I come from hundreds of years of Dutch farmers. As life in Europe became difficult due to famine and societal stress, my family came to the US over 130 years ago, seeking the rich black soil of Iowa, and freedom. I have been fortunate to visit the very land in the Netherlands where my ancestors had farmed. When I put my hands down deep into the rich soil, it rang a bell in my heart.
I grew up gardening. From the time I could pull a weed, Dad had me out in the dirt. He taught me the spring ritual of sticking my hands into the loose soil, seeking the warmth needed to have seeds grow. Later, I was big enough to run the rototiller and our 1/2 acre garden produced incredible amounts of vegetables, enough to fill hundreds of mason jars with the taste of the summer. After I left home, living in six different states, I always found a way to have a small garden.
In 2018, now retired from my life’s work of helping children with mental illness, I decided to have the biggest garden ever. I normally grew what we needed for freezing and canning, and to give fresh organic vegetables to my older relatives and to the local food banks. With my recent retirement and time on my hands, I went for it. We lived in a spectacular valley with views of snow-topped mountains. Working the deep and rich Western Colorado soil my late Dad had enriched with countless dump truck loads of manure and compost, I grew a magnificent and enormous garden. The huge beefsteak tomatoes were plentiful, the collard greens dark green, and there were hundreds of pounds of dozens of types of vegetables to use and donate.
Harvest time was here, but one September 2018 afternoon, I collapsed and was taken unconscious to the ER of our nearby rural hospital. I was diagnosed with West Nile disease – a tiny mosquito had taken this 6’3” 290 pound big guy down. Most people with West Nile have a brief illness similar to the flu. About 2% of victims, however, get very ill and many of those die. The first night in the ER, I almost passed away. I was put in a rehab unit for several weeks, with acute paralysis affecting my legs and arms. The virus also gave me brain encephalitis, and as a result, I was very confused and unable to think clearly or even read or write.
My adult kids came from afar to help my wife cope. When one of my daughters realized that the food in the garden would soon be lost, she put a notice on the local social media and told people they could come and pick all they wanted, for free. Nothing went to waste. I spent months in a nursing home bed, unable to walk or even hold a spoon. I came home later that winter, in a wheelchair. I spent many long days gazing out my living room window at my garden, wondering if I could ever grow our food again.
When COVID hit, I was unable to hire help to work the land, and we regretfully decided we had to move from our small farm. We relocated to the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, and bought a home in a neighborhood with a small back yard. My mobility and arm strength was improving but due to risk of falling, was not recovered enough to work the ground.
I discovered VEGO raised beds, and bought and assembled (with help) four beautiful 17” high, large green beds. After my helper filled them with dirt and compost, using a cane for balance in one hand, and working a small hoe with the other hand, I safely planted the raised beds. I can’t express how it felt to get my hands in the dirt again, and what it did for my soul to again pick an armful of greens for dinner. Now, you can see how beautiful the VEGO beds are, full of healthy plants, with even butternut squash plants beginning to vine out of the beds. Tomatoes are coming, more VEGO beds are in my very near future, and once again, my farmer heart is full of joy.
----Photos from John E. VanDenBerg, Ph.D