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The lone gardener

"A gardener comes back and takes care of his plants. A landscaper, they set it and forget it. They don't care."

  • 16 min to read

An older man rides his bike up to a plot of flowers, two 5-gallon buckets full of water hanging from the handlebars. The man dismounts and, hunched over, steps gingerly down the sidewalk, a bucket in each hand. Using a plastic cup to scoop and pour, he waters the plants.

It’s a scene drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians alike have witnessed at street corners around West Lafayette.

Ed, 65, toils for hours without pay beneath the summer sun, clearing weeds and smoothing soil with a hoe. He occasionally digs up plants, only to rebury them in another plot of dirt.

“A gardener comes back and takes care of his plants,” he said the first time I walked up to a plot he tends on Salisbury Street, near the Happy Hollow sign. “A landscaper, they set it and forget it. They don’t care.

“A gardener has more vested in it.”

West Lafayette Parks and Recreation officials have noticed Ed, too, while he’s digging through six or seven of their public plots. He often works on spots cared for through the city’s Adopt-a-Spot program, by which organizations or individuals donate time to tend gardens at street corners around the city.

“He doesn’t really want to expose his name to us,” Parks Director Kathy Lozano said. “He’s just working in all the public beds, so we’ve been trying to befriend him. He feels as if (the beds) are neglected and he wants to make them look better.”

Ed’s gripe about landscapers became the source of a dispute between him, the city and a landscaping business that tended the Adopt-a-Spot on the corner of Columbia Street and River Road. Ed considers the bed, an amalgam of daylilies, irises and chrysanthemums, his “first love,” he said.

At least it was, he added, “until it became a weed-infested mess again.” He said he’s been helping to garden the spot for four years. Starting a couple of years ago, he gradually began to lose his grip on it.

The city, Ed says, prefers reliable, consistent parties to adopt and tend to the plot. This spring, Ed thinks his original spot and several others have been neglected by all but him.

“We’re promoting the pandemic,” Ed said as he looked upon the Columbia Street spot with dismay. “Let’s make everything look as dismal as possible.

“There’s not a thing this year, why is that? Nobody gives a shit anymore, we just let everything fall apart?”

City worker Bryce Patz said U.S. Lawn, the landscaping business, no longer manages the spot, a result of the city discontinuing its contract with the company.

Patz, in what Ed called “a bit of an altercation,” talked to Ed near the spot a few years ago. Ed says Patz admonished him for the mound of dirt he’d piled on the sidewalk, a violation of city code. Patz recalls he asked for Ed’s name with the thought to honor him as volunteer of the year, to no avail: “He wasn’t interested.”

“Oh my god,” Ed says, heaving his entire body into an eye roll when I relay Patz’s claim. “Volunteer of the year? That is a laugh!”

It’s not unlike Ed to be disagreeable when any reference is made to city government. He speaks of the city’s Adopt-a-Spot director vindictively, determined to lash him into retirement if the local TV station ever allows Ed on air.

This hardheadedness reappeared during each of four conversations in which I asked Ed to share his last name. Each time, he demurred, sometimes upset — “It’s none of your business.” — and other times jovial.

He prefers to be known as “Ed, the Garden Man.”

“Not everybody needs a first and last name,” he suggested. “Where’s the mystique at?”

7/23/20 Ed bike

Ed spends entire days tooling around West Lafayette on his bike while tending to six or seven gardens.

The gardener’s response to a question about how many hours he works is, “Too damn many.” Asked whether he works on weekends, he replies, “What are weekends?”

Google has caught him on camera three times, Ed’s out so often, he said. His skin is tanned a golden brown from working nearly every day this summer.

“He works probably 12 to 13 hours a day, probably until 8 or 9 in the evening. You could probably get one of those spots done in half a day,” said Rado Gazo, a professor at Purdue and a homeowner near the Happy Hollow entrance who’s taken Ed water on occasion.

“But he keeps coming back,” Gazo added, “rearranging stuff and moving it around. It’s a bit strange.”

So who is this man for whom bureaucracy is the source of ire? The man who plants pale violet daylilies, leafy hostas and red and white impatiens on street corners around West Lafayette? The man who tends Happy Hollow’s entrance; Adopt-a-Spots at the intersections of Lindberg Road and Salisbury Street, Columbia Street and River Road; at private plots he’s earned permission to tend outside the former Anvil building and Basham Rentals?

Ed’s tour of West Lafayette

Ed called me from a public phone in Stewart Center about 6 p.m. on July 8, a Wednesday, and proposed we go for a bike ride the next morning. He’d show me the spots he tends, he said.

