Mike Monus: Gardening for the memories

  • weed-it-and-reap-monus-kids

    Irelynd McAllister, 4, picks a tomato from her grandfather's backyard garden.

    The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
    Buy This Image

  • Mike Monus stands in his backyard garden that has raised-beds to accommodate his physical limitations.
    Mike Monus stands in his backyard garden that has raised-beds to accommodate his physical limitations.

    Name: Mike Monus, retired head hunter, living in South Toledo.

    Garden specs: In a fenced-off portion of the backyard (our three standard poodles have the run of most of it), my family built raised beds. Two, made of cement blocks, are 4-foot-by-22-feet and 3 feet tall, and the shorter crops grow there. Tall and vining crops such as tomatoes, beans, cukes are in four other raised beds made from cedar boards (about 4-foot-by-9-foot and 12 inches high). Between the beds, the mulched paths are wide enough for a chair so I can sit down and work.

    When did you start gardening? When I was five or six years old I would help my Hungarian grandmother in her garden and farm. We lived in Champion, Ohio, about 20 miles northeast of Youngstown. She had a huge garden and kept chickens. My grandfather grew hay and cared for about 50 dairy cows. I got to know them because I was with them every day after school from about kindergarten to fifth grade.

    What do you grow? Tomatoes (romas for canning, Mr Stripey, pineapple, yellow pear, black prince, purple cherokee). You can never have enough romas. Cucumbers, eggplant, bush and pole beans, bell peppers, herbs, a couple varieties of lettuce, kohlrabi, celery, carrots, zucchini (only a few this year), kale, cabbage (it was wormy), broccoli, leeks, radishes, potatoes, chives. Also hot peppers: jalapeno, serrano, and habanera.

    The flowerpots and beds still have plenty of fall color with salvia, geranium, marigold, hostas, hydrangeas, petunias, and ageratum.

    Favorite plant: All hot peppers. I'm Hungarian! I make salsa and pesto.

    Give us a tip: From Kris Monus, Mike's wife: Gardening is Mike's love. After his back surgery last year, I harvested the produce. I've had two back surgeries myself and I knew there was no way he'd be able to do this. We started this year's project in the spring by outlining the areas with string and putting down brown, unbleached cardboard boxes as a weed barrier (I got them from Lowe's; I believe in repurposing). Then we put 10 to 12 bags of brown leaves on the flattened boxes so we wouldn't need to buy as much compost.

    During Easter weekend, we rented a pickup truck and made three trips to a salvage collector's to get 252 concrete blocks, previously used to support mobile homes (and half the price of new blocks). Sixty caps randomly set on the top layer were less than half the price of new.

    We stacked the blocks but didn't secure them with cement because we wanted the flexibility to move them if needed. For stability, we put rebar poles in the corners and a few in the middle. I lined the inside of the beds with 6 ml clear plastic sheeting because of a concern that the blocks would draw moisture from the soil. We filled the beds with at least three loads of compost.

    To make the exterior more attractive, I stained the blocks a muted reddish brown. It was easy. I purchased two bags of powdered iron sulfate (copperas) at Black Diamond in Perrysburg (about $5 a bag), mixed it with water, and applied two or three coats with a basic deck-pump sprayer. I used the process described at cathy-moore.com/house/stain.html. And in the holes in the top layer of blocks we've planted chives, marigolds, and zinnias.

    To save money on water, we put drip hoses controlled by a timer on the beds.

    From Mike: To eliminate bending, I grew the tomatoes vertically according to instructions at veggiegardener.com/build-tomato-trellis. We used 18 7-foot-tall green fence T-posts staked about 18-inches-deep, then strung rope between them at a few different heights, but next year we'll probably use something heavier for the tomatoes to grow on, such as 14-16 gauge wire. As the tomatoes got taller, I attached their stems to the rope with simple plant clips. As more branches appeared on top, I pruned off lower branches.

    One more tip: Keep plant tags, especially when you're growing several varieties of herbs and tomatoes, because after a few weeks, they all look alike. I just discovered the tomato we've enjoyed the most is actually the pineapple tomato. I'd thought it was Mr. Stripey.

    Hours spent gardening: 25 to 30 hours a week.

    Annual expense: About $700 for the beds and compost (which was a little too rich for the plants so I'll add topsoil next season). Next year, planning on $200-$300.

    Challenges: After major back surgery last summer, I am unable to bend. Now that everything is vertical and I can work from a chair, there's no bending and no aching back.

    I'm proud of: My wife, Kris. After my surgery, she realized I had some limitations. Knowing how much the garden meant to me, she spent the winter studying how to build a garden in an ergonomical way. She researched methods to build cement beds and natural staining techniques for them, types of cedar beds, trellis systems, and did it all in a reasonably affordable way.

    Irelynd McAllister, 4, picks a tomato from her grandfather's backyard garden.
    Irelynd McAllister, 4, picks a tomato from her grandfather's backyard garden.

    This spring, when we were about to create the new garden, I learned I'd need a defibrillator implanted and couldn't garden for several weeks. What happened was wonderful. My children (Lauren of Toledo, Ashley from Dublin, Ireland, and Taylor, from Cleveland), along with my grandkids Irelynd and Kaedyn McAllister, Kris, and her mother Cleona Simonsen, came together to build the new garden for me according to Kris's plan. They unloaded, carried, and stacked the cement blocks, filled the beds with compost, spread mulch in the walkways, and planted.

    What I've gotten out of gardening: Those same memories I have with my grandmother, I am able to build with my grandchildren, especially Irelynd. She's 4 and every day comes over to help me pick me in the garden. She picks the low hanging ones and I get the higher veggies. She talks the entire time and keeps me entertained.