Leon Pendracky sifts some compost out of one of his bins. The organic gardener has had a love of gardening since childhood. Photos courtesy of Leon and Kathy Pendracky,

Gardening Green with Doug 

Finding Sanctuary in the Garden

By Doug Oster


March 31, 2021

As Leon Pendracky begins to tell the story of finding his passion for gardening, he asks me, “Do you want the long version or the short version?” Without missing a beat, his wife Kathy chimes in. “It’s always long, believe me,” she says with a laugh.

When Leon was five, he was sent to Bible school, much to his chagrin.

“The first chance I got at recess, I bolted. I ran away,” he says proudly.

Pendracky ended up in his grandfather’s yard explaining his plight.

“He said, ‘You stay here I’ll teach you everything you need to know about God through the garden.’ He gave me a plot four feet by six feet. That was my first garden, and I’ve gardened to some extent every year.”

Like most people, he missed some time in the garden while away at school.

The 71-year-old retired optometrist has an eclectic garden, to say the least. One of his obsessions is lettuce. With 81 different cultivars methodically categized and stored in his seed “bible,” as Kathy calls it, he plants them spring, summer and fall for year-round enjoyment. Relying on one of his greenhouses for winter protection of the lettuce and other greens like corn mache. His organic garden also includes arugula, spinach, lots of other greens and many summer crops too.

“I usually plant three seeds at a time, I put them in Keurig cups,” he says of the lettuce.

When they sprout though, he becomes conflicted — like many gardeners.

“It really hurts me when I have to thin out some plants, he says. “When all three grow, and it’s time to transplant I try to save them. If I do have to snip them, I can’t throw them in the compost, I have to eat them.”

The plants are then transplanted into four-inch pots and eventually into bigger containers.

‘Black Seeded Simpson’ is a standard leaf lettuce for him early on, but soon he’ll plant its white seeded cousin ‘Simpson Elite,’ his favorite for warm weather, as it does not go to seed as readily as others he’s grown.

Even though he’s got all those different varieties, he’s always trialing new types. This season it’s ‘Arctic King’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’, which should help extend the season in the garden. He favors romaine varieties like a red one named ‘Outredgeous.’

The garden includes 26 raised beds: most of them are four-by-eight-feet. Pendracky also loves container gardening, tinkering, and building and never throws anything away.

When it comes to weeds, the couple adds chickweed, Shephard’s purse, dandelion and lambs’ quarters into their salads. “One of my favorites is violet leaves,” Leon adds.

Pendracky is composting all over the more than 14 acres of their Avella property and has an extensive vermicomposting system in the basement.

“Kathy thinks I’m crazy,” he says unfazed. “You feed those worms, take the lids off, and you can literally hear their little mouths smacking,” he says as his wife laughs in the background.

When he saw an interesting YouTube video about making a self-watering tomato container gardening system, Pendracky designed one for his garden. The tomatoes are grown in five-gallon buckets. Under normal circumstances, they would need watering daily, but this ingenious system keeps the soil moist through the summer.

The sides of the buckets are drilled with lots of three-inch holes, used for air pruning of the roots. The bottom of the bucket has a hole drilled in it and a mesh basket is inserted which protrudes from the bottom. The inside of the bucket is lined with landscape fabric, filled with a planting medium, and then seedlings are planted in the container.

The buckets are put on a wooden frame system over vinyl gutters. The mesh basket sits in the gutter which is filled with water.

Hoses from one of the many rain barrels supply the water which is available when needed by using something called a Herrick float valve. A ten-foot gutter will supply water for five or size buckets.

There are nearly 40 different types of tomatoes which he trains up a cord attached above. Many of his plants will reach nine feet tall.

Some of his favorites include ‘Brandywine, ‘Black Krim,’ ‘Sweet Million’ and ‘Supersonic.’ For disease resistance, he grows ‘Moutain Magic’, ‘Mountain Merit’ and ‘Defiant.’

Pendracky is trying ‘Sungold’, ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast,’ ‘Silvery Fir Tree’ and a quick-growing cultivar named ’42 Days.’

Another one of his staples is plastic kitty litter buckets — Lots of them. He cuts out the bottoms and uses them to protect plants in many different ways. Surrounding transplants and using the covers to protect them from cold weather.

Kathy has seen her husband battle cancer twice and knows that the garden provides a special kind of therapy for him.

“It’s like a drug, the right kind of drug,” she says. “It keeps him happy.”

Growing up in Philadelphia, the country life has been an education for her. She’s canning, freezing, making relish, sauce and soup too. It’s the garden garlic though that is the star of many of her recipes.

“We put garlic in everything. If it doesn’t have garlic, it seems like it doesn’t have any flavor,” she adds.

Pendracky says he gets a certain satisfaction out of his time out in the garden.

“It’s really a strange feeling,” he relates. “I open the gate and go in. You’re in a different world. I call my garden my sanctuary.”

That word is on the door to one of his garden greenhouses.

Sometimes it takes him back to his first garden.

“You start to contemplate. There are many times I’ll dig something, plant something, and I’ll get flashbacks,” says Pendracky. “The way my grandfather did it, and things he taught me when I first started to learn to garden. You see nature in its finest.”

Pendracky pauses for a moment and adds, “being through what I’ve been through, my life is shadow, and I’m running from the sunset,” he reflects. “That’s what I like about the garden. Maybe it’s running away, but I really enjoy being in there.”

Leon Pendracky uses an innovative homemade self-watering tomato growing system.
The tomatoes love Leon Pendracky’s self-watering growing system.
Leon Pendracky poses in a jungle of tomatoes growing in his self-watering planting operation.
Leon Pendracky never throws anything away and uses these kitty litter buckets to protect plants during the season.
The word “sanctuary” is on the door of one of Leon Pendracky’s greenhouses. It explains how he feels when in the garden.


Doug Oster writes a weekly column for The Green Voice Weekly Newsletter. He also the host of The Organic Gardener Radio Show every Sunday morning at 7 a.m. on KDKA radio 1020AM. 

To see more garden stories, photos and videos go to