This ride would be our third meeting, the first coming July 3 and the next three days later. He grew more talkative with each anecdote shared, but he seemed overcome with the sense that by merely conversing with him, I was missing a key element of his story. The bike ride was his solution.

He showed up Thursday morning with two buckets, as usual, a 32-ounce gas station soda wrapped in a plastic shopping bag, and an electric fan, its cord tightly wound.

The day trip began with a story suggestion: the bike pump in the Northwestern Garage. “Stupid bike pump,” Ed said as he fiddled with his kickstand. “Nobody checks on these things. None of ’em work,” he finished, encouraging me to pursue an investigation into the pumps across Purdue’s campus.

We passed his informal home base on the corner of Northwestern Avenue and Grant Street, where red and white impatiens line the sidewalk and are flanked by marigolds, yellow with maroon blotches.

“That was a weed patch last year,” he said, “so I went and asked Basham if I could fix it.”

7/23/20 Ed shoes

Red and white impatiens are flanked by chrysanthemums in Ed's garden on the corner of Northwestern Avenue and Grant Street.

7/23/20 Ed marigolds

Ed turned a "weed patch" into a bed of multi-colored flowers outside Basham Rentals on Northwestern Avenue.

Five steps toward the Basham apartments, on the opposite side of an electricity box, are bags full of soil and coffee grounds. Covering the bags is a shower curtain depicting a tropical scene from an oceanside beach.

“Why are you taking pictures of that?” Ed said, waving me away from his stash. On top of the curtain were a shovel, a hoe, two Louisville Slugger baseball bats, a black cooking pot with a lid, a dustpan and a broom. Ed’s gardening operation.

“I’ve got too much shit goin’ on,” he said.

The day progressed as a tour around the city, taken at Ed’s jarring pace, with stops at each of more than 15 locations he either actively tends or keeps an eye on.

No spot escaped criticism. There needs to be a trap devised to catch bike thieves in the act outside Stewart Center, Ed said, where bike theft is rampant. The moss in the cracks between the West Lafayette library’s brickwork needs clearing. On Fowler Avenue, he said, the brush and weeds encroach so far onto the sidewalk it’s unusable.

At the Purdue Memorial Union, Ed grabbed the electric fan and walked inside. He pulled back the chair blocking off the closed seating area and huffed over to the wall plugs. Maintenance workers started in our direction, perplexed, but Ed’s assuredness staved them off.

“Half of these won’t even hold the plug in and work,” he said as he bent down and tried each outlet, looking back at me each time he struggled. The wire bar running across the wall needs to be torn out and replaced, he said, to install an outlet at every table. “You have to jiggle with it to get it to work. Fixing it should be a priority.”

Another story idea. And, reacting to my surprise, he said yes, he’d lugged the fan on the three-hour trek solely for this moment.

Ed later wheeled his bike toward a tree I’d never paid attention to, just off Northwestern Avenue behind Kappa Sigma fraternity. Ivy covered its bark, but it was tidy, recently trimmed. Ed stood to behold his handiwork.

“I’ve got an eye for it,” he said when I asked how he thought to trim this random tree lurking in the fraternity’s parking lot. “I’ve always just seen something and said, ‘Hey, how can I make this better?’”

He put it another way.

“I get tired of seeing it look like shit. See, that’s my constant thing: I get tired of seeing it look like shit.”

He told the same story outside the library. He empties trash bins and sweeps the Chauncey Village plaza when the bins start to overflow, for no reason other than he hates to see trash strewn about.

He showed me a rock bearing a plaque that reads, “Rebecca’s Garden,” now standing between two benches to honor a former librarian. The rock was previously hidden behind the bushes outside the library, he said, so he rolled it onto an old tarp and dragged it to its current location.

“See, I like to do stuff and not get recognized. Santa’s secret helper,” Ed said. “I’d rather do something and not make a big deal about it, and just see if people notice.”

With a shrug, he added, “Well, that’s just it. Nobody’ll notice.”

Ed’s supplies

Ed drove his shovel into soil, hoisted a pile and tossed it aside. At a spot he tends outside the former Anvil building at the corner of North and Grant streets, pink impatiens bloom.

He’d given me a green bucket full of water and a plastic cup, with instructions to pour a cupful on each plant. By this point I’d seen or heard about plots in seven different locations around the city, containing hundreds of plants, so I had to ask: Where does he get the supplies?

The sacks of coffee grounds he mixes into the soil to help his plants grow are Starbucks’ and Payless’ leftovers, Ed says. “It’s got caffeine in it, it makes the plants grow. This soil is horrible.”

