Lessons from the Garden

By Friends & Neighbors June 15, 2013 22:11


Anne and Walter Kempf: ‘Whatever we take out, we should put back in’

By Chace Anderson

Walter and Anne in their bountiful garden

Walter and Anne in their bountiful garden

Anne Kempf designed, wired and plumbed the Sonora-area home she shares with her husband, Walter.

“She’s so gosh darn smart,” says Walter, glancing lovingly at his wife of 46 years. “She can do anything.”

Her passion is their garden, which provides crops that fill their table year-round.

Both Anne (pronounced Annie), 85, and Walter, 80, were born in Switzerland and came to the U.S. in the 1950s, she to do housekeeping and he to work with an uncle in Galt. Not knowing each other at the time, Anne eventually went to work for Hewlett-Packard in the Bay Area and Walter for Breuners Home Furnishings in Sacramento.

HP offered employees classes in a variety of skills, and that’s where Anne learned to weld, wire, and plumb. Her mastery of the garden goes back much further, to her hometown of Ellikon, Switzerland.

When Anne was 14, her mother enrolled her in a twice-weekly gardening class, and that is where she caught the bug.

“It just makes me feel good,” she says with a strong Swiss-German accent. “I love to go in the garden. If something is on my mind or I have a problem to solve, it all works out in the garden.”

In 1965 Walter’s aunt told him about “a nice Swiss girl” she had met, and a meeting was arranged. He and Anne found they had both been gymnasts back in Switzerland, and a romance began. He transferred to Breuners in San Carlos to be near her, and the two married in 1967.

The couple continued to work in the Bay Area, even after buying five acres near Sonora in 1981. When Anne and Walter could get away, they worked on the land, planting trees and remodeling a little shack into a lovely home. Anne retired from HP in 1986, and when Walter left Breuners in 1988, they moved to the foothills.

KempfThey have deer-fenced 1.5 acres of their property, including their house, vegetable garden, vines, berries, a solarium, flowers, blooming shrubs and an orchard.

“More than half of what we eat comes from our garden,” Walter estimates.

They harvest vegetables year-round and collect fruit and nuts from 34 trees, many of which Anne grafted onto rootstock. Much of what they can’t use themselves, they give to friends or preserve.

They dry flowers and leaves from a linden tree to brew an herb tea. “It’s very good for the kidneys,” Anne says.

They turn their grapes into juice, and their berries and currants into jam. A dehydrator, vacuum sealer, two freezers and three refrigerators enable the couple to enjoy their garden’s bounty all year long. All the fruit and nuts that go into Anne’s holiday streusel are homegrown.

The soil gives Anne and Walter more than just food. “Energy makes energy,” Anne offers. “It makes me feel healthy to work in the garden. I get energy from gardening.”

The couple is conscientious about returning energy to their land as well. “Whatever we take out, we should put back in,” says Anne.

A neighbor delivers manure, and all of their pulled weeds, old plants and kitchen scraps go into a  hand-built, rock-walled composting pile. “And no chemicals,” Walter volunteers. “We don’t use any.”

KempfOne of the lessons Anne has learned in 70 years of gardening is the joy of sharing what she knows. Many local gardeners call her or drop by to pick her brain, and nothing pleases her more than to hear how nicely their gardens succeed. In fact, she is as proud of her friends’ gardens as she is of her own.

But the one with whom she has shared most is Walter. Each day they are in the garden, working together, sharing the labor and all the rewards.

“He’s the water man,” Anne says with a smile. “If I don’t know where he is, I follow the hose and always find him.”

Although Anne has tried to hire someone to help with the mowing, Walter insists on doing it himself, waiting each spring until the poppies have dropped their seeds to ensure no future spring will arrive without color.

“Walter didn’t know much about gardening when we met,” she says. “I had to teach him, too. Now we do all of it together. Our life is gardening.”


Marie Frazier – ‘I like to know exactly what we are eating’

By Chris Bateman

Frazier in her comfort zone

Frazier in her comfort zone

Marie Frazier wasn’t one of those kids who grew up wanting to be president. In fact, she had no taste for politics.

“I just wanted to be a farmer,” says Frazier, whose wish came true. She planted her first vegetable garden at age 17 and has done so in almost each of the 40 years since.

