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secret garden

Corn grows tall in the Steinmetz garden last summer.1 / 8
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Flowers add a splash of color to Don Steinmetz's vegetable garden.6 / 8
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Don Steinmetz measures his corn last summer.8 / 8

Most parents instruct children to eat their vegetables; Don Steinmetz's dad taught him how to make them grow.

"My dad had a big garden when I was a kid," Steinmetz said, noting that he enjoyed helping.

But until moving to his current home on North Shore Drive about eight years ago, he hadn't had a garden of his own.

"That was just a patch of dirt when we moved in," he said, gesturing to an impressive array of leafy greens, "so I got started."

To supplement the education from his dad, Steinmetz studied gardening by the book.

"I read a lot of gardening books. This is the best one I've found," he said, flipping through Edward Smith's "The Vegetable Gardener's Bible," which outlines growing techniques veggie by veggie.

Steinmetz has done his research, evidenced by the vegetable varieties found in his garden; beans, peas, cucumbers, beets, onions, potatoes, zucchini and corn are interspersed by berry bushes. There are also apple trees out back.

"There's always something to pick," he said, adding that he and his wife Pam have plenty to last them through each summer, with leftovers to can, freeze and give away to friends, coworkers, kids and neighbors.

"I'd just as soon give it away," he said, adding that selling his vegetables isn't appealing. "Then it's just a job and you don't enjoy it."

From his many veggies, Steinmetz gifts mostly tomatoes.

"Of everything I grow, tomatoes are the one thing I don't like," he said.

Last summer he picked over 150 tomatoes; he and Pam ate perhaps two.

So why does Steinmetz, who has green, pink and orange varieties, bother to grow them?

"I read once that if someone grows something, it's usually a tomato in a pot," he said, adding, "Tomatoes are very easy to give away."

For Steinmetz, the best part of gardening is enjoying what he's grown, both in eating fresh vegetables and simply sitting in the garden and gazing at it.

"I can sit in a chair, do nothing and just look at it," he said, adding with a chuckle, "A lot of times my wife will look out the window and think I've had a heart attack because I haven't moved for an hour."

Pam is also a gardener, focusing her time and skill on vibrant flowerbeds. The couple enjoys planting seeds and picking weeds together in neighboring sections of the yard.

Steinmetz guesses that he spends 30 hours a week in the garden, although "half of it might be sitting there and watching," he said with a smile.

"If you're going to garden and put some effort into it, that's all you get done in the summer," he added, mentioning that he doesn't fish as much as he used to.

Steinmetz's dedication has paid off in his successful crop, hardwon with troubleshooting along the way.

"The biggest problem in a garden is that things get too crowded," he said, adding that the more plants, the more moisture, the more rotted vegetables.

"I've learned that planting things too thin is better than planting things too thick, and planting rows too far apart is better than planting rows too close together," he advised.

Steinmetz also noted the significance of a plant's simplest pleasure: sunlight.

"Very few vegetables grow good in the shade," he said. "Shade is a killer."

He mentioned that 2-3 extra hours of sunlight each day is a huge help to vegetables, making location key.

In plans for the future, Steinmetz hopes to further incorporate the greenhouse he began using three years ago to start strains.

"When I retire I would hope to enlarge it and grow a few things in it, just to extend the growing season," he said.

His other ambition is a little trickier.

"My goal: oranges," he said, pointing out a potted plant with tiny green globes hanging from its branches.

Since bringing two orange plants home from Florida, Steinmetz has balanced them between being inside and outside, trying to maintain humidity.

Even for the nonnative plant, Steinmetz has high hopes - and the gardening expertise to back them up.

But it's not his green thumb that gives him away; it's his dirt-adorned knees.

"That's the difference between a guy who talks about gardening and a gardener," he said.

Judging by his muddied knees, it's crystal clear Steinmetz is a gardener through and through.