For many years, Mr. Stuck and I have gotten our tomato plants from a local source. The plants are always large and loaded with blossoms, with stems as thick as a man’s thumb. We get four or five plants, and sometimes we purchase one of the hanging flower baskets or potted lilies that are for sale, too. But aside from the healthy, organically-grown plants, our main reason for buying our tomatoes there was the gardener himself, Dick Raymond.
One day about fifteen years ago, Mr. Stuck came home from work to tell me about a man he’d just met who sold tomatoes, and that we should go buy some from him. He insisted that I had to go see this man’s garden – there wasn’t a weed to be found! I come from a long line of gardeners, so that I had to see.
We drove up to the neatly-kept, white house with blue trim. A sign out front said to go around to the back yard. Dutifully, we made our way around the side with the huge, purple clematis to find a little old man in overalls and mucking boots, stooped over the plants he was weeding. Mr. Stuck greeted him with, “Hi, there! I had to bring my wife back to see your garden!”
Mr. Raymond chuckled, wiped his hands, and came over. Mr. Stuck introduced me to him, and he shook my hand. He gestured toward his back deck, where stood at least 50 tomato plants in gallon-sized pots. “Well, I’ve got a few tomatoes here,” he deadpanned. He showed us his garden plot, which took up most of his back yard. The soil was dark and crumbly, tilled and sown in perfect rows. He happily explained his composting and soil amendment methods. He pointed out the cherry tree that was heavy with blossoms, and noted that he allowed the birds to eat the fruit from a different tree so they’d leave that one alone. He said, “This one will be loaded with cherries this summer, so come back and get some!”
We admired his garden, bought a few tomato plants, thanked him for his hospitality, and went on our way. I returned a few weeks later to buy one of his gorgeous hanging fuchsia baskets. I had described them to a friend at work, who then asked me to pick one up for him to give his wife. It was so large I had difficulty putting it in my car! My friend could not believe how big and beautiful it was.
It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for little old men. I suppose growing up without grandparents and losing my dad has something to do with that, but no matter — I found Mr. Raymond absolutely delightful. He was warm, engaging, and had a great sense of humor. He was of the same generation as my parents, the ‘Greatest Generation.’ He was a war veteran. His thick accent belied his New England upbringing (Massachusetts) and punctuated his jokes and stories. He greeted everyone as a friend, and always gave helpful gardening tips to the folks who stopped by.
One such tip seemed like a joke when he first told us. We came back that first summer for the cherries; the tree was so laden it was red with them. Mr. Raymond said that a couple had just picked a five-gallon bucket of them, but you couldn’t tell at all. We asked how he got such a huge crop – did he use a special fertilizer? He leaned toward us, and in a conspiratorial whisper, said, “If I tell you, you won’t believe me.”
It was a special technique he used on his trees: early in the spring, before the sap rose, he would roll up a newspaper and beat the tree trunk soundly. He said, “You have to whack it good. Get that sap to rise, wake that tree up. It works – trust me!” And he demonstrated, saying, “I get people all the time asking me how I get so much fruit on my trees, and this is what I tell them. They think I’m pulling their legs, but I’m not.”
Every spring, we’d make our way back to Mr. Raymond’s garden for tomatoes, peppers, and flowers. We’d visit and catch up on things. He’d show us his new projects, like taking cuttings from the rhododendron he had out front whose blossoms were the most gorgeous shade of violet-red I’d ever seen, or the hundreds of lilies and trillium he had growing around his yard. With palsied hand, he would pull Polaroids out of his pocket to show us his enormous tomatoes or abundant flowers, and a couple of years ago he shared a news clipping commemorating the celebration of his 90th birthday. He couldn’t stop talking about how much fun it was.
Recently, as we drove past his neighborhood while running errands, I mentioned to Mr. Stuck that it was time to go check out his tomato plants again. We decided to swing by on our way back home that afternoon. Last year, Mr. Raymond had sold cuttings from his gorgeous purple clematis, and I was lucky enough to get the last two. Maybe he had something new this time.
When we pulled up to his house, it looked different: there was a gate on his fence; a dog was barking from the back yard; and two children’s tricycles were out front. Mr. Stuck said, I don’t think he’s here anymore. The gate was open, so we knocked on the door. The man who answered the door said no, Mr. Raymond was deceased and hadn’t lived there since last fall.
We thanked him for his time and walked sadly back to our car. Not sad for Mr. Raymond, because he had lived a long, full life, but sad for us, that we wouldn’t enjoy his wisdom and humor and gardening expertise any longer. I wish I had known about it when he passed away – I would like to have gone to his service to meet his family and express my deepest respect for the man.
So goodbye, Mr. Raymond. You taught us well. I hope that the folks who live in your little house have as much love for the seeds and the seasons as you did. I hope the cherry tree is bursting with the promise of fruit, and I hope your rich garden plot does not lie fallow, but that life springs forth from it for as long as someone lives there. You will always have a place in our hearts; after all, you know what they say:
…Old gardeners never die – they just spade away.