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Back to his roots

Former farmer returns to gardening in retirement

Created date

July 10th, 2017
Garden club cochair  Antonio Fontes staffs  the table at Cedar Crest’s annual activities fair.

Garden club members Isa North and Antonio Fontes staff the table at Cedar Crest’s annual activities fair.

Until he was 18, Antonio Fontes worked the soil on his family’s farm in Portugal. They grew corn, potatoes, and wheat and they raised cows and other animals.

But since then, he hadn’t farmed or gardened much at all. Instead, he mined coal in Spain, fought as a soldier, and, finally, sold real estate in the U.S. for 25 years. 

That all changed when he moved to Cedar Crest two years ago, an Erickson Living community in Pompton Plains, N.J. His newfound maintenance-free lifestyle affords him time to focus on things he enjoys, like horseshoes, bocce, and billiards. 

His most prized activity, however, has been returning to the earth, growing dahlias. 

Testing the soil

“Since I moved in and heard about the garden club, I wanted to start with flowers. So I took one garden square where I planted dahlias, just to try,” he says. 

Antonio has since been testing and adjusting the soil of his 8- by 8-foot garden—one of 102 in Cedar Crest’s community garden area—to determine what he would grow this year in addition to dahlias. Last fall, he planted garlic.

Garden club cochair Rein Hunningher touts Antonio’s knowledge of the soil. “He is very active and very good at keeping his soil healthy and using compost, turning it over,” Rein says. 

Rein and his sister Isa North assumed leadership of the garden club this year from Edith Domball, who ran it for several years and still participates. 

Rein, Isa and her husband James share a “double apartment”—a two-bedroom apartment created by combining two existing, adjacent one-bedroom apartments. Together, they care for three gardens, where they grow marigolds, squash, string beans, lemon balm, oregano, and thyme. This year, they’ve added a rosebush. 

“I like the smell of lemon balm, and I’m quite fond of marigolds,” says Rein. 

Growing knowledge

As club cochairs, Rein and Isa plan monthly events during gardening season. In April, the club hosted Ed List from Cedar Crest’s grounds crew, who gave tips on how to make your garden grow. In May, one of Cedar Crest’s chefs discussed how to use fresh herbs in cooking. In June, they hosted a guest from a local bird sanctuary who talked about plants popular among certain backyard birds. 

This month, they take a hiatus from meeting and prepare for August’s harvest festival. Club members bring food, harvested from their gardens, to share. September will bring an expert on native plants. 

“The group is very friendly and great about sharing stuff,” Rein says. 

“We have a great bunch of people who help each other,” says Isa. “Members grow a variety of flowers, herbs, and vegetables.”

Aside from meetings, the club enforces guidelines, such as no use of pesticides, maintaining a clean and manageable garden, and not allowing it to become overgrown. Residents can count on added help from Cedar Crest’s grounds crew supervisor Ted Thiessan and List, who till the ground in spring and clean up in the fall. 

Club members built shelving inside the garden shed to keep tools organized, and they donated a tree to be planted on campus for International Day of Peace on September 21, 2016.

Aside from the garden club, community members can join in more than 180 resident-run clubs and activities on campus.  

Antonio says he enjoys the garden and life at Cedar Crest. “I love to live here. I love relaxing the mind in the garden. It brings back memories of my parents,” he says. “I’m happy, and I’m
trying to get involved in as much as I can.”