By Mary Jane Smetanka
Photos by Tracy Walsh
John Whitman is an eclectic man with a garden as unusual as himself.
He’s a Minnesotan whose passion for gardening began more than 60 years ago when his mother told him to bury sprouting potatoes in a pile of dirt. In college, he was a French major and got a graduate degree in teaching. But he liked to write and made his living as the author of travel and gardening books, pounding New York City sidewalks to sell his ideas to publishers when he had to.
“There’s a lot of stuff people say you can’t do, and then you just do it,” he says.
That same determination and curiosity has led to unusual gardens that burst with both produce and beauty. His current garden in Long Lake backs onto woods and combines more than 70 types of vegetables and annual and perennial flowers, with a touch of the quirky—a towering stand of lamb’s quarters, an edible plant many gardeners consider a weed.
Whitman, whose book Fresh From the Garden: An Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries and Herbs in Cold Climates was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2017, says that after decades of experience, he follows his gut in the garden. Nature is his guide. If a plant doesn’t do well, he tries something different the next year. Every year he grows something new. Planting flowers amid vegetables helps create a healthy ecosystem that keeps the pest population down.
Though passionate about plants, he is disciplined enough to usually grow a single specimen of each variety so his plants have plenty of space. The garden is mulched with wood chips and carefully weeded.
“I really see the garden when I weed,” he says. “I emphasize diversity… I haven’t ever used sprays in the garden. I want to keep the frogs and toads happy.”
His most recent garden included mibuna, a mustardy Japanese green, and golden purslane, an upright yellow relative of a common weed with big, tasty leaves. He also grew two heirloom kale, a dwarf blue and a purple Red Russian with color that intensifies with frost.
“Growing odd plants is really interesting,” Whitman says. “I order seeds from all over.”
Beets were tucked under chard and next to beans. He grew daikon radishes and three kinds of cucumbers and thought Bush Champion performed the best. Whitman loves iris and had moved some to a neat raised bed near the rear of the garden, where daylilies act as a backdrop.
Plants that need more space are found at the back of the garden, where raspberries thrive and vines bearing pumpkins and squash roam. Whitman’s wife, Donna, makes jam from the berries; the couple gives away much of the produce, and neighbors know they’ll receive pumpkins for Halloween.
Whitman delights in eating produce he knows is “fresh, safe, and nutritious.” But gardening is about more than food for him.
“Every day I go out and see something new,” he says. “I think it adds mental clarity, is emotionally satisfying, and adds peace and beauty to our lives.”
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer, Master Gardener,
and self-proclaimed plant maniac.