The Gardener of East Meadow

Sep 11, 2015

John Bolster has been a gardener for as long as he can remember.  After retiring eight years ago, he and his wife Mary moved from New Jersey to a house on the side of Welch Mountain in Thornton.  The only problem? His land wasn't suited for planting.  As NHPR's Sean Hurley found out, that didn't stop Bolster from finding a way to garden.

For the first half of his career, John Bolster worked in newspapers. For the second half, soil management. He loves cook books and garden magazines and prefers biographies to novels.  He has a white beard, looks a little Donald Sutherland - and for the last sixty years, as he reckons, he's been a gardener.

Bolster in the East Meadow garden.

"I'll try and grow anything," Bolster says, "I've gone to the trouble of scorching pine cones to get them hot so they'll release the seed so that I can show the seed and germinate the seed. Which happens up here automatically. But in New York or New Jersey it doesn't happen at all. You never see seedlings. But it's an awful lot of work for a couple of skinny pine trees."

When Bolster was five his grandmother taught him to grow tomatoes in a can in the cinder behind her house.

Bolster grows tomatoes the way his grandmother taught him.

"Her backyard was probably 20 feet deep," he recalls, "and then there was a railroad so we had a lot of cinders. She put the can in the cinders and deep plant the tomato and take most of the leaves off of the sides."

For the next few years he worked beside his mother in her backyard garden and then, he says, "My father bought a Gravely Rototiller. I was probably about 11 at that point. Well that machine would kill you. I mean if it hit a rock it threw you. So I was the one that ran it and turned over the garden for her and I maintained her garden. And I just kept reading and learning. I absolutely love it though. First thing I did when I got married was start a garden."

And the first thing Bolster wanted to do when he retired to Welch Mountain was start a garden.  But he didn't have the sun or the soil to do it. 

He soon heard that Nat Scrimshaw was putting together a community garden a few miles away on family land on Sandwich Notch Road.

The Scrimshaw's barn on Sandwich Notch Road.
Credit Sean Hurley

The two met and Scrimshaw gave Bolster the go ahead. "He said don't worry about it, just take this little section over here and do whatever you want with it and we'll see what happens."

Though the community garden never came together - Bolster's garden did.  And his little section, he says, soon expanded over the Scrimshaw Family's East Meadow. "Well I'm telling you the next year we went the whole length."

Cranberry beans, imported from Ireland, form the green hedge at the back.
Credit Sean Hurley

While Bolster had been given the all clear to garden in the East Meadow from Nat Scrimshaw, he didn't have permission from the land's true owner, Nat's father, the pioneering nutritionist Dr. Nevin Scrimshaw. "And one day Dr. Scrimshaw said, 'Who on earth is that up there gardening on my property?'  His son had never told him who I was.  He just thought I was a drifter that came through!"

Dr. Scrimshaw hopped in his golf cart and raced down to the East Meadow to roust the cultivating drifter - but Bolster had a proposition, saying, "I'll grow, you guys pick whatever you want. So that's the way it was set up."

Soon Dr. Scrimshaw and "Farmer John" as the Scrimshaw family began to call him, would get together at the end of the day.  "He had a golf cart that he'd ride around on," Bolster says, "and every night he'd come down here and sit and say, 'John I just love looking at your garden.' And I grew flowers for his wife because his wife loved flowers."

Though both Dr. and Mrs. Scrimshaw have passed away, Bolster still grows flowers, still keeps the garden and the middle aged Scrimshaw children still come and take what they like.  "One of the great things about having a big garden is giving stuff away. Something nice about that. I mean if I only had one potato I certainly wouldn't it be cutting it up and giving it to everybody. But we have so much that it's really wonderful."

A favorite of chefs, Bolster thought he'd grow Princess La Rotte fingerling potatoes this year.
Credit Sean Hurley

There's marigolds and a wall of sunflowers beside soft bunkers of Yukon and fingerling potatoes.  Then cabbages big as tires next to leeks, beets and sugar smack carrots.  "You really want your cabbage to get hit with a frost, it sweetens it up. And it's true with Brussels sprouts and it's true of a lot of things. A light frost, you don't want a real heavy one on it."

Set off on the far side after the lettuces and spinach are rows of tomatoes. 

"We've had a bad blight year this year," Bolster says, "the early blight has been taking hold of everything."

Blight is often on Bolster's mind. "I like to think early in the morning, like at 5 o'clock I like to wake up. And I think, 'How am I gonna beat it this year?'"

Bolster gives me a recipe for stock.  He gives me a recipe for pasta, before going off to talk with Nick Scrimshaw who's come by to collect tomatoes.  Nick's building a house behind the barn on the far side of the meadow.  And Norman Scrimshaw, Bolster tells me, lives in the house a few hundred yards away. "Susan, the only daughter, has a house right behind Norman looking out over the valley."

I've walked some distance up Sandwich Notch Road nearly every week for the last decade. I used to wave to Dr. Scrimshaw as he drove his golf cart over his land.  And when John Bolster came and started his garden I began to wave to him too. And then one day I saw them both sitting near the marigolds, backs to the road. They didn't see me as I passed, the doctor and the farmer, together in their garden.