When she and her husband, Gordon, moved from Modesto to Jamestown in 1991, she hauled 40 cubic yards of rich valley soil to her new home so she could continue to grow tomatoes, squash, corn, broccoli, beets and more.

They built deer fences, installed a drip-irrigation system, and Marie became a Master Gardener. She incorporated bio-intensive methods, involved her daughters, Camille and Mary, in planting and harvesting, and fed her family a tasty, healthy diet of organic produce.

She has spent thousands of hours planting, weeding, fertilizing and harvesting, and each year cans or freezes any surplus, assuring home-grown vegetables are on the family table year-round.

“People say, Oh, you must work so hard,” says Frazier. “But it doesn’t seem like that to me. I just love being out in my garden.”

FrazierAnd yes, gardening would on occasion get her mind off contentious political battles that often monopolized the evening news, but seemed to have at best a tangential impact on her own life.

Want to get this soft-spoken woman worked up? Campaign rhetoric won’t do it, but bring up nematodes – microscopic worms that attack plant roots – and Frazier’s blood pressure jumps. With the ruthlessness of Dirty Harry and the cunning of Sherlock Holmes, she has fought protracted battles with these garden-killing pests.

“Nematodes,” says Frazier, her voice rising in exasperation. “They left my roots covered with lesions. And when I had my soil analyzed, the lab guy was surprised I could grow anything.”

Committed to organic gardening, she waged war without the aid of the chemical pesticides. It’s like bringing a knife – or more precisely, a trowel – to a gunfight.

“One person suggested injecting my soil with acid to get rid of the nematodes,” relates Frazier. “No way was I going to do that. I like knowing exactly what we are eating, and it’s going to be food free of chemicals.”

She did more research, then planted mustard, a nematode-killing species. She plowed the mature plants back into the ground, covered the soil with plastic to burn out the critters and kept her beds fallow for a year. Now, the rising crop in her garden attests, the nematodes are at least at bay.

FrazierFrazier has proved a worthy adversary for tiny creatures which dare undermine her garden. But her latest enemy – huge, powerful and wealthy –  has drawn her into the uncomfortable realm of politics. It began when daughter Camille became an intern for the Non-GMO Project.

“GMOs are genetically modified organisms,” says Frazier. “I had never heard of them.”

She found out that GMOs include genetically engineered seeds created to withstand herbicides, kill invading insects and increase yields for crops like corn, soybeans and sugar beets.

Advocates of labeling and additional controls say GMOs have not been proven safe and pose risks ranging from allergies to organ damage. GMO backers dispute these claims, maintaining that these products are not only safe, but enable farmers to economically feed more people.

Still, worldwide concern about genetically engineered plants has led many nations, including all of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India and China, to require that any foods containing them be labeled. A few countries have banned sale and cultivation of GMO products outright.

“I’m not a political person, and on other issues I’ve been content to let other people speak up,” says Frazier. “But this is about the food we feed our families. My food, my kids’ food and my future grandkids’ food is at stake.”

FrazierSo she stepped out of her garden and into the emotional campaign for Proposition 37, a California ballot measure requiring labeling on products containing GMOs. Which harkened back to her garden mantra: “I like knowing exactly what we are eating. We have a right to know.”

At a table on Sonora’s Washington Street, Frazier collected signatures to qualify 37 for the ballot. Some passersby were skeptical. “One man said, ‘I love GMOs, I eat them all the time,’ ” she recounts. “A few people weren’t interested. But more listened, asked questions and signed our petitions.”

During the fall campaign, she says, the pendulum swung and a multi-million dollar barrage of No-on-37 TV and radio ads spawned another wave of skepticism. Although its backers were outspent by nearly 7 to 1, Prop. 37 lost by fewer than three percentage points statewide. The campaign raised awareness of the GMO issue nationally, Frazier says, adding that “26 states are now considering legislation requiring some form of labeling.”

With temperatures warming and her crops greening, Frazier is back in her garden growing, among other things, flowers for Camille’s upcoming wedding. But she’s also tracking the ongoing campaign for GMO labeling and says she would not hesitate to circulate petitions, lobby legislators or go on the campaign trail again.

As this veteran gardener would attest, once you’ve dealt with nematodes, politics is not so tough.