Seeds for his plants are a mixture of recycling and salvaging. He speaks of clearance sales or giveaways from stores like Aldi. Many of the impatiens, his go-to flower, he buys for cheap at Rural King, along with sweet potato vines he uses to line the borders of his plots.

7/23/20 Ed Happy Hollow

Ed waters his line of hostas near the Happy Hollow entrance on Salisbury Street.

The hosta plants have been growing for years, he said, and now he digs them up and replants them in other spots. But originally, many of the plants were throwaways on street corners, no longer needed by the city, businesses or homeowners. Ed seizes on opportunities to salvage, and what others neglect, he uses to fill his gardens.

The buckets were thrifted from fraternity house dumpsters, he’d later tell me over a phone call made from Northwestern Garage (he’d been reluctant to share when I asked in person). Dried paint was crusted onto the buckets, and it had seemed apparent no one intended to reuse them.

One homeowner near Ed’s Happy Hollow location allows him to use hose water, he says, and a church a minute’s bike ride down Salisbury Street provides water for the Adopt-a-Spot at the intersection of Salisbury and Lindberg Road. For his plants on the city’s southeastern side, Ed insisted I see the water source for myself.

We biked toward and across Levee Plaza, Ed the whole time denouncing it as “dismal” and “ugly,” before stopping near a trail that leads downhill to the Wabash riverside.

“Hey, I need to go down and get some water for my flowers, you want to hold this fan?” he said, pleased at my surprise. “I get it from the river.”

He paused for a second.

“Actually, I’m bullshitting you,” he said. I exhaled and laughed nervously.

“But that’s where I used to get it all the time until I found a new way,” he added. “I only get it there when I’m desperate.”

A fifth of a mile away in a trash-littered alley, a 32-gallon trash bin sits beneath a rusted-through hole in an adjacent building’s gutter. Rainwater from the previous night steadily dripped through the opening, splashing into the nearly full barrel. Ed handed me his fan.

7/23/20 Ed rainwater

Before he devised a system to collect rainwater in a 32-gallon trash bin, Ed used water from the Wabash River for his plants.

“So this is where I get my water,” he said. “I put out rain barrels. I no longer have to go down to the river.”

Water sloshed as he dipped each of two buckets into the barrel, filled to the point of spilling over onto the surrounding asphalt. “Don’t say where these are, because they might come and take ’em.”

He hoisted both buckets onto his handlebars, each hanging by its own handle, and improbably kept his balance as he began to pedal. He biked over to drop off the buckets near his few dozen flowers planted along the River Road on-ramp to Wiggins Avenue.

Though water had splattered with each bump and turn, Ed only chuckled.

“It beats walking down the street with ’em,” he said.

Ed’s life beyond the garden

Discerning who Ed is beyond his love for gardening and salvaging involves combining a set of disparate stories.

He grew up in Indiana, just off Highway 25, he told me the first time we met. I asked whether he could be more specific. He said no, guess. After a futile five minutes spent piecing together the geography of north-central Indiana, he conceded it was Rochester, a town of about 5,000 when he lived there.

He earned a degree in education at Ball State University in 1977 and went on to teach fourth-graders at an elementary school in North Manchester, Indiana, for about a decade. He left quickly and should have done so sooner, he said, deeming the school a “Peyton Place.”

“Everyone thinks they know everybody’s business,” he said, explaining his allusion to the 1960s soap opera in which a web of gossip and nefarious affairs is concealed beneath the guise of a small town’s quaint charm. “Everybody’s having sex with everybody else.”

Ed says he’s done stints in Fort Wayne, Logansport and even Florida, and he ended up in Greater Lafayette about half a decade ago. He bikes everywhere around town, but those trips pale in comparison to six-hour day trips to Indianapolis, something he says he did twice last year.

“That’s nothing,” he adds. “I rode 500 miles once to go to Florida.”

7/23/20 Ed Kiwanis

Ed's bike tire popped while we visited the Adopt-a-Spot on the corner of Lindberg Road and Salisbury Street. He fixed it by patching the hole with gum, he said the next day.

Augusta, Georgia, was the closest he could get to the panhandle by Greyhound bus. His destination was a beach town called Melbourne, Florida, a place he said he often visits from December to April to help some people groom their gardens. Google Maps pins the bike ride from Augusta to Melbourne at 462 miles, about a 38-hour trek.

The first time we spoke, he recalled with a grimace an accident that had occurred in Gainesville, Florida, five or so years back. But he quickly stopped himself. “Oh, never mind,” he said, not budging to speak on the record the next time I pressed him on the issue. The details were foggy, anyway.

