In Connecticut, the Homeless Bank on the Retired 'Guy With a Garden' : Charity: A retired seed company executive and veteran gardener has made his spare time and skills pay off in thousands of pounds of produce for the poor.


When Bill Liddell first contacted the Connecticut Food Bank, Nancy Carrington "envisioned yet another guy with half a bag of tomatoes and cucumbers."

"He presented himself very modestly, a guy growing a garden and having some surplus to donate," said Carrington, the food bank's interim director.

But the tall, rumpled man with scrambled white hair who showed up had 50 pounds of summer squash, followed in short order by 350 pounds more. The squash harvested, he moved on to sweet corn, then tomatoes. Just after Labor Day, he started on greens.

By the end of the summer of 1985, Liddell had delivered 7,000 pounds of produce to the food bank's warehouse in New Haven. The staff was impressed, but he brushed off their thanks.

"You ain't seen nothing," he said. "Wait'll next year."

"A little better organized" in 1986, Liddell donated 16,000 pounds of home-grown vegetables.

In 1987, he topped 26,000 pounds.

Last year, when the skies dried up and the sun beat down until the soil cracked like an over-baked cake, Liddell harvested 28,000 pounds of food from his rocky three-fifths of an acre, all of it destined for Connecticut's poor.

But don't get the wrong idea about Bill Liddell. Just because a guy spends 40 hours a week on his 69-year-old knees growing food for the poor and urges others to follow his example, is no reason to brand him a do-gooder.

"I'm no Mother Teresa," he said.

What he is is a veteran gardener and former seed-company executive who found himself face-to-face with retirement, a divorced father of four grown kids with no hobbies beyond the joys of coaxing fruit, flowers and vegetables out of the recalcitrant earth.

As Bill Liddell sees it, his giveaway garden is less an act of altruism than an act of survival.

"I've known retired people with more money than they know what to do with, but they've had jaws down to here," he said, cupping a dirt-stained hand over his belt buckle.

"I started out to keep doing what I've always done. It was not, 'How can I help the poor?' but 'What can I do with all this? Oh! I will give it to the poor.' "

Until a neighbor suggested a local shelter as a recipient of his bountiful harvest, "I knew zero about the homeless."

One might assume that a man who spends so much time toiling on behalf of the hungry and homeless would have pondered the matter. But no. "I really don't think about it that much," he said. "It's too distressing.

"It's a national obscenity. I shouldn't be having to do this stuff. It's not the way the ballgame should be run."

End of discussion. Rather than ruminate about politics, he prefers to contemplate the heft of a cabbage or the sweetness of a lettuce, raising his voice to be heard over the locusts' buzz.

It is difficult to lure Liddell out from between the neat, weedless rows of Anaheim chilies and turnip greens. Guests find themselves conversing with the muddy soles of his shoes or his rapidly retreating back as he strides off in mid-sentence to yank a weed or pulverize a beetle.

"He's very single-minded, but a lot of fun to work with," said Jean Heston, one of Liddell's "migrant workers," 16 men and women who take turns helping plant, weed or pick.

"It's one of the enjoyments of my retirement," said Heston, who signed up after Liddell made an appeal at Spring Glen Church. "He's not a believer, but he does have that instinct to do for somebody else. He comes to church twice a year, at the beginning to ask for volunteers, and at the end to say thanks."

In the four years since he began, Liddell has seen his produce become a staple on soup kitchen menus around New Haven, the nation's seventh-poorest city in per capita income.

The city of 125,000 has two soup kitchens; a third lost its lease several months ago and runs a food pantry while searching for new quarters.

At the Community Soup Kitchen, which serves 75,000 meals a year, "it's hard to describe how much Bill Liddell means to us," said coordinator David O'Sullivan. "Very often we get donations from all kinds of people, and they're all welcome.

"But what do you do when someone shows up with five pounds of tomatoes and you've got 200 people lined up outside? Bill grows food in quantities we need, and it's all first-rate stuff."

The fruits of his labors were instrumental in helping the soup kitchen expand from soup and bread to full meals.

