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Zion gardener’s green thumb leads to bumper harvest

Arthur Hills58 Ziwith tomatoes he has picked from his backyard garden. He grows all his fruit vegetables organically does not

Arthur Hillson, 58, of Zion with tomatoes he has picked from his backyard garden. He grows all his fruit and vegetables organically and does not buy any produce from stores. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 21, 2012 2:02AM

ZION — Arthur Hillson has turned his back yard into a garden of continuous harvests which grocers probably will love to hate.

His home in the 1700 block of Jethro Avenue is on a quarter-acre lot, but the back yard is teeming with fruit trees and vegetables with tomato plants dotting here and there.

“We never buy any fruit, except bananas, which we can’t grow,” said Hillson, 58, who calls himself an old hippie from the ’60s.

“Have you ever tasted a pear picked from a tree in the morning after a cold night? You can never get the kind of flavor from a store-bought fruit,” he added, wondering why so many people choose to endure eating chemically-sprayed apples and pears that are harvested before they are ripe.

Harvest season across Lake County is in full swing as fall began today at 9:49 a.m.

In Hillson’s garden, a Kieffer pear tree near the center is loaded down with fruit. He has already harvested the Bartlett pear tree, canning most of the fruit. The varied ripening times, he said, allow him to have a continuous supply of fruit and vegetables through the season.

“This is the most productive peach tree. I must have 400 of them,” he said, pointing to a Red Haven peach tree.

He has picked more than 1,000 peaches this season, by his estimation, from his five peach trees. There are also plum, apricot and cherry trees. Competing for space are raspberries, blackberries and boysenberries.

“This is a nut tree. I don’t know what kind. It was planted by the squirrel,” Hillson said, pointing to a handsome, erect four-foot tall plant near a birdbath.

But he did plant several Carpathian walnut trees with two producing. And under one of them is a fig tree, which seems to be eager to show it will produce more than just leaves.

“My wife bought the fig tree for me three years ago as a gift. She knows I can grow anything,” he said.

“My wife is Italian. She loves tomatoes and use them for spaghetti and other Italian dishes,” he said of his wife, Beth, who works at North Shore University Health System in Evanston.

“I love tomatoes and graze on them whenever I’m in the yard,” he said. “I don’t actually plant them. I throw the seeds in the dirt and they come up every year.”

Turning to Italian cooking, he said, “We never bought garlic and onions. They are so easy to grow.”

Hillson, who is of Finnish heritage, said he uses no pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Rather, he relies on compost produced from leaves in the garden. He pointed to a fish pond, its water coming from the roof, with gold fish swimming lazily in the sun the other day.

“It attracts frogs which devour insects. Frogs can live in our yard because we use no chemicals,” he said.

And to keep birds away from his prized fruit trees, he designated what he called “a sacrificial tree,” a cherry tree, to “keep the birds busy” eating cherries, hopefully, in that tree alone.

Sitting pretty in the yard are two potted lemon trees nearly 10-foot tall, soon to be taken indoors for the winter.

“I planted them from seeds and they’ve been producing lemons, except this year,” he said. “They blossomed indoors and I took them out too soon. The early frost killed the flowers.”

Plenty of fruit trees aside, the yard is dotted with several varieties of evergreens including a Norway spruce, a Siberian spruce, a Manchurian fir and several sequoia and fir trees, some of which he grew from seedlings bought from a nursery in Oregon.

Hillson, who went to Waukegan High School and the University of Illinois where he majored in economics, said he got into gardening early on from his father while living in Waukegan.

“I remember the joy of plucking an apple from the tree and munching on it on the way to school,” he recalled fondly.

“Gardening has become a way of life for me since I was six. My father taught me everything,” said Hillson, who is a photographer and Web site designer working from home.

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