September 12, 2009 in Washington Voices

Gardener sows generosity, reaps help

Ryan Lancaster
Kathy Plonka photo

Robert and Millie Hanson, in front of their garden, said that their neighbors had a huge part in the success of the garden this year.
(Full-size photo)

For 77-year-old Robert Hanson, the fact that he can still get down on both knees to liberate potatoes from the dirt is “kind of a miracle.”

Since 1982, Hanson has been working the soil in his good-size garden just northeast of Hillyard, bringing in a hefty harvest of corn, squash, cabbage and other produce. But this year he’s had to leave much of the work to his neighbors after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer early in the season. He and his wife, Millie, have taken numerous trips to the emergency room over the past several months due to complications from the procedure.

“At this age you just don’t bounce back quite so quick,” he said. “Luckily I have the world’s best neighbors.”

Ever since he fell ill, his neighbors have rallied to mow his lawn and help out with planting, weeding and harvesting his garden’s bounty.

“We wouldn’t have had a garden this year without them.” said Millie Hanson. “They won’t take 10 cents for helping us, but we’ll fix them one of these days.”

Longtime friend Elizabeth Weber, 85, said the Hansons are just getting back what they’ve given over the years. “They’re always giving stuff to people and it gets bigger every year,” she said. “What goes around comes around.”

Weber, who attends church at Gloria Dei Lutheran on West Rowan, where the Hansons give much of the produce away, said Hanson has given the bulk of what he grows to neighbors, friends and local organizations for nearly two decades.

Raised on a small acreage “stump ranch” in Badger, Minn., one of Hanson’s first jobs was picking potatoes for 10 cents a bushel. “I’ve crawled on my knees since I was 15 years old,” he said. “Half a mile down and half a mile back with a burlap sack, on my knees the whole time.”

He moved to Spokane in the ’60s and found work first at a service station and then as a groundskeeper at Gonzaga University. “It was a starvation diet back on the ranch, and I had a chance to come out here and go to work, so I thought that might be a good idea,” he said.

In the early ’80s he married Millie and upgraded to a two-acre piece of land and a rough-worn shack which they’ve since transformed into a cozy two-bedroom home. “It was a pretty shabby place – tore off part of it because it was ready to fall off anyway,” he said.

Soon after, Hanson planted a large garden which has since been reduced by half but still supplies a healthy abundance of produce.

Alan Daugherty, pastor of Gloria Dei, said every Sunday during the growing season, the Hansons bring metal buckets filled to overflowing with fresh vegetables. “It’s kind of a farmers market where everything is free,” said Daugherty. “Those two are great examples of the type of people we want in our church – full of love for others.”

For his part, Hanson doesn’t see his garden giving as anything out of the ordinary. “Gardening is just something I’ve done all my life,” he said. “I’m just an old farmer who likes to dig in the dirt. Been at it for so many years it just comes naturally.”

Hanson smiled as he recounted a time a few weeks back when he put give-away boxes of produce in front of his house. “One day this pizza delivery guy came by and stopped and kind of looked around, took one or two zucchinis and put a dollar bill in the box. That’s the first money we’ve gotten out of any of this stuff.”

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