The pole beans in Mike Halbman’s Fredonia garden are spectacular, but they’re just a small part of a vegetable extravaganza featuring produce from 178 plants
There are few people more passionate about their vegetable garden than Michael Halbman of Fredonia.
“They call me ‘Mike and the Beanstalk,’” Halbman said as he stood next to trellised tomato plants that already stretch to his kitchen window and will eventually reach the roof of his ranch home on Fredonia Avenue.
“We’ll be able to pick them right out the window. We did that last year.”
One tomato plant climbed that high last year, so Halbman planted four this year.
People could also be referring to the trellised Blue Lake pole beans that cover an archway entrance to the garden and also grow along the garden’s back fence. The first two years, a hedge of pole beans grew along the front fence, but they became so lush and tall that they shaded other plants from the east sun.
This year, Halbman planted 178 plants, including 21 tomatoes ranging from grape tomatoes to big beef steaks, 41 pepper plants and 90 red and white onions. He also has zucchini, summer squash, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, cucumbers, carrots, celery, red and green romaine lettuce and sugar snap peas. He is starting second crops of some vegetables, including lettuce and peas.
“I love vegetables,” Halbman said. “There’s nothing better than eating veggies fresh from the garden. We won’t buy produce for the rest of year. There will be plenty in the freezer for winter.”
He picked the first cabbage last week, and his partner Candace Tipton made cabbage and Polish sausage that night.
“I’m Polish and love cabbage and sausage. I have nine cabbage plants, and that’s not enough. Next year, I’m planting 19,” Halbman said. “I love stuffed peppers, too. We have stuffed peppers at least once or twice a week.”
Tipton said she stuffs all the varieties of peppers in the garden, including red, green and yellow bell peppers, poblanos, serranos and jalapeños.
The couple can or freeze the harvest, making tomatoes, chili sauce, spaghetti sauce, tomato juice and salsa.
When they moved to Fredonia three years ago, there was only grass in the back yard. Halbman immediately started digging up the lawn, creating a 30-by-40-foot fenced garden that takes up more than half of the back yard.
“I dug it up and rototilled it, and every year I get an organic soil mixture and mix that in,” Halbman said. “I buy all my plants from Don’s Greenhouse (in Fredonia). I don’t use any weed killers or chemical fertilizers. It’s all organic.”
To capture rainwater, he elevated a downspout and extended it to the garden, where the water is collected to nourish the plants.
He created walking paths between the rows and extended a brick path through an opening in the fence so next-door neighbors Judy and Wes Ruppel can enter whenever they want and pick produce.
“I plant my yard with flowers and Mike does veggies,” Judy Ruppel said. “I used to grow vegetables in containers, but now I don’t have to.”
Halbman said, “That’s right. You can pick anything you want. Wes always says, ‘Mike, your garden is on steroids.’”
Halbman’s favorite place to be is in the garden, where he can be found from early morning to late evening — watering, picking weeds or daydreaming.
“Sometimes, I’m out here in the morning when it’s nice and cool, picking weeds with my cup of coffee and seeing what happened overnight,” he said.
“At this time of year, you can almost see them grow. I mark how tall the tomatoes are on the fence, and the next day, they’re a couple inches taller. That’s what’s so much fun — watching them explode.”
Halbman has the time to spend in the garden because he retired as a mason four years ago at age 55 after undergoing seven months of intense chemotherapy and radiation for stage four throat cancer.
“It almost took my life. I lost my hair and 70 pounds,” Halbman said. “People ask me why didn’t I wait until I was 62 to retire, but I might not live to 62. I took a hit financially, but we don’t need much. We live pretty simple.”
The couple lived in Elkhart Lake at the time and had a garden there, but Halbman was too ill to develop it the way he wanted.
He does all the work in the garden, enjoying what he and nature created. Tipton offers to help, but he prefers doing it himself.
“I just love it,” Halbman said. “Candace tries. I tell her, ‘Make sure it’s a weed and you don’t pick a plant.’ I’ll look through the weed pile, and there’ll be a pepper plant.
“She’s a better cook, and I’m a better gardener.”
Now that it’s easier to tell a weed from a vegetable, he lets his and Tipton’s grandchildren, nieces and nephews help. The couple love it when the children visit.
A tent stays up all summer so they and the children can sleep outdoors. They roast hot dogs and marshmallows over a bonfire and catch fireflies.
The children enjoy entering the garden through the Jack in the Beanstalk-style entrance and are encouraged to taste what they see.
“I let kids come in and pick things,” Halbman said. “I give them $2 if they fill a little bucket with weeds.”
While enjoying this year’s harvest, Halbman is already planning changes for next year.