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The Garden Wrtier Who Started "Plant a Row for the Hungry"

  • Subject: [cg] The Garden Wrtier Who Started "Plant a Row for the Hungry"
  • From: adam36055@aol.com
  • Date: Sun, 15 Jan 2006 12:42:04 -0500

Life long gardener is now an uprooted man

Lifelong gardener Jeff Lowenfels moved far from home and discovered writing, compassion for the hungry and, at last, microbes

Story by DEBRA McKINNEY ? Photos by ERIK HILL
Anchorage Daily News

Published: January 15, 2006
Last Modified: January 15, 2006 at 04:57 AM

ONLY CERTAIN THINGS CAN PEOPLE count on anymore. One of them is a high-powered attorney partial to bow ties who carries a clown nose in his pocket and a photo in his wallet, not of his wife and kids but of a fungus and a nematode.

Jeff Lowenfels, 56, spent the better part of his adult life working to develop Alaska's natural gas, first as a lawyer and eventually as president and chief executive of Yukon Pacific Corp., which sought to build a gas pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez. This was all-consuming work. Which explains the clown nose. Things get too serious, on it goes.

Yet even as multibillion-dollar deals were being put together, or unraveling, Lowenfels found time to write his local gardening column. Every single week. Without fail.

"Garden writing has become my religion," he said.

He's been writing his column for the Daily News for going on 30 years now.

"I've written columns the day my father died, the day my mother died. I've written columns under the threat of liver cancer -- all sorts of weird things. No way I'm going to miss that column. I don't care if I'm on my deathbed.

"If you're religious, you're religious."

This makes him the longest-running garden writer in America.

"I can think of maybe three people in the industry who've been running that long, but not as a column and not continuous," said Robert LeGasse, executive director of Garden Writers Association, a group of nearly 2,000 members founded in 1948. "And never having missed a column in 30 years? I don't know anybody who can make that claim."

Fewer than 20 people in the group's 57-year history have made its Hall of Fame, and Lowenfels is one of them. And for many reasons.

"He's one of the most well-respected, well-liked garden writers in the world," said Tom Alexander, publisher of Growing Edge magazine, published in Corvallis, Ore.

Through the years, Lowenfels has given his readers chemistry and soil science lessons. He introduced them to the wonders of ligularia and explained why poinsettias aren't worth the free pots they come in. He got them pronouncing "fuchsia" correctly. (The guy's name was Fuchs, and he was German, so it's "fook-sia," not "fewsha," for crying out loud.) He confessed his love of lawn mowing, always on the diagonal -- and once, when his wife was away, herringbone.

To think he wouldn't be here telling readers anything at all if he hadn't come so close to dying.

DATE FROM HELL

The day that divides Lowenfels' life into "before" and "after" was to be a romantic outing. He was a second-year Northeastern University law school student in 1973, newly in love and on his third date, taking his girlfriend to the Boston Botanical Garden. They never made it.

They were on bicycles and had to pass through a rough neighborhood to get there. They rode into a park, and as they stopped at a drinking fountain, four kids who couldn't have been more than 11 or 12 approached and asked for a match.

Lowenfels said they didn't have any and started to pedal away. He glanced back and saw his date being held at gunpoint.

"I went back and asked what was going on, and the kid with the gun said, 'We're going to shoot her blue eyes out.'

"Ah, I didn't think that was a great idea, and we had a little discussion about it. I got off my bicycle, and at point-blank range they pulled the trigger."

A .22-caliber bullet slammed into his neck, grazing the carotid artery that supplies blood to the brain, and lodged against his spine. He remembers a flash and a burst of pain, then bolting wildly across six lanes of traffic before collapsing on the sidewalk.

"This woman I was with happened to be a nurse, and she saved my life."

She chased him across the street and screamed for someone in the gathering crowd to call an ambulance while she kept him alive.

Lowenfels woke up the next morning in the hospital, and there she was. So were doctors, poking needles into his feet to see if he was paralyzed.

"They couldn't believe I could talk, I could feel, I could hear, that I could see. It was like shooting into a telephone and not hitting any of the wires inside.

"So she was there, and I said, 'You know, you saved my life, and there's this thing that if you save someone's life, then you're responsible for that life. So let's get married."

She agreed. He and Judith Hoersting, registered nurse, artist, master gardener and soul mate, will have been married 32 years in March.

"And now we have two wonderful kids and a great marriage," Lowenfels said. "It convinced me more than anything else in my life that you can make something good happen out of anything bad."

That bullet is still in his neck. He can feel it now and then, especially on cold days or if he drinks something hot like coffee. For years he kept an X-ray of it in his office to remind him that every day, from that day forward, is a gift.

That bullet changed everything: how he wanted to live, where he wanted to live.

"We're going as far away from here as we can go without a passport," he said he told his wife-to-be. "And that's why we ended up in Anchorage."

GARDENING GENES

For Lowenfels' father, it was upsetting to see the youngest of his three sons, the one he came so close to losing, move so far away. Lowenfels thinks of his early gardening columns as letters to him.

