Kathy Van Mullekom
August 6, 2010
Ed Alexander looks and feels much younger than his 84 years.
His blood pressure is a healthy 120/70.
His cholesterol is a low 89 to 116, and not the high 170 it used to be.
His 6-foot frame weighs a trim 160 pounds.
He laughs often, enjoys 59 years of marriage and naps frequently.
More importantly, he and wife Jean, 85, follow a mostly vegan diet. They occasionally indulge in seafood, avoid sugar and milk products, lace oatmeal with flaxseed meal, eat only whole grain bread and snack on fresh fruit.
"If 84 is considered a leg up on advanced age, so far, so good, for I have lived 23 years longer than my father and both grandfathers," says the retired Newport News, Va., physician. "I'm healthy and don't feel 84."
Ed credits much of his good health to the huge organic vegetable garden he faithfully plants and maintains in his back yard.
He brags that he's a lazy gardener, spending no more than a "golf round every week" at the chores that keep them in sweet-tasting Candy onions and mouth-watering Gold Star cantaloupes.
For almost 20 years, Ed has been raising spring, summer and fall vegetables in raised boxes he makes from pine boards. Each is filled with good quality top soil, heaps of compost and an organic fertilizer he mixes with green sand, dolomitic lime, bone meal, kelp and blood meal. He irrigates with soaker hoses hooked to timers.
"This garden is no tilling and as little watering as possible," he says.
"There's never been pesticide in this garden and you will not find a bug in this garden. You will see lots of spiders, and spiders are devastating to bad bugs."
Ed's love for gardening goes back to his childhood days in Hanover County, Va., where his grandfather was a farmer who specialized in tomatoes.
Even today, much of Ed's garden is consumed by lush tomato plants heavy with the fruit of his favorite varieties, which include Early Pick, Celebrity and Better Boy.
A stickler for details, Ed keeps records on each vegetable box. For instance, his data on four tomato plants in 2005 shows they yielded 200 pounds of fruit. "Excellent crop," is noted in his comments. This year's garden includes 10 tomato plants.
"As a vegan, I like tomatoes in every shape and form," he says. "I eat at least three every day of my life consuming Comparis from Costco in winter."
He has his garden techniques down to a science, thanks to the endless reading that he's done over the years.
"Do as I have, read every garden book you can find," he says. "I have 30 in my library, and vacuum the brains of experts."
A subscription to Mother Earth News and books like "Gardening in Hard Times," "Foods to Fight Cancer," "Leading the Good Life" and "The Joy of Laziness" keep him focused and in tune with his lifestyle goals.
During a tour of his garden, he's comfortable in the swelling heat, barely breaking a sweat as he walks up and down the rows of boxes. Near the garden, potatoes bake in a solar cooker he purchased 20 years ago; the cooker resembles a small satellite dish with a glass container that holds a lid-covered pot in the middle.
In the center of the garden, more than 300 Candy onions from Omaha Farms in Texas are almost ready to harvest. Jean stores them in an extra refrigerator in the garage until they are needed. They plant enough to see them through winter.
"They are the same as Vidalia onions, maybe even better," Ed says.
His planting methods are simple and always the same. He rotates crops faithfully, mulches with aged, untreated grass clippings and plants crimson clover in the fall to continually add nitrogen to the soil.
In early April, he uses a Black & Decker Grass Hog trimmer to cut the clover, leaving the foliage and stems as mulch. Two weeks later, he plants tomatoes directly in the mulch.
In March, he broadcasts lettuce seed; when it's finished, he uses the trimmer to cut what remains of the lettuce so he can plant crops directly in the residue. He plants beans and cucumbers throughout the summer; squash go in June 1, or after the damaging borer completes his life cycle. Snap beans, small limas, water melons and peppers are also part of his summer garden.
In fall, he sows kale, turnip salad, turnips and cabbage.
"I've costed it out and I get $7 returned for every $1 invested," he says. "I enjoy the exercise, challenge and eating pesticide-free vegetables.
"Happily, most of my five children are moving to plant-based fodder and two of my 12 grandchildren are vegetarians."
ED'S HEALTHY LIFESTYLE TIPS