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UNDERCOVER GARDENER
A MAN, A PLAN, A PILE OF MULCH

Herman Krehan's back yard seems to be an average, large suburban yard. But once you walk past the first flower bed you realize his yard is a virtual farmer's market full of delicious vegetables and gorgeous flowers.

Equally impressive is that this half-acre garden is cared for only by Herman Krehan, who has been producing on this spot for more than 40 years. And the only tool he has used is a hastily repaired, wooden-handled shovel.

What's Krehan's secret?

Mulch.

Krehan uses a blanket of newspapers around his plants, covered with leaves, a method that keeps his garden weed-free and protects the plants' roots from the summer heat. It's also a way to hold in moisture and extra nutrients as the mulch decays.

This garden is recycling at its best. It begins in the spring, when after planting, Herman Krehan lets the plants take hold for about a week. He then lays newspapers around all of the plants, layered three or four sheets thick with the edges overlapping. Then he covers the papers with leaves.

Throughout the summer, the leaves and paper decay and he adds more leaves on top of the papers. The leaves keep the papers from blowing away and also look nice, while keeping weeds at bay. He uses any kind of paper, except for shiny publications like advertisements, which won't decay.

His yard does not provide enough leaves, so Krehan gets a delivery from the town -- about three truckloads full.

The leaves are not mulched or chopped up, but after sitting on the pile for various amounts of time, some are in various stages of decomposition. I thought that a huge pile of leaves might cause a problem with mice, but that has not been the case. The only thing his leaves attract are great earthworms to help in the garden.

Krehan does not water his garden using the house water supply, which would be expensive. Instead, he has several 50-gallon drums scattered around outside, some under each of his downspouts to catch rainwater.

With the dry summer we've had, there was precious little rainwater, so his newspaper and leaf mulch was crucial for keeping plants cool and moist.

His garden is divided into groups with like vegetables grown together. He grows mostly acid-free tomatoes because that's what his customers like. He also grows many varieties of peppers, including some hard-to-find Italian ones, green beans, squash and herbs.

He has garlic interspersed here and there and lots of onions.

Krehan even introduced me to a new variety of onion -- a summer multiplier. From one set, you get four or five medium-size great onions. Because Krehan can no longer find these, he saves some from each year's harvest to plant the next spring.

Krehan also has a large and varied collection of flowers throughout his yard, which includes a collection of lilacs, a flowering cactus garden that has remained outdoors through many long, cold Buffalo winters, and perhaps the most spectacular, his gladiolas interspersed throughout the vegetables.

On the day I was visiting, he was cutting all of his white gladiolas, requested by a customer to be used for a wedding.

Growing in beds along his house is a fall crocus, which blooms in spring with lovely green leaves and stays that way until fall, when the plants develop a beautiful purple flower.

As plants finish producing, he turns them under right where they grew. The plant, paper and leaves get buried with one twist of that old shovel. Krehan adds chicken manure to the bed, from the chickens he has been raising for years. Because of a grandfather law, these are probably the only chickens you'd see in such a suburban location.

Though his garden does not suffer from pests -- a tribute to good planting techniques and healthy plants -- his organic garden still has some of the same problems as other gardens. Deer have been a problem of late, and to deter these hungry intruders, Krehan takes a small amount of cotton and sprays it with perfume. He then hangs the cotton in various places throughout the garden. The scent keeps the deer away. You must, however, move the cotton to various places in the garden to simulate the movements of humans.

For many years gardeners have turned lawns into flower beds by putting down newspaper, covering it and leaving it over the winter. By spring the turf is dead and the space is ready to work up. Herman Krehan uses that same practice to keep weeds out of his garden, and his street-side vegetable business booming.

Jackie Albarella is a lifelong Gardenville resident and gardener and the host of Gardening For Real People seen Saturdays at 11 a.m. on WNGS- TV. For more gardening information and tips, visit www.gardeningforrealpeople.com.

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