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: email@example.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
"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
"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
"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."
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
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
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
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
"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
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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