by Terry Kramer
(The Rev. Javan Reid of the Grace Good Shepherd Church, left, looks over the crops grown by Vern Thornton. Photo by Brandi Easter)
THE PARISHIONERS AT MCKINLEYVILLE'S Grace Good Shepherd Church call 80-year old Vern Thornton the Master's Gardener because every summer he farms almost single-handedly a one-half acre plot behind the church to provide food for those in need.
A modest man whose tall, strong stature belies his age, Thornton refuses to take much credit for the garden, insisting it be called the deacons' garden.
"I was a deacon a few years back. A deacon worries about the welfare of everybody. We look after the widows, the orphans, the hungry. It's the deacons' garden. It is done under the authority of the deacons. They get the food out to the needy," he said quietly.
His fellow parishioner and friend for nearly 40 years, Dorothea Birnie, disagreed.
"He calls it the deacons' garden, but it's really his garden. He gathers the produce for needy people on Wednesdays and we give it away then. He loves to give things to people. We just love him," she said.
Under the auspices of the deacons, the church operates a thrift store, called the Cent Saver, where donated clothing and food, as well as Thornton's produce, are available for those in need. Extra produce is also available to church members for a donation.
Each summer Thornton plants 12 100-foot rows of corn and 12 of potatoes. He also grows broccoli, cauliflower, peas, turnips, parsnips, chard, lettuce, cabbage, green beans, kohlrabi, carrots, summer and winter squash, pumpkins ("for the kids," he said), beets, onions and just about everything you would find in a Burpee seed catalog. He starts most of the plants from seed sown in six packs germinated on his glass-enclosed porch.
"The church owns the land and I just put what money it takes to grow into it. It is just the satisfaction of doing it," he said.
Farmin', as Thronton called it, began as an economic necessity to this Humboldt County native born in Fort Seward in 1916.
"During the Depression in the '30s we (his family) had 40 acres back of Fortuna. We grew whatever we could sell to survive -- strawberries, potatoes, corn, cows. That's how I got my start. I hated it then, because I had to do it.
"But after I got married and moved up to Westhaven and cleared out the stumps. I plowed it up and grew raspberries and a big garden. I never made any money doing it, but I sure had a big time," he laughed.
The retired timber faller chuckled when talking about how 40 years ago he and his wife moved to Westhaven and bought seven acres with a four-bedroom house for $8,500. "Then I had 30 fruit trees, half acre of raspberries, grew lots of vegetables. Then the people would come over from the state parks, when they found out I had it, and they bought the food," he said.
After his first wife died a few years ago, Thornton sold his farm, remarried and moved to Ocean West mobile home park. "I found me a woman with a trailer house already paid for," he laughed. "But it's kind of a fancy trailer park for an old guy who likes to farm. There ain't nothing to do around the trailer house but sit around. This (the church garden) is something I like to do. It is for my own satisfaction."
Gardening all of his life has made Thornton an expert. He can tell you, for instance, the secret to getting carrots to germinate.
"What wrecks carrot seed is the fact that if you plant it and then it rains, the soil makes a crust on top of the ground and then the seedlings can't get through. They are real weak when it comes to pushing up through the soil. Don't plant seed more than three-fourths inch deep. Wet the soil and then plant them. The best way to plant carrots, is to put the seed down and then cover it with vermiculite. The vermiculite won't make a crust and the carrots come right up," he suggested.
Corn is one of Thornton's favorite crops. "Don't overwater it and put the hoe to it," he advised. "Corn does better if you don't irrigate it. That and winter squash. If you water it too much it doesn't come to maturity soon enough. Once you get the corn up, just cultivate.
"Corn likes to be hoed. You rake it or hoe it. Just stir up the dirt around it and that brings the moisture up and you will be surprised at how much faster it grows after you hoe it." Long straight rows of husky Early Sunglow corn serve as testament to his expertise.
Although Thornton has been an old-fashioned farmer for most of his life, he enjoys trying out new techniques. "I like to experiment every year, try something different. This is the first year I tried the Remay (floating row cover)." He lifts a blanket of Remay from a long fat row of turnips. "This is what I like to see, there are no bugs in 'em. That's what Remay does for 'em. Good to use if you got a root maggot problem. Never farmed any place in this country that didn't have 'em," he said.
The highlight of Thornton's harvest season is when the corn ripens. Every autumn the church hosts a family barbecue and corn feed. "I cook the corn for them in a couple of pressure cookers," he said.
One Sunday the church decided to give Thornton an award celebrating his service to his community. "We gave him a plaque one Sunday to commemorate his work in the garden and we put on it 'to the Master's Gardener,' Sort of a play on words, you know, master gardener," said the Rev. Javan Reid.
"He was real surprised that day," said Birnie, "because he doesn't do it for any glory. He just wants to dig in the dirt and give to the community."
Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer and owner of Jacoby Creek Nursery.