Forest Grove families eschew fescue and grow fruit, veggies instead

Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: DAVID ROZA - Mike Albrecht, son of EJ and Alma Albrecht of Forest Grove, sometimes stops by his parents house to help tend their substantial garden, where they grow nine different fruits and vegetables -- including sweet corn.Picture the typical American lawn: a flat, manicured, picture-perfect, often chemically enhanced expanse of green.

Compared to this longstanding ideal, the lawns of a few Forest Grove residents stick out like multi-colored thumbs — replacing grass with fruits, vegetables, even grains. The News-Times visited three such front-yard gardens and the people who grow them, starting with EJ and Alma Albrecht on the northwest corner of 19th Avenue and B Street.

Hard work, EJ and Alma go together like peas, carrots and broccoli, all of which grow in the couple’s garden, along with cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, blueberries, potatoes and sweet corn.

“I think I planted a little too much here and forgot what everything was,” said Alma, 88, recently as she plucked a tiny radish from the soil. “But a lot of this is trial and error.” This year, Alma and EJ, 77, built raised beds for smaller plants and herbs such as lettuce and basil.

“Sometimes Alma and I get tired in the heat and we look at each other like, ‘Why do we do this?’” said EJ in between the red beets and peppers. Cars passed by on 19th behind him and a TriMet bus pulled into its final stop across the street. “But we’re farm kids, [and] this is what we know: the joy and reward of seeing hard work come to fruition.”

EJ was born to Michigan farmers in the 1930s before he started a career in construction. He helped refugees and orphans in war-torn France in the 1940s with the Mennonite foreign service. In Forest Grove, he worked as a carpenter for Pacific University, taught shop at Gaston High School and repaired old houses like his own white-walled farmhouse on Pacific and B street.

Alma, a nurse, grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. After moving with EJ to Forest Grove in 1972, she helped start the Forest Grove Senior & Community Center in the basement of the United Church of Christ on College Way.

The couple has been active in retirement, restoring and renting old homes. Last year, they picked up a new hobby. They’d noticed they had a spare lot and didn’t know what to do with it. Then family friend Nathan Grace gave them an idea: turn it into a vegetable garden.A former nurse, Alma Albrecht grew up in Pennsylvania. After she and her husband, EJ, moved to Forest Grove in 1972, she helped start the local senior center.

Grace started gardening in 2008 after reading articles about the dangers of genetically modified organisms and pesticides.

“Many farmers use pesticides to raise crops cheaper, but when those pesticides enter the ground they kill a lot of nutrients in the soil and in the plants,” she said. “A lot of our health problems stem from lack of nutrients. It all ties back into where we get our food from.”

Grace started an unofficial business with several friends who went to Hillsboro High School with him and then graduated from Oregon State University with majors in horticulture. Together they help people across Forest Grove start their own organic gardens.

“It’s a lot of work, but that’s OK. The beauty of the plants as they grow and produce more plants is worth it,” said EJ.

Son Mike Albrecht often joins them in the garden.

“I’m not kidding when I say that hundreds of people have stopped to walk in the garden with us,” said Mike, also a Forest Grove resident. “They ask if they can plant things or help weed or they ask how we started it and we direct them to Nathan.”

While the entire garden is unprotected by fences, theft or vandalism hasn’t been a problem so far. In fact, EJ and Alma have so much extra produce that they give much of it away to the senior center.

EJ and Mike have also discussed setting up a farm stand/café by the garden for people to stop and take a breather. “Mike and I talked about a community corner where people can get a coffee or a hot dog while waiting for the bus,” said EJ. “Or we might put a bocce court on the other side. Nothing’s on paper though.”

Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: DAVID ROZA - Hillsboro High School graduate Nathan Grace (left) helped EJ Albrecht and his wife, Alma, start a garden on the corner of B Street and Pacific Avenue.Mike said he’s noticed how much the garden has helped his parents, both physically and socially. And it helps him too.

“This garden has reminded me of all the simple things,” he said. “No matter how tired I am, when I go into the garden to be with the family and get a little dirt and water splashed on me ... it’s rejuvenating.”

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