Throwing in the trowel (and keyboard)

Danette Dooley
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Longtime gardening columnist Jack Strong bids farewell to readers

After 27 years as a gardening columnist with The Telegram, Jack Strong’s final submission is in today’s newspaper.

The column evolved over the years, Strong says, as new seeds were introduced and interest in gardening grew.

“When I started the first column (in 1986) … sometimes, I’d go into the history of where the seeds of plants came from. Then, later on, I wrote about how you can prepare for competitions.”

Strong’s interest in the garden dates back to his childhood days in Lowestoft, a town in Suffolk, England. He was about 10 years old when he started digging in the dirt to help his father. Families grew vegetables then, he said, in order to survive.

“In the ’30s, in the Depression, my father had an allotment in a community garden. (The garden) was about a mile and a half away and we had to walk there. We didn’t have any cars. Sometimes, we’d be pushing a wheelbarrow. It was hard going.”

While the work was physically difficult, Strong loved helping out in the garden. That changed, however, a couple of years later when the war started. The Strong home was in a “danger zone.” The children of Lowestoft were evacuated to another community. He lived with people he’d never met. But he was familiar with the garden and soon felt the cold soil running through his fingers.

“It was a community garden … but I had it all to myself.”

At age 14, Strong left school, returned to his parents’ home and started working in a factory.

At age 16, he joined the merchant navy and went on to study to become a captain.

In 1964, Strong accepted a job at the Fisheries College (now the Marine Institute) in

St. John’s, where he worked for 20 years before retiring.

Shortly after settling in this province, Strong and his wife, Eileen, joined the Newfoundland Horticultural Society. He participated in flower and vegetable competitions, won awards and shared everything he was learning with his readers.

Strong says the changing climate over the years and the variety of seeds available have given garden enthusiasts an opportunity to plant different vegetables.

“You couldn’t grow sweet corn here before, but now you can grow it because they have shorter-season varieties. And people said you couldn’t grow blackberries here, but I had them in my garden and they were in some of the older gardens around the bay,” he said.

While people still grow vegetables for their own use, Strong said, gardeners should choose what they plant wisely. It’s often cheaper to buy potatoes at the supermarket, he says, than to grow your own.

“So, during hard times, you shouldn’t use your land to grow expensive vegetables like lettuce and onions and outdoor tomatoes.”

This veteran’s interests aren’t limited to the garden.

A past-president of the Peter Pan Lawn Bowling Club, Strong says he enjoyed competing, both locally and nationally.

He is vice-president for Eastern Canada of the Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Association.

In 2012, he received a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his contributions to the Canadian Merchant Navy. He’s on the board of directors of the Crow’s Nest and is a member of the men’s association at St. Augustine’s Church.

Strong has two children and three grandchildren. His wife died in 1997. He moved into a condo in the east end of St. John’s a few years ago and no longer has a garden to tend to.

He’s had some heart-related health battles over the years, he says, and the arthritis in his hands makes it difficult to write and type. These are some of the reasons he’s decided it’s time to retire his weekly column.

Strong says he’ll miss writing and the letters, emails and telephone calls that he frequently gets from his readers.

While his column has ended, his familiar face will likely continue to turn heads in supermarkets and other public places as people approach him for a bit of advice or to share a story or two. He’s fine with that, he says.

One avid reader and gardener showed up at Strong’s apartment just as this interview was about to start, carrying a plastic bag with two onions the size of turnips.

Paul Clark and Strong were once neighbours. Strong’s column is the first thing Clark reads when he gets his Telegram on Saturday.

When asked about the giant onions, Clark said his friend David Soper grew them and wanted to share some with Strong, who recently wrote about the subject.

“Jack’s column is always in season and is always professional. I will certainly miss it,” Clark said.

Strong, who heads to Florida for several weeks today, may be retiring his column, but that doesn’t mean he’s ruled out future writing projects.

 “I’ve been asked to write a book. That was two or three years ago. But I don’t know. I don’t know,” he says reluctantly.

Organizations: Fisheries College, Marine Institute, Newfoundland Horticultural Society Peter Pan Lawn Bowling Club Canadian Merchant Navy Veterans Association

Geographic location: Lowestoft, Suffolk, England Eastern Canada St. Augustine Florida

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