95-year-old gardener still ‘growing’ strong at county fair

Published Aug 15, 2013 at 2:04 pm (Updated Aug 15, 2013 at 2:04 pm)

Growing up as a young boy on his family’s Cecil Township farm, Robert Johnston took his first digs at gardening by planting the leafy top of a pineapple into the soil.

“I thought it would grow roots,” Johnston said.

Needless to say, it didn’t.

But Johnston, now 95, learned from his experiences on the family farm and spent the past 60 years tending to his own backyard garden and winning hundreds of produce and craft awards at the Washington County Fair, which took place last week.

He and his late wife, Dorothy, bought their North Strabane Township home in 1952 and he began competing in the fair a couple of years later. During that time, he won more than 200 ribbons, including four blue ribbons and eight runner-up honors this year.

Johnston worked at Continental Can Co. in Canonsburg for 45 years and credits the backyard garden and fair competition as a way to ease his stress. He also built a miniature “Tin Man” out of cans that won an award at the fair, and later built two smaller replicas.

“If I had stressful day, I’d come back home and garden,” Johnston said.

It’s not the ribbons that keep Johnston going at his age. Rather, it’s “seeing all of the people and getting something good to eat” that keeps him coming back to the fair year after year.

Unfortunately, every year he returns to the fair, he sees fewer of his old friends. This year was especially bittersweet after losing good friend and fellow produce grower, David Johnston, right before this year’s fair. Robert Johnston admitted that his friend, who was not related, usually beat him for the blue ribbon award in the potatoes category.

“It wasn’t quite the same without him there,” Robert Johnston said of his friend.

Johnston still single-handedly tends to the garden by tilling the soil to plant seeds, setting up fences to keep away deer and plucking the produce from the ground. Throughout the years, he’s learned how to keep the animals from pilfering his veggies, sometimes using unusual tactics such as strobe lights.

He grows a “little bit of everything” in his garden, from pumpkins, watermelon, beans, squash, potatoes and every type of tomato you can imagine. The “odd stuff,” which includes the husked cherry tomato, are his favorite vegetables to grow.

Johnston doesn’t see himself retiring from his garden any time soon.

“It keeps me busy,” he said. “I have a lot to be thankful for.”

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