That's because Lowenfels is a third-generation gardening geek. His grandfather was so avid about it, he and his wife had his-and-hers greenhouses, and Lowenfels doesn't remember ever seeing them trespass on each other's territory.

His father inherited that passion. His gardens were his sanctuary, especially since he reluctantly took over the family butter and margarine business.

That family business explains why the happy boy on the cover of Happy Boy Margarine looks so familiar. Sporting a striped shirt, a butch and a big grin, a picture taken in the '50s of a 6-year-old Lowenfels is still on the package of this East Coast margarine, even though his family got out of the business years ago.

As an antidote to the world of business, Lowenfels' father raised his family on a gentleman's farm -- eight acres of lawns, gardens, orchards and arbors -- in Scarsdale, N.Y., just outside New York City. Where other kids had soda pop in their refrigerators, in the Lowenfels' it was homemade apple cider. Where other dads brought bottles of wine to dinner parties, his brought armloads of zucchini.

"We grew almost all our own food, if you can imagine that," Lowenfels said. "This was in a community that at the time was the richest community in the United States. I never realized that everybody else in Scarsdale wasn't doing the same thing. People had vegetable gardens, but they didn't have a two-acre vegetable garden. They weren't eating lettuce at home in the wintertime that was growing in their well house. And they didn't have 80 to 90 rhubarb plants. Good god.

"If I wanted to have anything to do with my dad, I had to go out in the garden. So I was always a gardener -- sort of an indentured servant. And that's how I got into this."

BEGINNING WITH COLEUS

Lowenfels and Hoersting first came to Alaska on their honeymoon in 1974 and soon returned, planning to stay five years.

"It was a different mind-set than we have now," Lowenfels said of the gardening scene. "People came up over the highway in their Volkswagen vans with all their records and hi-fi equipment and five or six plants they either had at their college dorm room or that were cuttings from their grandmother, and those plants were their family, their connection to the Outside. To lose one of those plants was a serious, serious problem."

So in the beginning, indoor plants it was. Their first year up here, Lowenfels actually had a little cultivation business going in his law office, growing coleus plants and selling them to Woolworth's.

The chance to do some serious outdoor gardening soon came, though, when a client at the firm where he worked said she was looking for "someone with a gardener's touch." Her husband had died, she'd moved away and she needed someone to care for their house.

That's how Lowenfels and Hoersting came to be the last to live in what's believed to be the first house built in Anchorage: the historic Oscar Anderson House, now a tourist attraction, on the edge of Cook Inlet.

They moved in and soon realized they weren't alone. As Lowenfels tells it, "We are the young couple referred to on the marker outside the building as having said it was haunted.

"All sorts of strange things happened. Lights would go on. Shades go up and down. Windows opened. Footsteps on stairs. Furniture would be blocking doors. Nothing serious. All friendly ghost stuff."

Lowenfels was thrilled to get his hands back into dirt. The gardening column came about a year later.

Back then, The Anchorage Times had the big circulation and the Daily News was the underdog, a seriously struggling one, while lawsuits over a joint-operating agreement gone bad got hammered out.

Lowenfels, an assistant attorney general at the time, became co-chairman of a group trying to keep Anchorage a two-newspaper town. He even sold Daily News subscriptions during his lunch break -- a couple thousand of them.

The Daily News' editor and publisher, the late Kay Fanning, was floored.

"She looked at me, she sat down, she said, 'What else can you do?' And like an idiot, I said, 'You know, I can write a garden column.' "

His column debuted Nov. 13, 1976. It was about Christmas cactus and poinsettias, and it was called "Petal Power."

To him, that sounded like a bicycling column. But he didn't complain. It wasn't like he was getting paid or anything. Not yet, anyway.

Week after week he'd bring in his columns, first handwritten, then typed on yellow legal paper. Suzan Nightingale ended up giving him one of the paper's office chairs as thanks for helping out.

"Some people frame their first paycheck. I sit on mine.

"So anyway, I wrote the column, and I figured, what the hell, you know? I mean, a couple, six months of this stuff and the Daily News will get back on its feet, everything will be hunky-dory and I'll go back to just practicing law and that will be the end of that. Next thing I know it's been a full year. Wooo. OK, so we celebrate."

As a way of thanking readers, Lowenfels arranged a special deal through an East Coast garden supply company for people to buy 100 tulip and daffodil bulbs.

"If we could get 100 people to buy these things, they'd give us this discount," he said. "And 1,700 people bought these packages.

The Lowenfels bulb deal turned into an annual plant-a-tulip program that brought 150,000 bulbs to Anchorage one year alone, winning him an Urban Beautification Award.

That was 1980, and he was just getting warmed up. That was before he discovered the Garden Writers Association and the Garden Writers Association discovered him.

Lowenfels went to his first meeting in 1982 and found himself sitting next to the garden writer for The New York Times. That's when he realized there was a lot more to this garden column thing.

He got on the board and eventually became president. For years he tried to talk the group into having its national convention here. But some felt Alaska was too far removed from the mainstream gardening community.

Wrong thing to say to Lowenfels.

They came in 1994.

