Max Poorman made his first gardening mistake at the age of 5. His mother gave him a package of radish seeds, he recalls, and told him that if he’d plant them, she’d teach him which were the weeds and which were plants.
Poorman went out in the yard, dug a hole, and dumped in the whole package. “No, no no,” he recalls his mother saying. “One at a time.”
Now, 86 gardens later – yes, 86, for Max is now 91 and has never missed a year – there are fewer mistakes. Indeed, neighbors up and down Park Street in New Haven where he has lived and gardened for 56 years say they envy his skill.
After all, how many gardeners have tomato plants about 8 feet tall, a corn patch tasseling in at 9 feet at least, and zucchini as big around as a baseball bat and only a tad shorter?
Having lived on a farm in Illinois before moving to Indiana in 1943, Poorman, founder of Poorman’s Heating & Air in Fort Wayne, soaked up how to grow things from folks who did it the old-fashioned way. And now he’s finding that sometimes, the old ways are the best ways.
A few weeks ago, he says, Ricky Kemery, Allen County horticulture educator for the Purdue Extension, came out to help him with a minor bug problem and gave him a compliment.
“ ‘Max,’ he said, ‘you’re way ahead of your time. We’re trying to get people to do the things that you do.’ ”
Chief among Poorman’s accomplishments is creating his garden plot’s soil. It’s only about 20 by 40 feet but is very productive. He says he began enriching the soil years ago with food scraps.
His late wife, Mabel, would save peelings and coffee grounds, and he’d take them out back and bury them. They’d decay in a matter of weeks.
“That’s all black dirt now,” he says. “That’s good dirt, nice and porous. When you step on it, you can feel how spongy it is. It’s not that clay, that gets wet and slimy, and you can’t get the mud off your shoes.”
Yes, that’s right. Poorman eschews the oft-given advice to use raised beds to combat Indiana clay. He grows straight in the ground, which, thanks to the enrichment over the years, is about 10 inches higher than the surrounding soil.
His veggies thank him for it, if the beet about the size of a baseball he pulls up for a visitor is any indication.
Poorman has learned a few other things – about corn, for instance. He planted some in April and had what he calls “roasting ears” by the Fourth of July. Even though there was frost in April and again in May, he just used dirt to make little mounds to cover up the plants, and they did just fine, he says.
That corn is now done, and he pulled up the stalks to plant radishes, recycling the empty soil. The rest of his corn is in tassel, and he just pulled off the first couple of ripe ears last week.
Another of his favorite techniques is caging tomatoes. He fashions cages out of concrete reinforcing wire, sometimes wiring two together, skyscraper style, to accommodate plant height. He keeps the vines threaded inside the cages until they overgrow the top, and then he just lets them go. Tomatoes used to succumb to blossom end rot, he says, from resting on the ground. But no more.
“All that we have here is my own idea,” he says, standing among the rows. “Nobody told me about cages. I did that 40 years ago.”
For tomatoes, Poorman also has developed a novel planting technique. First, he digs what he calls “bowls” about 3 feet wide and 3 feet apart and about a foot down. Then he digs an additional 9 inches to plant starts he buys from local garden centers.
The bowls allow him to hand-water at the root in a way that doesn’t cause the water to run off or hit the leaves or unplanted ground, he says.
“It’s all contained,” he says. “It can go only one way, down into the root.”
Although many gardeners like to use heirloom varieties, Poorman says he prefers tomato hybrids. He’s had success with Early Girl, Better Boy, Jet Start and Champion. He put in a couple of newer hybrids this year but noticed they were among the ones that somehow acquired those bugs – aphids, he learned – and wilted.
Poorman also has a row of carrots, an onion patch and a good half-dozen sweet pepper plants.
He’s planted a variety of herbs, including oregano, rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender and verbena in his neatly groomed and mulched flower beds, where he also grows hybrid tea roses, evening primrose and several old-fashioned flowers and plants, garden phlox, Japanese money plant and Japanese lantern among them.
There’s also a bed of multi-hued petunias alongside his garage and a row of marigolds alongside the vegetable garden, “to keep the bugs down,” he says. People say they don’t like the smell of marigold plants, he says, but the technique works.
In other years, he’s grown summer melons, he says, and he still has a compost pile behind the garden, though he no longer uses it every year. “Doesn’t need it,” he says.
Poorman says he’s still learning. When Kemery came out about the bugs, a master gardener with him told Poorman that he might not want to just till under the grass clippings he spreads as mulch between the corn rows. The clippings might contain pesticide residue, she said. So he’s decided he’ll just rake them up at the end of the season and discard them.
The master gardener also told him he could cut back on the Miracle-Gro fertilizer he’s been using with the tomatoes and apply it every two or three weeks instead of weekly.
At the corner of his vegetable garden, Poorman has a stepping stone that reads, “One is nearer to God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.”
He heartily agrees. Though he enjoys swimming for exercise and frequently checks in at the business, his garden is clearly his passion.
“I just love to work out here, and that’s it,” he says. “I hate it when it gets dark and I can’t work anymore.”