Lois Mathis in front of her garden at her home in Toledo.
The Blade/Zack Conkle
Name: Lois Mathis, retired airport bus driver, living in the Delaware-Auburn neighborhood of Toledo.
Garden specs: Front, back, and side yards on a 100-by-40-foot lot. I'm also considered the lead gardener at the vertical vegetable garden at the J. Frank Troy Senior Center.
When did you start gardening: When I was 10. I grew up on a farm in Petersburg, Mich. My aunt worked in Detroit and about 1950, she purchased 120 acres, 40 to 50 of which were tillable. She didn't have children but her three sisters did and she figured it would be a good place for us. We moved there when I was 10, growing soybeans, corn, and alfalfa, vegetables, chickens, ducks, and rabbits. I'm the oldest of four girls and my mother was often doing her own thing so I was the primary caregiver. I drove a tractor and truck on the farm at 10, 11 years old, and did combining, plowing, and discing. I even learned to forage and took my sisters in the woods to pick blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, hickory nuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts. Then we'd load up the station wagon and my mother would go to Detroit where we'd drive through neighborhoods and sell them, along with greens, beets, okra, corn, and cabbage. I took care of the bills and bought seeds. We saved seeds and I learned the value of composting: everything we used went back into the soil if it didn't go to the pigs.
When I was 12, I went to a girlfriend's house and her mother was canning, so I watched her and learned to can, and preserved produce for the family. We cut wood for the pot-bellied stove and in the summer, we cooked outside. We had a 50-gallon drum in a fire pit that we boiled chickens in. We salvaged materials from an old house and used it to build a four-bedroom ranch house; we had a well outside but we never got indoor plumbing. I left home at 17 to do domestic work and ironing in Detroit and I always had indoor plants until about 1972 when I got a house with a yard. It had broken up concrete that I cleared away and put down newspapers, grass clippings, and compost and started growing vegetables and flowers. I had three children then. I've also worked in Toledo community gardens.
What do you grow? Mostly perennial flowers and a few tomatoes, garlic, onions, peppers. I built raised beds from lumber that had been a wheelchair ramp at the empty house next door and use those beds for a nursery for excess plants that I give away. In front I have hostas, a flowering plum, and a flowering crab apple. I grow pokeberry for the birds and sometimes eat it. The vertical garden at the senior center has collards, swiss chard, kale, bell and Hungarian peppers, bok choy, tomatoes, and squash in five-gallon buckets. The seniors can help themselves to what they want. A man from another senior center built us raised beds, so I took compost and soil over and we now have turnip, mustard, and collard greens growing in them. I'm also a recycler so I pick up and find uses for bricks and blocks, twigs, and so on.
Favorite plant: Hostas, daylilies, and daffodils.
Give us a tip: Use compost, save money.
Hours spent gardening: 15 to 20 a week.
Annual expense: Maybe $200.
Challenges: Slugs, grubs, crabgrass, and violets. I don't use chemicals, so deal with them by hand.
I'm proud of: The fact that I can divide and share what I grow with others. And I started a garden club about eight or ten years ago. I was talking to different women here and there when I go to yard sales and stuff, and some of them had annuals and I suggested they put in perennials. So we get together once a month, go to lunch, and bring our seeds, perennials, and houseplants to trade.
What I get out of gardening: I have peace in the garden. And I like sharing my knowledge with others.