Every year in March, at St. John's Lutheran Home in Albert Lea, Minn., resident Larry Kimpell gets a little antsy. Deemed the Tomato King by his fellow residents and staff at the facility, Mr. Kimpell starts looking through his seed catalogs, planning out what kinds and how many tomato seeds he will purchase, plant and nurture for the year.
In mid-April he plants the seeds, keeping them under special lights, misting them with water, and putting them next to a fan to build the strength of the stems.
Then in May, the seeds — by that time grown to plants — are planted after the danger of frost is gone.
"It gives me something to do," the 80-something Kimpell says. "It keeps me busy. It's a good feeling to get stuff for people to eat, and it's fun looking at it, too."
While he lets some tomatoes stay on the vine until they are red, he picks a good number of them off the vine while they're still green.
Then he stacks them in cardboard boxes, layers them with newspapers, and waits until they turn red. The result: a juicy, red tomato without blemishes that looks as high-quality as something you'd find in grocery stores but tastes much better.
This year, Kimpell, who has lived at St. John's for 6-1/2 years, planted more than 100 tomato plants — including varieties of Super Big Boy, Big Boy, Girly Girl, Beef Steak, Roma,and cherry tomatoes.
The tomatoes he has grown have so far produced 6-1/2 buckets (2-1/2 gallon size) of spaghetti sauce to feed the residents, enough tomatoes for all of the second-floor residents to have BLTs, tomatoes for salsa, tomatoes for salads, and, of course ,some tomatoes to eat plain, too.
Where'd his love of tomatoes begin?
Kimpell says that as he was growing up, he learned to garden and cook. He'd have fresh tomatoes up through Christmas.
He's not the only one. This year St. John's residents also grew flowers, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, potatoes, and sweet corn, to name a few.
Nancy Sather, garden program director at the facility, said the residents in each neighborhood — or wing — of the nursing home begin the program each spring when they plan out what produce they want to grow.
The program, which started in 2005, gives the residents something to take pride in, Ms. Sather says. Even the Sheltering Arms unit (for those diagnosed with Alzheimer's) has plants they take care of, too.
Most plants are in raised beds so people in wheelchairs can participate.
"The whole gardening program is not just about the actual gardening," Sather says. "They can also prepare food."
For example, residents cut up the tomatoes and other produce to get it ready for the sauce or salsa.
"It gives families something to talk about," says Diane Wichmann, activities director. "It's good for everybody."
"And it helps them feel useful," Sather adds.
Both women acknowledged Kimpell as a leader with the gardening program.
"He keeps us informed if something's not right in the garden," Ms. Wichmann says.
She noted that she's arrived at the facility for work at 6:30 a.m. sometimes and Kimpell is out checking on things.
He often waters all of the plants, and he's even weeded his plants from his wheelchair using a grabber tool.
Tomatoes are one of Kimpell's favorite foods. "I have them about every night," he says.
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