“I just don’t want it defining who I am,” he said. “That’s why it’s called an accident.”

He consumes a lot of caffeine, he told me, or else his brain “feels like Jello.” The day we biked around West Lafayette, he’d downed two 32-ounce bottles of Mountain Dew, he told me the following morning. Caffeine pills and Advil accompany most breakfasts.

He’s retired but remarks offhandedly about previous jobs in construction, at a Dollar General and doing some private gardening gigs.

He told me he lives in an apartment near campus, but he declined to say more about its location. He’s effusive, however, about the feral cat he found nearly four years ago, which he said he takes for frequent walks.

“Her name keeps changing,” he said. First he called the cat Angus, a reference to its black fur. Lately he’s been calling the cat Mother, after he heard Vice President Mike Pence call his own wife “mother,” something Ed still laughs about.

He allows Mother to roam around the city while he gardens during the day.

“She takes off,” he said. “Sometimes she’ll be waiting for me at the corner.”

He used to spend two hours each morning filing through newspapers at the West Lafayette Public Library, preferring “to read to find their mistakes.” He often watched YouTube when the library was open, replaying old films like “Blazing Saddles” and “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.”

Ed learned early that a nomadic lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to enduring friendships. He went to a few different elementary schools because his family moved around so often, he said.

“To protect myself, I never really made friends,” he said.

His interactions in West Lafayette, beyond the several hours he spent with me, seem limited to chance recognitions.

He once biked up Grant Street and was yelled at three times, he said, recognized by people he passed. A kid at a Circle K gas station told his mother, “Hey, it’s the garden guy!” People who recognize him at Payless or other stores often blurt some variation of the kid’s “garden guy” remark.

In a rare instance of recruiting someone to help him, Ed asked Gazo, the professor who lives near Happy Hollow, if his seventh-grade son would assist in moving some boulders at Ed’s Happy Hollow plot. It’s something a kid would want to do, Ed reasoned, something to talk about at dinner.

Gazo said he and his son took Ed water, for him and his plants, one day a couple of weeks ago. He introduced himself and noticed Ed didn’t give his own name. When he spoke about the interaction, he seemed disoriented, trying and failing to remember details about the man who’d approached his house.

“I’ve seen him around for the whole summer,” Gazo said. “At the end of the conversation I realized that we didn’t know much about him.”

During the bike ride around the city, I asked for the names of siblings, cousins, anyone who knows Ed. He scoffed. “No,” he said, and biked several hundred feet ahead. He’d changed the subject by the time I rejoined him.

Ed’s promise kept

On the Friday morning following the bike tour, a week after I first stopped to meet Ed, the city came to help him.

During our bike ride and in previous conversations, he’d struck a hopeful note. A worker in the city’s parks and recreation department had stopped to speak with him by the Happy Hollow entrance three weeks prior. Ed had asked for mulch to spread on the ground surrounding his hostas, a way to give the garden a tidy, polished look.

Two workers arrived at 7:30 a.m. sharp, a small truck and a larger one. The older supervisor, the same worker who originally offered Ed mulch, sped off in the smaller truck.

Sam Engers, the younger of the two workers, drove the larger truck’s right front and rear tires up onto the sidewalk and exited. He opened the tailgate to reveal in the truck’s bed a mound of black mulch, a shovel and a pitchfork.

Ed told me he hadn’t slept the night before. He couldn’t name a reason, but he’d arrived at the site at 6:30 a.m. to prepare for the delivery.

Grabbing his shovel and his Circle K hot dog, he gestured toward the truck, signaling it was time for mulch.

“You got two choices: Hold my dog or use my shovel,” he said. It was only a joke; the electrical box on a nearby lightpost could hold his hot dog just fine, he reasoned. “It rained last night, it oughta be clean.”

Ed and Engers worked into a rhythm, the 20-year-old parks worker scooping mulch with the pitchfork, dumping it for Ed to smooth between the plants with his shovel. The two began to banter, the younger asking Ed how much he was being paid.

7/23/20 Ed and Sam

Ed and Sam Engers, a summer worker for West Lafayette Parks and Recreation, work into a rhythm piling mulch around the hostas near Happy Hollow.

“I get paid 50 cents for the whole job,” Ed replied. “How much do you get paid?”

Engers narrowed his eyes and smirked. “Is that an exaggeration, or?”

I had to laugh. I’d become a spectator in the game I started a week before: Press Ed with normal questions and he’d offer sarcastic responses, evading a candid conversation about the perplexing nature of his daily routine.

