Each year as the dog days of August come upon us, my thoughts turn to the late Dan Whittaker, a master gardener before such a title came into being in official jargon. He lived at Mila, but his heart was at his grandfather’s farm in Lancaster where, with his son Earl, every summer he produced a bumper crop of vegetables of all sorts and descriptions. Various friends would join him in working the garden which covered, by my estimation, about two acres.
Every row was neat and ordered. If plants could read, he might have installed a sign, “no weeds allowed”, because nary a one was to be seen on the property. His methods were old-fashioned by today’s standards. He deep-plowed the land in the spring, then constantly tilled between the rows. He began with what he called “Irish potatoes”, planting them in accord with tradition before Saint Patrick’s Day. Although he was not Irish, he was quite particular about the March 17th deadline having to be met.
He next went into various types of lettuce, and began starting his tomato plants from seeds, often ones that he had saved from particularly good tomatoes harvested the previous year. From there, he went into beans and squash. With every species, he planted far longer rows and individual plants than needed for his own family’s use.
Dan was a carpenter, one whose work with wood was as precise as his gardening. Every board was cut to precision and before he started a project he calculated how many feet of each piece of lumber he would need, how many screws and nails and how long it would take him to complete the job. All of that figured into the estimate he would provide the owner of the property. His word was his bond and he did not modify the dollar figure once he had committed to the price. He was not into signed contracts but his reputation was such that he did not need to be.
His pickup was filled with his tools but when the garden started producing he would empty the bed and fill it with his harvested vegetables in the manner of an old-fashioned huckster. The difference was that he gave everything away. His oft-repeated quote was, “The Good Book says to feed the poor and that’s why I am here.” The vegetables were his way of meeting new people and, indeed, were the cause of our meeting him over 50 years ago when he pulled up our driveway with a bounteous crop of tomatoes that he wanted to share with us.
That visit led to his undertaking building onto our house and refurbishing the interior. He worked with Earl and his nephew, Robert, both of whom were as precise as he was. He was known far and wide for his pithy comments on the passing scene. In one case, while working on our porches, he paused as literally a funeral procession went past our lane. He took his hat off and remarked, “I should have been there but, oh well, we’re even.” My mother asked what he meant by that expression, to which he replied, “Well I’m not there and she sure as heck is not going to be at mine.”
In all that he did he was a hard worker. He did not have a nail gun—instead pounding every nail by hand—which was especially impressive when he was laying an oak floor. He worked up until the day he died suddenly of a heart attack on September 28, 1975. Earl continued his gardening, albeit on a much smaller scale, until his own health declined.
The farm is still in the family but the once abundant garden is now part of the cropland. For anyone who saw the garden, the sight remains unforgettable—equally as memorable as the gardener himself.