Tom Anderson of Palatine has taken backyard gardening to a whole new level. With his nearly 300 feet of land filled with vegetable plots and fruit trees, the term, gentleman farmer comes to mind.
And families who visit the Palatine Township food pantry are reaping the benefits.
Anderson is one of the most prolific gardeners to participate in the Daily Herald's Giving Garden campaign. A participant since the program started some 10 years ago, Anderson says the idea of sharing fresh vegetables from his garden, merely feeds his passion to grow more.
"I kind of go overboard with things," he says with a smile. "It's become a year-round hobby."
Earlier this summer, Anderson and his wife, Nancy, brought as much as 150 pounds of produce - a week - to the food pantry.
"We love being able to do it," Nancy Anderson says.
They ranged from the traditional lettuces, green beans, zucchini, asparagus, broccoli and tomatoes in the beginning of the summer; to onions, peppers, turnips, and potatoes near the middle of the season.
One of their latest contributions pleased food pantry patrons: pumpkins.
"It's unbelievable," says Laura Hoover, Palatine Township food pantry coordinator. "They've given us such a variety. You should see the smiles on the faces of the kids when they get to pick out a pumpkin."
Recently, the couple began bringing another rare treat: apples grown in their backyard orchard, as well as pears, plums and even blueberries.
"Those are my favorites," Anderson says proudly of the blueberries. "I've been trying for years to get them to grow."
Admittedly, it was a challenge that intrigued him. Not only did he have to come up with a netting system high enough to prevent rabbits and birds from eating through, but he also had to bring in a water source.
Anderson explains that he is on a well system, and consequently his water has too much alkaline for the blueberries to flourish. Instead, he set up oversized barrels to collect rainwater, and he even ran a pipe from his sump pump to forward the runoff water up into the rain traps.
It worked. Anderson's 50 blueberry bushes produced so many berries, it would take him hours just to collect all of them.
"If you just tickle them, they fall right off in your hand," Anderson says.
His apple trees also produced in record numbers. Anderson carefully protected each apple in a small bag so as to shield it from insects and predators, and thereby eliminating the need for spraying them with pesticides.
Anderson stops short of calling them organic, but his careful nurturing has resulted in large, plump fruit that is free of holes and dimples.
"I've had apple trees for 30 years, and only had one other year with a bumper crop like this one," he says.
He concedes that the wet weather over the summer did lead to wet, oversized onions that he has had to dry out before bringing them over to the food pantry. The white, purple and yellow varieties are spread out on tables in his garage, backyard and in his shed, while they let their large roots dry out.
Nancy Anderson says she is used to being surrounded by vegetables and plants, even in the garage. "He starts in January," she says, "and grows everything from seed. It seems like we're gardening all year round."