Engers was undeterred. He told Ed he was impressed by his willingness to roast in the sun seven days a week, watching over his handful of personal gardens.

“I hate it looking like an ugly mess,” Ed said. “That’s why I do it.”

“I was lost,” Engers said of his reaction to the morning’s assignment. “I didn’t know what we were doing here for a second. This was unexpected.”

Joggers ran by and glanced at the operation. Drivers waiting at the nearby stoplight assessed Ed’s line of hostas. A bespectacled old man walked by and asked, “I hate to be a devil’s advocate, but are these native or artificial species?”

“I have no idea,” Ed said impatiently. “They were native when I tore ’em out of the ground down there,” he added, pointing south down Salisbury. The man nodded silently and walked on.

The older supervisor, John Heitmiller, returned and walked over to the truck full of mulch. He asked who I was, then seemed cagey when I asked him questions. Eventually, he pulled me to the side, lowering his voice to a murmur.

“Has he mentioned to you how he’s pissed off about the Adopt-a-Spot stuff?” Heitmiller said. “I don’t wanna get swept up into any of that.”

The fate of Ed’s first spot

On that morning, Ed seemed unconcerned with his previous gripes. The mulch was spread around his hostas, allowing the plants’ forest green color to pop. Others had shown interest in renovating an area he thought of as neglected.

But talking to Ed, there’s a sense the Adopt-a-Spot conflict is constantly boiling. He has a visceral response each time he sees the bed of flowers on Columbia Street, his first venture.

Dan Dunten, the director of the Adopt-a-Spot program, said he’s never seen or spoken to Ed. But in veiled references to a mystery caretaker, representatives from U.S. Lawn, the company who managed the Columbia Street plot, have familiarized Dunten with Ed’s work.

And Dunten confirmed that Ed’s angst is warranted: U.S. Lawn told Dunten it had done no work on the spot for over a year. The landscapers, in Ed’s words, had allowed the spot to become a “weed-infested mess.”

“When I told them their spot needed some cleaning up,” Dunten recalls, “they said some other guy had been taking care of it.”

Ed has long perceived Dunten’s lack of interaction with him as neglect, a tacit acceptance of the gardener’s work without due respect given. Starting four years ago, he recalls, parks and recreation employees would coordinate with groups tending the Adopt-a-Spot while sidelining him.

“(Dunten) has kept it from me for four years and allowed other people to destroy it,” Ed says. “The park employees who came out and stole my dirt, they never talked to me.

“Everybody knew the job I did on the Adopt-a-Spot. But nobody stopped to ask, ‘Do you think he wants this back?’ I don’t want my name on it. I just want other people to see it.”

7/23/20 Ed Columbia

City officials assumed U.S. Lawn, the landscaping business that adopted the spot on Columbia Street, removed weeds and watered flowers during 2019. It was Ed.

Dunten reframed the situation. He thinks Ed randomly chooses spots to work, and said he was unaware Ed is invested in the particular bed of flowers on Columbia Street. The spot’s already been ceded to a new business, Wickshire Senior Living, which has started to remove weeds and erected a sign bearing its name.

Ed is ambivalent about his wishes for his original plot. When he gazes over it, there’s disappointment in his eyes, punctuated by helpless shrugging gestures, as if he’s tempted to bend over and spend hours repairing it until it matches his vision.

But he’s adamant that he’s going to dig up his flowers and abandon the garden completely. He hasn’t done regular work on it since last summer. Why should he continue to make the spot more beautiful when, in an instant, it might be taken from him?

Because a gardener keeps coming back, I offered during our final meeting. He contemplated that answer for a moment, stopping to lean on his shovel, forearms perched on the handle.

“I can take neglect,” he said. “But I can’t take abuse. And what they did to it is abuse.”

During a phone call he made Tuesday, again from Northwestern Garage, he told me his latest attempts to talk to the city had faltered.

“I think I’m done doing anything for the city,” he said, voice muffled by the phone’s static.

He said he’ll shift his focus to private gardening, particularly his spot on the corner near Basham and a second bed he’s recently begun to tend for the apartment complex. There, he finds, owner Connie Basham often stops him outside to point out her favorite flowers.

7/23/20 Ed Basham

Ed thrusts his garden hoe into the soil outside Basham Rentals, where he's recently begun work on a second bed of flowers.

As the phone call winded down, Ed did not relent when I asked a final time whether he’d ever again work on the Columbia spot: A resounding no. Instead, he offered an addendum to his adage about gardeners and how they always return to their plots.

“I care about the spot,” he said. “But if they don’t want me to work on the spot, then I won’t.”

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