January 29, 2012

Maine Gardener: Glad tidings he brings to fans of this flower

By TOM ATWELL

Gladioli scream summer. They show up in the garden just as the heat begins to kick in, and when you cut them and bring them inside, they last for a week or more. You just remove the spent blossoms at the bottom of the stock and let the buds closer to the top open up.

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The Cates family’s glad field is awash in blooming flowers in these photos from summer 2011.

Margaret Cates photos

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So if glads scream summer, why am I writing about them in the absolute depth of winter, with snow finally on the ground and temperatures dipping to the single digits? Simple: It is time to order bulbs.

One morning as I was reading through the online newsletter of Old House Gardens, an heirloom bulb catalog based in Michigan, I read what Scott Kunst, the company's head gardener, had written: "Every January, our 90-something glad grower in Maine calls with good news. He's been down in the basement cleaning and counting his corms, they look great, and he's got enough of something special to share with us."

Maine glad grower sounds like a column to me.

When I tracked down Paul Cates at Cates Family Glads in East Vassalboro, he said he was a bit amused by the newsletter.

"He gave me a promotion," Cates said. "I'm only 86. I'm just a kid compared to that."

True to its name, Cates Family Glads is a family operation. Paul's wife, Elisabeth, is fully involved in the business, as are some of their children and grandchildren -- although all seven of Paul and Elisabeth's children helped on the farm when growing up, said Margaret Cates, who handles the website and does some of the deliveries.

Paul Cates said he was fascinated by glads from the time he was a young boy, looking at fields of them in bloom near his house. As he was saving up a fund to finance his college education, he started growing glads in addition to working in the chicken and egg business.

"The glads were a pleasant addition to my income," he said. "I would sell them to florists in the Augusta and Waterville area right up through high school."

The sales continued when he came home summers while attending Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

Cates' career as a grower of glads went on hiatus after World War II, when he was sent to Germany to work on the relief effort. In addition to his regular job, he began volunteering for the German Protestant Church as a courier taking messages and medicine into East Germany.

One of the people he delivered his packages to was Elisabeth, and they developed a relationship. They started working on getting married in 1964, with the West German government paying a ransom for East German women who wanted to marry someone on the other side of the wall. But it wasn't until 1969 that she came over as a result of a swap for a Russian spy, Cates said.

"We finally got home, and not having a job here, I wanted to have an additional source of income, so I thought about the glads that helped me through college," Cates said. "So I bought 1,000 gladiolus bulbs from a wholesaler, and after four or five years, I had a good part-time job growing the flowers and selling them."

And Elisabeth brought an unexpected fund of knowledge to the project.

"Elisabeth's grandfather had been royal gardener for the kaiser of Germany," Cates said. "Elisabeth had been like a little puppy dog, following him while he was tending the royal gardens and riddling him with questions. She never forgot any of the answers, and this is as much her business as anyone's."

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