The Connecticut Food Bank, where Liddell delivers his vegetables, is at the heart of a network that distributes food to 350 agencies around the state. Soup kitchens, shelters and food pantries "shop" at the warehouse, paying up to 12 cents a pound to cover overhead costs.

For the most part, the food bank subsists on throwaways from the food industry, Carrington said. Liddell is "our precedent-setter. He grows prime, lovely produce that's brought to the food bank within hours of being picked. He stands alone as an example of how a simple idea can have a really big impact on people in need."

Liddell has donated 100,000 pounds of home-grown tomatoes, beans, squash, peas, cabbages, lettuce, greens, corn and peppers.

By his calculation, his three-fifths of an acre has served up about what the average home gardener might expect from an acre and a half. But after 35 years working for Asgrow Seed Co., which donates seed and fertilizer, Liddell isn't your average home gardener.

For one thing, his is a 10-month operation, beginning in February and continuing into December, long after the hardiest volunteers have succumbed for the winter.

Last year, he called it quits 10 days before Christmas, after harvesting 100 pounds of collards and kale. According to his careful records, the snow measured 3 inches that day.

With an eye toward bigger yields and greater efficiency, he spends evenings scribbling in the large loose-leaf notebooks he uses to record weather, measure progress and plot strategy. "Keeping track of yields is like keeping score in golf," Liddell said. So far, despite the blight that wiped out this year's tomatoes, he's ahead.

"You can grow an awful lot if you manage your land right," he said. Since space is limited, he starts most of his seeds in trays, moving them outdoors just long enough to "finish" them. By limiting the time each vegetable spends in the ground, he can plant several crops in a given spot over the season.

In mid-September, he harvested turnips from the same patch that bore cabbages during the summer. In another section, kale followed collard greens, which in turn supplanted lettuce.

"Plants have certain limits," Liddell said. "When a squash plant produces a couple of fruits, it's done its job. The name of the game is to keep it going." One way is by picking off mature leaves and working them into the soil alongside the plant. "If it doesn't run into mildew, it'll go on forever."

Dense planting is another way to boost production. "You can crowd, provided you know how to compensate with extra applications of fertilizer and water."

His three cats help with wildlife control, although insects still claim their share. Maggots stole 40% of last year's cabbages but a dusting of organic phosphate saved this year's crop.

Chemical-free gardening "is like riding a unicycle--a neat trick if you can pull it off, but a hell of a way to get to New York City."

Liddell discovered the joys of the soil while tending a community garden he shared with other graduate students at Yale University, where he worked toward a Ph.D. in history during the late 1940s.

When teaching jobs proved scarce, he went to work for what was then Associated Seed Growers Inc. of New Haven. Though he never billed himself as a plant scientist--"I've never had one hour of formal instruction," he said proudly--his customers were free to draw their own conclusions about "Doc" Liddell.

He spent much of his career as the company's advertising director, putting together seed catalogues. "There ain't no one around who takes better pictures of vegetables."

To accurately depict them, he had first to grow them, a sufficient excuse for buying a homestead on 1 1/2 acres atop a ridge in Hamden, just outside New Haven.

The property came with a strawberry patch and a tractor with a plow attachment. Sold! "I also looked briefly at the house."

Many of the photogenic peas and symmetrical squashes that showed up in subsequent catalogues came out of Liddell's garden, a loosely run affair where weeds flourished alongside vegetables.

The garden "was a source of food and relaxation, cheaper than golf or a boat. Growing food gives you the feeling you're master of your own destiny. It also gives you fresh vegetables that taste quite a bit different from the ones you can buy."

In time, it became a laboratory of sorts, with Liddell taking advantage of his access to the company's plant scientists and experimental varieties of seed.

Later, as an Asgrow consultant, he traveled the country, advising customers and picking up tips. "I have the sort of brain information sticks to," he said, "like a Harris tweed suit walking through a burdock field."

He had always intended to keep working indefinitely, but heart problems and ensuing ailments persuaded him otherwise.

Mindful of a friend who had retired only to die six months later of cancer, Liddell resolved not to make any plans. When he retired in January, 1985, he didn't look any further ahead than the 20 75-foot rows of beans he thought he'd plant in the spring.

Surviving four years has eased his fears, though most of his plans still involve next year's crops.

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