The Ultimate Urban Gardener: Paul von Reichert reflects on an abundant life

Paul at the ASUM garden. Photo by Crackle Photography.

Paul at the ASUM garden. Photo by Crackle Photography.

This article was originally published in Montana Senior News. . .

Paul and Christiane are some of the most dedicated urban farmers you’ll meet. They’ve convinced landlords to let them dig up apartment courtyards. They’ve grown veggies in community garden plots from Missoula, Montana to Kiel, Germany. They’ve traveled to friends’ yards to scratch out a little growing space. They’ve transported chickens in bicycle baskets to community gardens to fertilize in the fall (that they were raising in their apartment). They cure their onions on the porch of their third floor apartment.

It all started for Paul when his father bought a vacant lot for $50, down the alley from their house just east of Corpus Christi, Texas. Paul was 8 at the time. It was 1929. They cultivated the soil and started a garden. Paul hasn’t stopped gardening since. Ninety years later, he still remembers the exhilaration of that first growing season, where he learned what a tomato should taste like.

For Christiane, she learned from her grandfather at age 4.

Paul and Christiane met in Segovia, Spain. Paul had purchased a EuroRail pass and was crisscrossing Europe. Christiane asked Paul if he might want to meet her in Cordoba to see the sights. He said yes please! But when he got to Cordoba, she wasn’t there.

“She stood me up on our first date,” he told me, his perennial smile shining through a white beard.

Turns out she had a good reason – and they ended up finding each other in Kiel, Germany, where Christiane lived, weeks later. And they never let go. At the time she was finishing her Masters degree.

“We loved the same things, it was that simple,” said Paul. This makes Chirstiane smile. “When I met her, she had three things: herself, a bicycle, and a community garden plot.”

“The garden was a real connection point,” Christiane added.

Paul turned 98 in May. He gardens more slowly now. He had to give up biking last May and uses his two Cadillacs (walkers) to get around most of the time. He showed me a photo of himself with his best garden buddy, a friend’s dog, both lying down next to his community garden plot. That’s how he weeds now, lying down.

It doesn’t seem to upset him. Not much does.

“I’ve led a good life,” he says frequently.

I first heard about Paul because I work for Garden City Harvest, an organization that runs the 10 community gardens in his now home of Missoula, Montana. He came to Garden City Harvest’s square dance and I danced with him on what happened to be his 97th birthday.

He gardens a plot at one of our larger gardens and tends the communal raspberry patch. Everybody loves Paul, in part because he always travels with cookies or chocolates to share. But also because he is always wearing a smile, always wanting to visit, always seeing the good in everything and everybody. 

Paul was a volunteer fire fighter, navy man in World War II (signed up four days after Pearl Harbor), and a builder-contractor for most of his life.

When they came to the United States, they moved to Moscow Idaho. Paul had already started his career as a contractor, but Christiane was interested in trying her hand at restoring houses as a team. They dug into the work together, working long hours, transforming old and broken houses, selling them for a modest profit, and living very simply along the way.

Paul had rules for this work. It was hard, demanding. They’d go for two weeks straight and then take a break, stealing away to a hot spring for a few days. When the house was done, they’d travel somewhere far away — to Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka. They’d get by on five dollars a day, living like the locals, and often with the locals. They’d board with a family for the night, sleeping on the floor and sharing a meal, and having a richer experience for it.

It strikes me that Paul loves to work. With his hands. Sanding wood. Building a home, digging out weeds, planting a row, pruning raspberries. Christiane is the same. Paul refers to Christiane as his “little German workaholic.” It’s a compliment in his book.

“Self-providing has always been a big part of Paul’s life,” Christiane told me. “Fishing, gardening, building.”

They are also good at gathering and connecting people. Community gardens are kept alive by people like Paul and Christiane. Not only do they make friends, distribute sweets, keep up the common raspberries, but they also breathe in new life: bringing students, friends, visitors to see their community garden plot.

Now their garden is helped along by at least three other friends as Paul ages and Christiane works at the University of Montana. With Paul and Christiane, you are loved with their garden. Whether it is sweet treats, Paul’s favorite zucchini bread (in zucchini season he makes 8 loaves at a time), or the love they put into the plants they grow, it is a way to show they care.