On a quiet residential street in Munster, Bob Breger has been growing fruits and vegetables many people have never even heard of.
The leaves of the toothache plant, which is filled with vitamin C, can be chewed like gum to produce a numbing agent.
“It’s like going to the dentist office and getting a shot of Novocain,” he said.
He also grows saponaria, which can act as a cleanser.
“You grab some leaves, and rub your hands with them in water, and it cuts through grease and dirt,” he said.
He has kiwi berries, too.
“They look like a kiwi inside, but look like a grape outside,” he said.
In addition, this year he is growing more than 50 types of hot and mild peppers, including banana, jalapeño and poblano peppers.
He cultivates more than 40 varieties of tomatoes, from the common cherry tomato to the Kurihara tomato, which grows to the size of a baseball.
He also has more than a half-dozen types of cucumbers and squashes, as well as blueberries, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and Key limes.
The garden also yields Italian figs, Japanese persimmons, tangelos, raspberries, gooseberries, asparagus and avocados.
He is in his second year of growing apples, and also has lettuce, cabbage and leeks.
His herb garden contains several different types of basil, as well as parsley, mint, sage, oregano and thyme.
Breger, 53, easily puts in hundreds of hours working in his garden, and on some summer nights he stays out in the yard until 10 p.m.
He likes having a hobby that keeps him at home, close to his wife, Linda, and their three children.
“I enjoy doing it, and it keeps me close to home,” he said.
Breger utilizes virtually every inch of his quarter-acre yard. The garden fills the back yard, both in beds and in containers. It also spills around the sides of the house and into the front yard. This year, he even grew shiitake mushrooms from spores in oak logs against his fence.
His home garden totals about 700 plants, he said, and he also has plants in neighbors’ yards, as well as other locations around town.
Breger starts the plants from seeds in his small greenhouse, which he built in his back yard. Some seeds he orders through catalogues, or he picks up seeds while he travels.
The seeds for his Kurihara tomatoes, for example, came from a market he visited in San Diego.
“They are a Japanese tomato, and this was the last packet they had at the market I visited,” he said.
Starting the seeds requires hours of work, even before the seedlings can be planted in the garden.
“This spring we had a thousand plants in pans around the pool, sorting them,” he said.
Breger, who works for Voestalpine Nortrak, Inc., in Chicago Heights, became interested in gardening when he took a “Care and Propagation of Houseplants” class in college. He hasn’t had any other formal training, and learns through reading and through trial and error.
Although there are some flowers and perennials mixed into the garden, it is predominantly made up of fruits and vegetables.
The family moved to their Munster home in 2003, and the garden has grown and changed every year. He is already thinking about next year’s garden and the changes he’ll make.
“I always say I’m going to cut back on peppers, but I have more this year than last,” he said.
The garden also influences the family’s diet by providing an ample supply of fresh produce.
“I love to grill the hot peppers, and stuff them with cheese and roll it in a tortilla,” he said. “I could eat those all the time.”
Breger enjoys distributing the fruits of his labors to his friends and family.
“I give them to people at work, or people from church, the neighbors,” he said. “If there are people walking by and they stop to talk, I give food to them, too.”
Breger said his friends and neighbors call him “Farmer Bob.”
He said it’s rewarding to help feed others, many of whom he credits for helping him and his family through the years.
“We enjoy sharing with people,” he said. “They help us a lot, and it’s our way of repaying them. We live in a great neighborhood.”