, totaling approximately 1,300 feet, are enough to attract curious onlookers. Her yield has tripled.
“People come down, and if I happen to be out here, they’re like, ‘Wow!’” Mrs. Keal said.
Her garden includes green beans, a couple of varieties each of squash and tomatoes, along with eggplant, peas and swiss chard.
Mrs. Keal’s neighbors are beginning to get wary when they see her coming.
“I have a couple of neighbors who really like to bake zucchini bread and stuff like that,” she said. “They hide on you. But when I get a big one, I usually call and say something like, ‘Bev (Murray) — it’s a little cooler now. Are you going to be making some zucchini bread? I have just the one for you.’”
Mr. Karpel said there are many advantages to raised-bed gardens, such as compactness.
“When you row plant, it’s all over the place,” he said. “With row gardens, two-thirds of the garden is walkway. With raised beds, two-thirds of the garden is planting area. You can condense your plantings.”
Another advantage: Things are easier to get to.
“You can see the height difference,” Mr. Karpel said. “You can reach things better, where in a row garden you have to bend over. Here, you get a six-to-eight-inch advantage.” Mrs. Karpel still has to bend over to pick, but not as much, and many of her vegetables climb high enough with help of wooden cages that she doesn’t have to.
“You can reach in from two feet on each side,” Mr. Karpel said. “They can be as long as you want, but the width is important.”
He said raised bed gardens are particularly useful for city residents.
“If they only had an 8 foot by 10 foot space, they could grow enough food for one or two people easily, if they also used tricks like cages and trellises,” he said.
Mr. Karpel also advises mulching the top of the soil. Mrs. Keal’s gardens also feature carpet he found by the side of the road that acts as a base to also help prevent the growth of weeds.
“I tell people if you get a rototiller, to put it by the side of the road,” he said. “You have no use for it.”
Mr. Karpel researches raised-bed gardens over the winter. He buys books on the subject and searches the Internet for tips.
“Most of the methods have been around for thousands of years,” he said. “You can raise a good garden with minimum effort. That’s my purpose: to maximize production with minimum effort.”
Mrs. Keal often takes her excess production to the senior center in the village.
“They think it’s gold,” she said.
But her garden’s success can be attributed to more than the raised beds. A special soil is a key ingredient.
Mr. Karpel said village policeman Robin Pierce is the source of it.
“He has composted cow ‘dirt’ that he delivers,” Mr. Karpel said. “Cows eat the hay in that certain area and after a period of time, everything works into the soil. He just takes that soil out.”
Mrs. Keal said that when she first heard that, she was skeptical.
“I had to wait for the soil because (the field) was flooded in the spring,” she said. “George kept saying, ‘It’s going to be worth it.’ I wasn’t sure to believe him, but I sure do now.”
“Her tune has changed,” Mr. Karpel said. “Before, she complained things wouldn’t work; now she complains she can’t keep up with it.”
But on this morning, Mrs. Karpel, like a desperate woman struggling to bail out a boat, did manage to lighten her load.
“Do you want some tomatoes?” she asked her bicycling visitor, who stashed three types in his backpack: an heirloom variety, a “Jet Star” and a roma.
She was asked about plans for next year.
“I’ll cut back a little bit,” she said. “Of course, I say that every year, but come spring ...”
A Guy on a Bike is an occasional column in which the rider introduces you to people and places along roads you might easily miss. If you have a suggested ride/column idea, contact email@example.com, or write to Chris Brock at the Watertown Daily Times, 260 Washington St., Watertown, NY 13601.