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The Tiller Man 

Charlie Krumholz turns over Burlington's soil

Charlie Krumholz has a new toy: a 2-ton trailer with a hydraulic lift. On a recent Saturday it's filled with 3 yards of rich, black topsoil he's hauled from Burlington's Intervale Compost Facility to the Medical Center Community Garden. Turning onto the lawn from Colchester Avenue, he stops at one corner of the garden -- still just an L-shaped mound of dirt this early in the season. With the press of a button, he upends the trailer, and dumps the load. No shoveling required.

Hauling topsoil is just one of the jobs Krumholz does for Burlington's eight community garden sites. As "the tractor guy that tills the gardens," he also delivers hay, trims trees, hauls away debris, and does pretty much whatever else needs doing. While delivering compost to Champlain School recently, he noticed that the bike rack needed to be moved, and new gravel brought in. He'll do that gratis.

When he starts something, he puts everything into it. Burlington's community garden program is no exception. Soon after the New North End resident first rented a plot at the Starr Farm Community Garden in 1995, he became the site's volunteer coordinator. "I spent so much time there that they just asked me to do it," says Krumholz, now 51.

Two years ago, he took over tilling all the city's gardens, a job Cornelius Reed had held for 30 years. Reed was ready to retire, and he'd noticed Krumholz's energy and enthusiasm. The new role didn't just call for a commitment of time and energy. In March 2004, Krumholz personally purchased Reed's tractor, trailer and Rototiller attachment.

"My wife started talking about divorce when she first saw this trailer," Krumholz jokes. "But then she gave up on divorce and just said she's going to kill me."

Krumholz doesn't work for free. The city pays him $22 a year for each plot. After acquiring the heavy equipment, Krumholz started attracting private clients, as well. The income has offset his investment some, but he works more hours than the city requires, and he's probably not charging his clients enough, he admits. Take his business card, for example. The card says, "Charlie Krumholz, Master Your Garden." It wasn't part of a business plan, and it wasn't even Krumholz's idea, but a gift in lieu of payment.

"This is the only advertising I've ever done," Krumholz says. "And the only reason I have it is because I tilled my neighbor's garden. He just got out of the printing business, so he printed up 500 of these for me in exchange. I'm not really making any money because I work for dirt," he jokes.

In seriousness, Krumholz is not in it for the money. He does it, in part, as a contribution to his community. "Gardening brings people together," says Lisa Coven, a land steward in charge of Burlington's community garden program. "The gardens make up one of the Park and Rec Department's biggest programs, and we depend on volunteers like Charlie."

Krumholz is average height, with curly gray hair tucked under a baseball cap. When he talks about gardening -- particularly the community garden project -- his face lights up. "We have Vietnamese gardeners," he says, "Bosnian gardeners, old gardeners, young gardeners, professional gardeners, beginning gardeners, blue-collar gardeners, and executives who are gardeners. But it doesn't matter; everyone is going out and just trying to make a nice garden."

As gardeners at the different sites create a melting pot of diversity, so do their plots. They grow garlic, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, spinach, lettuce -- and anything else that will survive a Vermont growing season. Krumholz happily ticks off the list.

"You wouldn't believe you could harvest so much produce from a 30-by-30 plot!" he exclaims. "And some of these plots are amazing; you wouldn't believe there could be so many different ways to arrange identical plots. Some of our Bosnian gardeners are just great farmers."

Betty and Sabrina Chu, sisters of Chinese descent, turn their plots each summer into intricate hanging gardens. "They're works of art," Krum- holz says. "Diversity is a great thing. It forces you to learn."

Krumholz's dedication has not gone unnnoticed. In 2004, the city of Burlington recognized his dedication with a Herbert Blumenfeld Activism Award. "It was fun to get the award," he says, "but there are so many deserving people. If anything, it made me feel like I need to do more."

Not that Krumholz's motives are entirely altruistic. "People in high-anxiety occupations need a release," he notes. "I started doing it because it's good for the community, but also because I needed a physical outlet for my mental health."

