Gresham man grows, gives away thousands of free vegetable plants

GRESHAM, Ore. (KGW) — Late spring in Joe Kellner’s Gresham garden is a busy time. Hundreds of vegetable starts in dozens of varieties are growing in his backyard. Peppers and tomatillos are leafing out and tomatoes are sprouting their first buds.

“I’ve tried just about every kind there is,” Kellner said. “Take care of them, fertilize them and water them.”

The process begins in February in Kellner’s greenhouse, where he plants each veggie start from seed. He meticulously labels each four-inch container for easy identification, from the Marconi Rosso and Tam Jala peppers, to the Cherokee Purple and Italian Heirloom tomatoes. This year, Kellner is growing about 300 veggie starts in all. He’ll keep a fraction of them to plant in his own garden, but the vast majority of them he’ll give away.

“If you live in Gresham, come over and get some plants!” chuckled Kellner.

Turns out what Kellner is really growing on the corner of Northeast 19th Street and Juniper Court, are relationships. It started about 10 years ago when he retired and took up gardening to occupy his time. The hobby really grew on him.

“I love to see people come by and get the free plants and they’re happy,” said Kellner. “They say they want to pay me and I say, ‘naaah. I do it for the fun!’ I don’t want to be paid. I just like to see people happy.”

Whenever the mood strikes, Kellner props up a flat of veggie plants on a milk crate in front of his house. He sets out a small sign that reads simply, “Free plants,” then waits for people to walk or drive by and notice.

“I’ll help them choose the right plants and tell them how to grow them,” Kellner said. “I won’t leave all the plants sitting out here alone, otherwise someone might come by and take the whole thing!”

Recently after Kellner set out a batch of plant starts, Lacy Eastman drove by. She met Kellner last year when she stopped by for some free tomato starts.

“Another repeat customer!” Kellner said as Eastman pulled up.

After Kellner helped her choose plants for this year’s crop, Eastman carried them back to her car, smiling from ear to ear.

“That’s a rare thing these days,” Eastman said. “I think it’s very special that he chooses to spend his days doing this.”

It’s hard to know how many plants Kellner’s given away over the years, though he estimates it’s in the thousands. For him, each one is worth the time and effort it takes to grow, given the connections they cultivate.

“Let’s neighbors be neighbors again,” he said.

Kellner’s efforts don’t stop when the plants die back. In the fall, he and his wife turn their attention to canning.

“One year we made over 400 pounds of sauerkraut, and again, it’s all just to give away!” he said.

From pickles and jellies to salsas and hearty soups, Kellner has a freezer in his garage dedicated to storing the latter. He makes sure the soups get to neighbors who are getting on in years.

“One down the street here just fell and broke her hip about three weeks ago,” said Kellner. “So I took about six soups to her.”

To be clear, Kellner offers kindness to people of all ages.

“You like cherry tomatoes?” Kellner asked a group of girls that walked by.

“Yeah, we do!” they said.

“This one gets 10-foot tall!” said Kellner, much to the girls’ delight.

This reporter went home with a Marconi Roso pepper, a Kellogg Breakfast heirloom tomato and the underlying reason that drives Kellner’s kindness.

“It’s what my mother would have wanted,” said Kellner, his eyes turning glassy. “Just be good to them.”

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