LAFAYETTE — Through the 1950s and '60s, the Trappist monks near Lafayette maintained a large garden for sustenance. Later, the vegetarian religious community relied more on its industries like bookbinding, fruitcake sales and wine storage to earn money for food.
But the garden has abided. It's now a fenced-off plot that produces an array of vegetables to supplement the monks' diet and feed needy people.
Master of the productive acre is amiable Father Peter Plakut, 82. Father Peter grew up on a 75-acre farm in central Minnesota in the days before chemical fertilizers and pesticides. "It was a healthy atmosphere," he says.
And today, he won't allow chemicals on the monks' garden. Fertilizer is 100-percent cow-created, donated by a local farmer. Food scraps from the kitchen sit in one corner of the garden, composting to be spread on the beds.
Crops include tomatoes, radishes, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, green peppers, beets, Swiss chard, apples and grapes. This year, he may plant a patch of salsify, a white tuber he learned about in the Trappist garden in Pecos, N.M., in the early 1950s before the monks moved west.
In the fall, Father Peter plucks scores of cantaloupe, watermelons and honeydews from the garden. He slices them and puts them out for meals, to the delight of his confreres. His zucchini and summer squash are a staple.
Father Peter takes truckloads of produce to a church soup kitchen and the St. Vincent de Paul food bank in McMinnville. A regular retreatant from Eugene comes monthly and leaves with a load for a mission in her town.
About a decade ago, a nighttime fire claimed the greenhouse. Since then, Father Peter uses nooks and crannies around the abbey grounds to store seeds, containers and tools. He keeps vegetable starts in the warm furnace room deep below the monastery.
Father Peter is an apostle of no-water gardening. If the soil is good, it will hold moisture from the winter, he insists. He insists that vegetables grow better and taste better when allowed to reach down for the groundwater. His method also keeps slugs away.
Gophers and mice appear now and again in the Trappist garden, but Father Peter doesn't fret.
"We have so much," he says. "What does it matter if they take a little?"