Q&A: 90-year-old couple in Elkhart tell us why they love to garden
As I swung open the backyard gate into what looked like the Garden of Eden, I heard a robust voice call out: “Well, hello there!” It was Ray Bair, nimbly walking down the path of his beautiful garden to greet me with a grin and a handshake. The early morning sun bathed the plants in soft light, and the dew glistened like jewels. Ray’s wife, Lillian, also came to welcome me, wearing a sunhat that framed her ever-present smile.
Over the years, this garden has become an urban oasis—filled with all-organic vegetables, fruits, trees and flowers, bordered by blacktop and concrete. The space is not large, but every square inch is filled with purpose and beauty, tended to with loving care.
Ray and Lillian have lived in Elkhart for over 40 years. They are both 90 years old, and attribute their good health to daily walks, regular spiritual disciplines, being active in their church and community and eating mostly what they grow themselves. After getting some photos, we sat down for a chat over home-baked cookies and tea.
What was your first experience with gardening?
Lillian: I remember my first job as a child was to knock off potato bugs into a can of kerosene. My dad paid me one cent for every 100 bugs. We would also take the vegetables into town to sell at the market.
Ray: My dad did most of the gardening, but we canned, preserved and dried much that we grew.
What are some of your favorite things to grow?
Ray: Our church youth group! But if you’re talking about things growing in our garden, much to Lillian’s chagrin I love to grow squash.
Lillian: It takes over the garden!
Ray: Probably my second favorite thing to grow are the fruit trees. I love to eat fruit! And you know you’re getting fresh fruit that isn’t contaminated with pesticides.
Your garden is pretty big for the two of you. What do you do with all the extra produce?
Ray: We take it to the church, and to family who live close by.
Lillian: And some of it goes to our neighbors.
Ray: We preserve a lot of it, too. In our basement we have a deep freezer that’s at least six feet long. It’s full at the end of fall.
Lillian: We eat off our garden all year long.
How have you designed your garden?
Ray: We have a three-year rotation so it doesn’t give pests a chance to stay and multiply at the same location where their favorite food is. We also have flowers and plants to attract wasps that eat the destructive bugs.
Lillian: There are exceptions. We had slugs devastate our sweet potato crop one year…
Ray: …yes, and I got an organic product and scattered the pellets. Since then we’ve only seen a few slugs.
Lillian: We have a compost heap to help fertilize, although we’re not scientific about it.
Ray: There are 13 raised beds. We don’t step on the beds because that compacts the soil. The worms work the soil and fertilize it.
Lillian: Ray keeps replanting the beds. As soon as something’s done something else goes in.
Ray: We grow most of our things from seeds.
Lillian: We save money that way. And besides—it feeds his garden hunger!
Ray: I take notes in my binder each year on what worked and what didn’t, so I know for next time.
How would you say your garden contributes to your overall wellness?
Lillian: So many people stop in to see us. We talk to lots of folks that we otherwise wouldn’t if it weren’t for the garden. It inspires a lot of people.
Ray: Sitting and talking to the little rabbits, seeing the robin hop over and eat the worms … it’s very therapeutic. It’s fun being out in God’s creation and relating to God’s creatures in their habitat. Doing the physical work and eating the healthy food—well, it keeps you in good condition.
Lillian: I try to keep him off the ladder, though.
Ray: Yes, as I’ve gotten older I’ve needed to prune the fruit trees differently so that I can reach them easier. I like to work outside.
Lillian: He loves to work in the garden! He’s happiest when he’s out there.
Ray: We believe we are doing what God created us to do. Many more people could have gardens. Our communities would be healthier, and it leaves more food for everybody else.