University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

Blooming in Ernie's Garden

Illustration by Miguel Gallardo

Growing up, I helped my father with planting and harvesting on our farm so much that, by the time I went off to college, I felt like I didn’t want much to do with the botanical world.

But attitudes can, and do, change. When my wife and I were in our late 20s, we moved into a house in an urban neighborhood in west central Minnesota. The neighbors seemed genuinely friendly, but we only got to know a handful of families well in those first few years. At the time, only about a third of the houses had backyard gardens. And I had not yet gotten around to resurrecting the once-thriving garden our predecessor planted, though it crossed my mind every now and then. 

One August, we heard that “Uncle” Ernie had entered a nursing home. An elderly widower who lived down the block, his backyard garden was probably four times larger than his small house. We liked Ernie. He cared for his plants diligently, and happily shared the vegetables he grew. We thought he would be back, but after a couple of weeks, his son delivered a letter to the block.

Ernie wrote: “The doctors say I can’t go home. They’ve given me a year or two to live. I loved my garden and all the people it fed. My lawyer drew up a statement offering it to my neighbors on our block to use free as you see fit, indefinitely. Feed yourselves and may you be charitable. May you all grow together.”

Tears in my eyes, I called a block meeting. The turnout was much higher than expected, and I remember everyone walking around talking about Ernie as a caring man, someone who inspired gratitude and was loving and hardworking. We drew up plans for the next year so that all of the families on the block could carve out a small plot of their own in Ernie’s garden. The idea was exciting, and for me it was the nudge I needed to start planting again.

Of the 14 houses on our block, all but two families participated in the garden venture. All of us said we didn’t want to let Ernie down, that we wanted to pay it forward after his years of generosity. We shared and traded produce. What we didn’t initially understand was that we were also planting a stronger community; even our small talk took on new meaning. We trusted each other more, and were grateful for each other. Eventually, nearby neighbors noticed our gardening efforts and the seeds of cooperation began sprouting beyond our immediate block. 

Ernie passed away about two and a half years after he offered us his gardens, which we are still tending. We think he would be proud of how his now-communal gardens reflect who he was as a person. He wasn’t just a master gardener, he was a master at bringing people together.

Randall Wehler (B.A. '70) is a lifelong Minnesota resident who enjoys writing essays, verses, and short stories.

Read More