It started with a request for a ''couple'' tomato plants.
That was all Joe Kellar, maintenance technician with Central Park Apartments in Niles, needed to hear. He obliged by tilling up a small section of earth behind the complex's maintenance garage. After all, Kellar, an experienced vegetable gardener, does his best to please the women who live in the 50-unit complex.
''The girls love the garden,'' he said.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Kathleen Evanoff
Joe Kellar, maintenance technician at Central Park Apartments in Niles, stands beside the vegetable garden he planted for the residents of the senior citizen apartment complex. Only the second year for the garden, Kellar has doubled the size of the garden this year to accommodate the requests of the residents. Kellar starts many of the plants from seed under fluorescent lights in his office at the complex.
The garden is now in its second year. Kellar has more than doubled its size and added many new plants as well as a fence ''to keep the animals out.''
Last year, the garden was plagued by deer and a few groundhogs that came out of the woods behind the building from the bank of Mosquito Creek. To combat those issues, Kellar's fence surrounds the garden with a small gate on the side nearest the complex.
Inside the fenced garden are several rows of tall corn, eggplant, beans, cabbage, sweet and hot peppers, herbs and, of course, tidy rows of staked and tied tomato plants. Kellar furnishes all of the plants and seeds and does the tilling, weeding and otherwise general tending of the garden.
Well-liked by the complex residents, Kellar was honored as Employee of the Year last year by ABC Management Company out of Cleveland and which oversees the management operations of the complex.
''Sometimes I can't believe all that he does around here,'' said Pat Bonanno, a resident at Central Park.
Kellar doesn't recall a time in his life when he wasn't gardening. As a young boy, he grew up next door to his grandmother, who always had a large garden, he said. As an adult, he has always kept a garden and each summer preserves its bounty by canning the whole tomatoes and hot peppers he grows.
Retired from Copperweld Steel Company, Kellar has been with ABC management for 10 years, first as maintenance manager with Washington Heights apartments and for the past five years with the Central Park complex on East State Street in Niles. Although his job is part-time, Kellar still manages to squeeze in time for the garden.
The best part of both the Central Park garden and his home garden are the tomatoes, he said.
''There isn't much better than opening a jar of canned tomatoes in the winter,'' he said. ''They taste just as good as they did right off the vine.''
The secret to his tasty tomatoes, however, is an unnamed heirloom variety he grows each year. Kellar said he saves the seeds and starts them early under fluorescent lights in his office at the complex. When they get too large, he moves them to his house, where he continues to keep them going until it is time to plant them directly into the gardens.
Kellar said he also grows other varieties, including the large slicing tomatoes, but the giant plums are his favorite. Kellar said the seeds were originally given to him by an Italian co-worker at Copperweld.
''These are the biggest plum tomatoes I've ever seen,'' Kellar said.
To save the seeds, Kellar said he scoops them out of the tomato and puts them in a jar for about three days. Each day he gives the jar a little shake and after a while, the gelatin surrounding the seeds begins to ferment and the seeds sink to the bottom. Kellar said he lets the seeds dry out before putting them into a plastic bag and storing them in the freezer until he's ready to plant them in early spring.
Bonanno, who has lived at Central Park for 18 years, dries hot peppers on a plate in her small apartment kitchen and keeps fresh basil from the garden in a glass of water on the counter.
Remembering her family's huge garden from many years ago, Bonanno said it is nice to have access to fresh vegetables at hand and appreciates the work Kellar puts into the garden. Bonanno said she often goes to the garden to pick vegetables for other residents, particularly those who use walkers and have other problems with mobility.
''It's for all of us to enjoy, and Joe, he makes it so nice'' she said. ''We're all family here.''