Larry Schaefer has been growing fruits and vegetables since he was a kid, but this is the first time he has pulled a 20 1/2-pound sweet potato from his garden.
There it was Monday afternoon, resting in all its glory on the gate of his red pickup truck, in a box with the lettering “monster.”
“I dug it two weeks ago,” he said proudly. “It will keep for a long time. I was just thrilled that day. I brought it up and showed the wife. She said, ‘Where did you get that?’
“My two grandsons thought it was neat, too. (Ben and Sean Riesenberger, of Swansea) are 5 and 9. ‘What are we going to do with it?’ the 5-year-old wanted to know. It takes me three times as long to do something when they’re helping, but it’s neat to watch them out there with me. They do like all the vegetables we bring in and that they pick, and they have fun in the garden patch. They help me plant red beets, cucumbers.”
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Larry and Connie Schaefer, who moved from Belleville in 2000 to be out in the country, live on 5 acres in rural Millstadt. Their garden is an acre and a half, downhill from their brick ranch. He grows potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, sweet corn, radishes, turnips and monster sweet potatoes.
“They’re Beauregard sweet potatoes,” he said of the popular variety that he put in the first part of March. “I grew the seed myself. Instead of throwing the pencil-size roots away, I use them for seeds. I put them in a crate and save for next spring. I plant sweet potatoes three times.”
He grows year-round.
“I do have things in the winter that will go dormant and come back for spring. Wild onions and garlic. We’ll see what Mother Nature brings. This summer, the weather was weird, wet and cool. It was amazng this one grew like this.”
12How many strawberry plants when he started
500 How many strawberry plants he has now
Larry, 64, retired four years ago.
“I am busier now than when I was working. The garden does keep me busy. I was a drywall finisher. That’s an inside job. I enjoy being outside.”
Maybe that’s why the garden keeps growing.
“I started small with 12 strawberry plants.” he said. “Now I am up to 500.”
He grew up helping his dad in the garden.
“There were eight kids, six boys and two girls. Dad worked his job, then gardened to put food on the table. I am the only one of the eight kids to put in a garden. I share with family. They come out and help. I do plant by the sign of the moon. When there is a full moon, I plant stuff above ground. When it’s a half moon, underground, because it’s coming back up. Guess it’s mostly old-timers’ predictions.”
The Schaefers have a list of friends and neighbors who buy their produce.
“The busiest time for the sweet potato is Thanksgiving and Christmas, although it’s more popular now than just those seasons.”
I do plant by the sign of the moon. When there is a full moon, I plant stuff above ground. When it’s a half moon, underground, because it’s coming back up. Guess it’s mostly old-timers’ predictions.
Larry Schaefer on his gardening methods
His big sweet potato’s days are numbered. Larry plans to give to the pie lady, Nancy Oberneufemann, a friend from St. James Catholic Church in Millstadt.
“He said, ‘I gotta show you this sweet potato,” said Nancy. “We were laughing about it. He said, ‘I am going to give it to you. You know what to do with it.’ It will take a while to clean and cut up. I’ll cook it and process it down. I will freeze some to use later on, save some for Thanksgiving I have a large family, 40-some people.”
She also makes pies for church events and Swansea Improvement Fish Stand.
“Every week, I will make some pies, depending on what’s going on. I’ve been making them since I was a kid. Grandma taught me. Now, I’m 73.”
We asked Larry a few questions about his garden and his favorites.
Q: What do you like about gardening?
A: “It keeps me busy. (Growing your own produce) is healthy. It just tastes better than buying it at the store. Home-grown is enjoyable.”
Q: Best tip?
A: “Just try to keep the weeds down.”
Q: What do you do in winter?
A: “Work on equipment. Get stuff ready for spring. And go on vacation. My wife tells me that we can’t go no place during the summer because of the garden. We are going to Florida in February and the Bahamas over Thanksgiving.”
Q: Favorite thing to eat from the garden?
A: “Tomatoes. The best part of the season (for growing tomatoes) was this fall, peppers, too.”
Q: How do you like your sweet potatoes?
A: “In the microwave. I put some seasoning on, mostly pepper. That’s about it, really. I don’t put all that sugar on them.”
Then, Larry had a question:
Do you know why you can’t tell a secret in the corn patch? “Too many ears.”