"He sells Alaska," said the association's LeGasse. "How do you know if Jeff Lowenfels is selling Alaska? He's talking. If he's talking, he's either talking about gardening or Alaska or gardening in Alaska.

"I'm surprised you haven't elected him to office."

Lowenfels arranged garden tours all over the city and up and down the highways. By all accounts, the event was a whopping success.

"Having done meetings for 30 years, when they're over, I'm ready to leave," LeGasse said. "When these meetings were over, I stayed another week. When that week was over, I still wasn't ready to leave."

PLANT A ROW

Lowenfels helped create the Garden Writers Foundation, a scholarship program. And he's founder of another program on the verge of going international, one to help feed the hungry.

"It was below zero," Lowenfels said, recalling its beginnings. "I was coming back from dinner at The Red Sage, a very fancy, very expensive restaurant around the corner from the White House. I was coming back and going to my very fancy, very expensive hotel, and I had my hand in my pocket around some loose change. A guy came up to me and said, 'Do you have any money? I'd really like to get some food.'

"Now in D.C. they tell you -- like they do here -- don't give money to panhandlers; agencies are supposed to take care of them. So I didn't. I had my hand AROUND the money! I went back to my room, and there was a bowl of fruit and a bottle of wine. I really felt bad and had trouble sleeping -- because the guy had said, 'Come with me; watch me eat.' "

On his way home, somewhere over Seattle, he got the idea of asking readers to plant an extra row in their gardens and donate the harvest to Bean's Cafe. That became the Plant a Row for Beans project. And that grew into Plant a Row for the Hungry.

"The program is now in every state of the union. We've got inquiries from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America. I mean, it's just a phenomenal little program."

Last year, gardeners across the country donated more than 1.2 million pounds of produce to food banks and soup kitchens.

"Again, something good comes from something bad. I will never forget walking by that guy."

SEEING THE LIGHT

"Jeff really gets a kick out of writing that column," said Emery Cupples, a longtime Lowenfels reader. "I would say there aren't many articles that he's written that I haven't read. There's information in that column you wouldn't get anywhere else. He just does a lot of research."

Like Cupples, anyone who reads Lowenfels' column knows of his very public conversion from devout Miracle Gro man to his new role as the Rev. Jeff Lowenfels of the Church of the Soil Food Web.

For several years at Garden Writers Association meetings, the strictly organic people tried to convince him to give up chemical fertilizers.

"We'd have this discussion at the bar every year, and I would say, 'You tell me why nitrogen is not nitrogen, why it's different on the (elements) chart than it is when it comes out of the back of a horse ... and I'll never use Miracle Gro again.' And nobody could ever do it."

Then a few years ago, he got an e-mail from Tom Alexander of Growing Edge magazine. Attached was a microscopic photo of a fungus attacking a nematode, protecting the root system of a tomato plant. "Soil food web. You lose," Alexander wrote.

"I thought, what the hell is he talking about? So I did a LOT of research. I mean, my wife was gone, and I worked like crazy on this thing. I didn't sleep for 24, 48 hours. And I found a world out there I had no idea existed."

He pulls out his wallet to show what he's talking about.

"I don't have a picture of my wife in here. I don't have a picture of my kids in here. I have a picture of a fungus and a nematode."

An oversimplified, nutshell explanation is that root systems produce exudates and carbohydrates that attract fungus and bacteria, and while they're down there dining away, the joke's on them.

"They're the bottom of the food chain," Lowenfels explains. "They get eaten, and the things that eat them poop out excess nitrogen and feed the plant right in the root zone.

"That's how trees get fertilized. Not Miracle Gro. Not MagAmp -- you know what I mean? So, ha! I never knew that."

That's because until recently, soil researchers couldn't see what was going on down there, he said.

Lowenfels' Miracle Gro days were over -- because chemical fertilizers contain salts that suck all the water out of these beneficial, simple cellular structures and kill them.

"I was so embarrassed," he said. "I couldn't believe I had been writing about gardening for as long as I had and had never heard of half these words."

Words like "mycorrhizal," "hyphae" and "vascular arbuscular."

After he had researched this to death, he went public. The Daily News ran ads of him facing away from the camera: "Lowenfels is turning his back on 25 years of gardening," they read.

"And then I wrote a column that said: 'You know, I've been wrong for 25 years. I've been giving you bad advice, really bad advice.'

"I don't use the term 'fertilizer' anymore. It's 'organic microfoods.'

"So now I buy the beers at the meetings, and we don't argue this anymore. Because the argument's over."

"Now he's an evangelist," Alexander said.

He is. He's just finished a book on the subject, a collaboration with longtime business partner Wayne Lewis, with a foreword by Elaine Ingham, who pioneered soil food web research. He's calling it "Teaming With Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to Using the Soil Food Web." It's being published by Timber Press and is due out sometime in late summer.

Daily News reporter Debra McKinney can be reached at dmckinney@adn.com.

JEFF LOWENFELS' GARDENING COLUMN appears Thursdays in the Life section of the Daily News. His call-in radio show, "The Garden Party," airs from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KBYR 700


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