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King City 'urban farmer' produces bountiful harvest

Wallace Prowell grows vegetables on narrow patch of land
by: Barbara Sherman LABOR OF LOVE — Wallace Prowell has created a vegetable garden between a retaining wall below Beef Bend Road and a King City Apartments carport roof, where he and his wife Bobby enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Wallace and Bobby Prowell have always had vegetable gardens wherever they have lived, but they knew moving into their King City apartment 12 years ago that their days of growing their own vegetables were probably over due to a lack of outdoor space.

"We moved here in May, and that year I built a wood box 4 feet long, 12 inches wide and 10 inches deep and put it on stilts so I could grow vegetables," Wallace said. "But the only place to put it was under a tree, so they didn't do very well - the vegetables didn't get enough sunshine.

"The next year I looked for a place in the sun and hiked up the steep hill next to the carports, where there is a long, narrow area of barren land that gets sun. I moved the box up there and found some discarded cement blocks that I used to make small raised beds."

That humble start was the beginning of a garden that now includes many varieties of tomatoes plus cucumbers, zucchini, acorn squash, green beans, corn, beets, red chard, asparagus, lettuce, peas, spinach and even broccoli one year.

Wallace also tried planting cabbage, but it and the broccoli both attracted cabbage worms.

The garden is a labor of love, and it expanded as Wallace refined his techniques and discovered what worked and what didn't. "I keep experimenting," he said. "I tried manure."

Bobby added, "He brought in fertilizer from farms the first few years."

Wallace brought in soil from his cousin's property on the Nestucca River and also used compost.

"I experimented with worms, but what works best is Miracle-Gro," he said.

Wallace also stopped using wood planters after discovering they didn't work so well.

"When I built a raised bed along the retaining wall below Beef Bend Road in the spring of 2001, the plants in it kept drying up, and I couldn't figure out why," Wallace said. "Then I discovered a mole had gotten in the raised bed, and the water was draining into his tunnel. So I started using five-gallon buckets to plant in because they were 'mole-proof', and they use less water than planting in the ground.

"I punched holes in the bottom of the cans so they would drain. The next problem to solve was getting water to the plants. There is no water faucet up there, so I strung together three or four hoses I found and filled five-gallon buckets with water. I use smaller cans to dip into the buckets to hand-water the plants."

Soon five-gallon buckets weren't big enough, and Wallace added bigger flower pots that had been discarded.

Not to be outdone, Bobby decided to try growing her own tomatoes on their deck one year, "but his were better so I didn't do it again," she said.

Wallace also grows rhubarb and harvests five to seven pounds every two or three weeks.

Of course, he grows way too much for him and Bobby to eat, so they share the bounty of their harvest with nearly a dozen neighbors and also members of their church.

For the second year in a row, Wallace is sharing the garden with a neighbor, Tim Carnes, who has planted about half the garden himself.

"Wallace and Tim provide the neighbors with a lot of fresh vegetables," Bobby said. "Life is a two-way street, and neighbors frequently bring tasty items to our door."

One issue the couple had to tackle was Wallace's shoes getting muddy when he was working in the garden, which led to him tracking mud into their apartment.

"The third or fourth year, I started making him clean his shoes before coming into the apartment," Bobby said.

Wallace came up with a solution for that problem: "Whenever an apartment is refurbished, they replace the carpet," he said. "I took pieces of discarded carpet up the hill and laid them down on the ground. They kept both the mud and weeds down, plus when I lift them up, there are worms underneath."

Interspersed between the carpets are a few welcome mats that Wallace also has found.

When asked how many trips a day Wallace makes up the hill, he said two to six.

"Since when have you only made two a day?" Bobby asked him, explaining, "He is a triple bypass heart survivor and a double cancer survivor, and that's his exercise. He gets up early in the morning and waters."

The watering process is labor-intensive, taking about half an hour each session to dip cans into the buckets and pour them on the thirsty plants.

Wallace and Tim even have a way of signaling each other that they have watered that day: Each one lays a different pole across the path indicating he has been there.

"Tim waters at night, and sometimes I water a third time in the middle of the day when it is really hot," Wallace said.

About once a week, they refill all the water buckets using the hoses, another time-consuming project that is just part of growing a garden on a narrow strip above carports.

In addition to Wallace and Tim, the garden has other visitors: "A garden always has to have deer, Br'er Rabbit, mice and rats," Wallace said. "I can't say I have seen Br'er Rabbit, and I'm glad to say there are no deer. The mice come in the spring, and I catch four to six every year. In 10 years, I have trapped two rats."

And Wallace has figured out a way to extend the season: "When the first frost is predicted, I cover the vegetables with blankets at night because there are usually two or three weeks more of sun," he said

Nothing goes to waste in Wallace's garden: At the end of the season, anything that can't be consumed such as vines and leaves is composted for the next year.

Bobby added, "We put the green tomatoes into paper bags and eat them as they ripen until Christmas."

Wallace enjoys puttering in the garden, harvesting ripe apples and vegetables, pruning and watering.

Bobby doesn't get up to the garden too often, but on a recent visit, something caught her eye, and she said, "We can have beans tonight, honey."

Bobby added, "My grandma taught me to go to the garden with a salt shaker," but as she tasted a tomato, she said, "These don't need anything - they are very sweet."

Peering into a container, she said to Wallace, "Honey, you went crazy with the asparagus."

She jokes that some people walk dogs but Wallace walks his watering can.

Wallace and Bobby, who met in high school in Baker City, have been married for 61 years and have four children, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, the latest just born Sept 8.

He earned bachelor of theology and master of divinity degrees and served as a pastor in Iowa, Oklahoma, California and several churches in Oregon; in California, he also worked as a computer cable installer; Bobby worked for 25 years as a tax consultant.

Around 1996 Wallace memorized dramatic, biblical character monologues and started performing in costume in churches and prisons and at colleges and senior centers; he eventually did 400 dramas in 14 states.

The Prowells are active in Murray Hills Christian Church, where Wallace is the liaison to the Portland Rescue Mission.