Jack Frazier – ‘A good garden is never finished”

By Chris Bateman

Frazer strolls among his maples

Frazer strolls among his maples

Jack Frazer’s decision to start a nursery on his rural property nearly a decade ago hardly makes him unique. Few might have noticed if the retired chemist, then in his late 70s, had planted a couple of dozen trees on his 3.3-acre spread near Tuolumne.

But Frazer went far beyond enthused hobbyist. He invested a large amount in landscaping, irrigation, and purchase of nearly 9,000 maples. At one point, he says his post-retirement business – Maples by Design – boasted one of the largest varieties of the colorful trees in the western states.

An obsession? “I’d stop short of that,” says Frazer, scanning the expansive arboretum from his deck. “But I do love maples. When it comes to beauty, color, leaf structure and sheer diversity, nothing compares.”

Now 88, he smiles and shakes his head at the business he built.

“It’s intriguing,” Frazer says. “After a few years I realized that, had I chosen this as my life’s occupation, I could have made a nice living for myself.”

In the three decades before maples took hold, Frazer was a chemist with the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. He left the lab in 1981 as head of the chemistry department, where he supervised hundreds of employees – and sometimes disagreed with management.

“They liked what I did,” sums up Frazer. “They didn’t like how I did it.”

So he told his wife, Juanita, to pick a new home away from the bustle of the city. She was drawn to the Sierra foothills, so they toured towns between Chico and Chinese Camp before settling on the Sonora area, where they bought a home on Apple Colony Road.

“At first I was skeptical,” confesses Frazer. “But soon I came to love it. It’s the best decision we could have made.”

The chemist, who retired before turning 60, figured he’d build furniture for a living. But pharmaceutical company reps he had come to know during his lab career asked if he’d do some consulting.

“In a short time, I had five computers in my library, was consulting with a number of firms and was making good money,” he says. “I couldn’t afford to say no.”

That pushed retirement 20 years into the future, when he decided it was time to begin enjoying his property.

“My daughter, Pamela, and I had done some nursery hopping together,” remembers Frazer. “She told me that when I turned 80 she would leave her teaching job in Pleasanton and we’d run a little nursery on the side, make a little money and stay busy.”

His first maple? “I probably bought it at a nursery out by Half Moon Bay,” he remembers. “They were beautiful trees, and when I started to read about them, I was fascinated. Japanese maples have more varieties than any other species, and the challenge comes in propagation and even finding new cultivars. It all appealed to the scientist in me.”

Pamela came up with the name, Maples by Design, and helped start the business, but within months moved with her husband to Montana. Frazer decided to carry on without her, and began accumulating maples.

He read dozens of books, cleared his property of bull pine, poison oak, mistletoe and manzanita, installed an irrigation system and brought in thousands of young trees from nurseries in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

“Acer palmatum,” Latin for the genus and many species of Japanese maple, became Frazer’s mantra, and through grafting, he began to grow nearly 700 varieties. Other species of maples and hundreds of other plants – dogwoods, wisteria, grasses, even cactus – fill out this garden spot.

By the mid-2000s, Frazer had more than 3,000 trees for sale and many more growing in an arboretum that became a destination in its own right, and a regular stop on the annual Farms of Tuolumne County tour. Visitors find a beautiful garden with paths, picnic areas and maples of every hue.

“We have color – vibrant reds, oranges, yellows and more – from April through October,” says Frazer. “That’s the charm of these trees.”

Now nearing 90 and dealing with vertigo, Frazer is easing out of sales and will spend his time caring for the maples remaining on his property.

Is his longstanding passion one a casual green thumb should consider?

“I think raising them is easy – if you know what you’re doing,” he says. “If you water and spray, they’ll thrive. If you don’t, they’ll die. If you’re looking for instant gratification and just want a pretty tree without doing any work, maples aren’t the answer. You might as well quit fooling around and put in Astroturf.”

But long-term gratification? Frazer’s counting on it. Even now the scientist surveys his arboretum with an eye to what it will look like in 25, 50 or even 100 years. Spacing, color, compatible species and more are all on his mind.

“A good garden is never finished,” he says.

Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Friends & Neighbors June 15, 2013 22:11
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