As chief of Clinical Perfusion at Fletcher Allen Health Care, Krumholz oversees the technology that supports or replaces breathing or circulation functions during bypass surgery, heart-valve replacements and heart transplant operations. "We are there to save lives," Krumholz explains. "I've been involved in 2000 heart cases."

His colleagues at Fletcher Allen also benefit from Krumholz's gardening. Maggie MacLeay, a surgical nurse, relates that when she wanted to have elevated flowerbeds at her home, Krumholz knew of a person who was removing some raised beds and helped her work out a trade.

"They're used," MacLeay says of the 16-by-4-foot boards, "but they're perfect." And before Krumholz was done, she adds, "he ended up pruning my apple tree. Then he left with buckets full of flowers to take care of some other lady's flowerbeds. He always has a million things going on, and all of the nurses and doctors at the hospital want him to work in their gardens."

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Krumholz grew up in Minnesota and Wisconsin. When he was young, his father owned a 640-acre farm. "I have great memories of being up on the meadow and sleeping on my dad's lap on the tractor on the way home," he says. An avid gardener and a mechanical engineer by trade, his father is full of Farmer's Almanac tricks and superstitions, Krumholz says.

If the elder Krumholz instilled in his son a love of machinery and the land, he and his wife, a schoolteacher, also imparted their high-energy, do-good attitude. "My parents didn't teach us the work ethic," Krumholz says, "they showed us." There were eight kids in our family. They taught us to value education and all of the things that I feel make us better people."

His first load emptied, Krumholz heads back to the Intervale for more. The compost people wave him through. Although he's proud of his tractor and trailer, Krumholz is visibly envious of the giant loader that dumps the soil into his trailer. "There's a rig," he says.

The facility is busy on this beautiful spring morning. People are filling pickup trucks, trailers and barrels with compost, mulch and topsoil. Huge piles -- some decomposing leaves, some black topsoil, others reeking of food waste -- tower over the vehicles and buildings. The pungent smell of manure tickles the nostrils.

"When people use this dirt -- excuse me, 'soil' -- on their lawns," Krumholz explains with a gleam in his eye, "they don't need chemicals anymore. The more people use it in their gardens, the more we're contributing to improving the area's soil fertility. It increases the water-holding capacity of our land, and improves soil biodiversity. This has all the makings of creating a better environment."

Back at the medical center garden, Ward 1 City Counselor Sharon Bushor -- who lives just across the street and has maintained a plot here for years -- stops by to inspect the progress at the site. Her conversation with Krumholz quickly shifts from gardening to politics. They discuss their respective visions for the site, and what steps former Mayor Peter Clavelle had taken to secure the site for the next 30 years. "I think we should be pushing for a commitment to have this plot for perpetuity," Bushor says. Then the conversation turns back to the important stuff: gardening.

"My corn has done surprisingly well," says Bushor. "Along with my grandfather's yellow pear tomatoes."

Krumholz has already planted peas, carrots and onions at his Starr Farm plot. But his home garden needs some attention, he says. "I've been so busy working on everyone's garden that mine is like the cobbler's kids without shoes." At home, he raises flowers, asparagus, rhubarb, lettuce, strawberries and various herbs. "I also have a little nursery back there," he says, "with trees and shrubs."

It's exhausting just to think about, but Krumholz wouldn't have it any other way. "Sometimes life is just too short to do everything I want to do," he says. "I like going to Starr Farm on a nice, warm summer evening, and just hanging out. I love planting things and watching them grow."

It takes the whole morning and part of the afternoon to haul six loads of topsoil from the Intervale to the medical center. Because the site's volunteer coordinators are leaving it up to individual gardeners to shovel the compost-rich soil onto their plots, Krumholz fires up his tractor and begins turning over the dirt. As traffic passes along East Avenue and the occasional ambulance siren wails, he eases his tractor along, leaving a smooth, dark path of soil in his wake. The tractor is surprisingly quiet, and Krumholz smiles as he rides.

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