Peter Gregory, 58, harvests tomatoes Thursday while working inside a handmade enclosure at his Waterville home. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Peter Gregory’s little slice of heaven is the small, grassy spot just outside his apartment door, at the corner of Summer and Gold streets in Waterville’s South End.

There, he built a sort of cage several years ago, using metal stakes, chicken wire and lots of zip ties.

The cage is about 10 feet tall and inside it are several 13-foot towering cherry tomato plants growing in large pots.

“They’ll grow until the first frost,” Gregory said. “I just keep them watered every day. I’ve got 2,000 tomatoes already this year. Every year I get more and more as long as I keep the squirrels out.”

Gregory, 58, tends his plants every day and says his secret is feeding them Miracle-Gro once a week. He also tends to a towering mass of morning glories in the shape of a Christmas tree beside his porch steps. Several small pots of peppermint, which he uses to make tea, hang from his porch. He loves the scent of peppermint.

Peter Gregory looks over unripened tomatoes he picked Thursday at his home in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

A tall, slim man with straight red hair and hazel eyes, Gregory seems happy and upbeat, despite his physical ailments. He suffers from dystonia and tardive dyskinesia, nerve and muscle conditions that make it difficult to walk and stay balanced. He moves carefully, holding on to a Hannaford grocery cart he keeps parked next to the porch. A few years ago when he was in bad shape, his physical therapist would have him do a certain number of leg and arm exercises, but he got so tired of being immobile that he insisted on doing twice that amount. He worked hard at it and eventually got back on his feet.

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Gregory refuses to stay idle. About three times a week, he pushes the shopping cart to Hannaford on Kennedy Memorial Drive more than a mile away, leaning on it to maintain balance. Hannaford officials were kind to him and gave him the cart, he said. When it gets old and wobbly, they replace it with a new one.

“If I leave here at 9 o’clock in the morning, I’ll get there, probably at 11,” he said. “It takes about an hour to shop and then another two hours to get back home. I don’t use the sidewalk because it’s too uneven. I stay on the side of the road.”

He keeps more than a dozen milk jugs filled with water on his porch steps to water his plants, which sometimes include larger tomatoes and peppers. He acknowledges his planting method is a bit different than most people’s as he doesn’t start with seeds or seedlings. Instead, he buys a handful of cherry tomatoes or a whole beefsteak tomato, breaks them apart, removes the seeds and plants them right into his soil. They sprout up in about two weeks, he said.

Peter Gregory stands near a handmade enclosure Thursday where he grows tomatoes at his Waterville home. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“I usually cook some of them, we eat them in salads, boil them down and freeze them or bake them in oil. One tomato can have a hundred seeds, so I really don’t have to buy many at all.”

He caught the planting bug from his grandmother while growing up in New Britain, Connecticut. He helped her plant and pick strawberries and loved it.

His family, including a sister and two brothers, moved to Waterville when he was a high school freshman. He earned a letter in cross country and track, of which he was very proud. When he developed health problems and could no longer run, they made him a manager.

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His was an abusive upbringing, as his mother would beat him regularly, he said.

“She never paid the bills. We starved a lot. We never had much food. At the high school, they let me come in the kitchen and work and they gave me extra food.”

The family moved back to Connecticut when Gregory was 17 and he got a job in the high school kitchen, for which he received food and a regular paycheck that his mother took from him.

Peter Gregory harvests tomatoes Thursday while working inside a handmade enclosure at his Waterville home. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“She beat me to get that check and I had to give it to her. One day I called the police and a cop said, ‘You are old enough to get out.’ So I left. A neighbor took me in. After that, I rode my 10-speed bike up here to Waterville. It took me three days. I left on a Friday and I got up here on a Sunday night.”

He stayed with a friend on Moor Street in the South End, got a job dishwashing at The Manor, a restaurant on College Avenue, found an apartment and met his would-be wife, Margaret, whom he has been with for 31 years.

During our visit Monday, Gregory said he collects pumpkin and squash seeds to feed the crows and blue jays that visit his lawn. He motioned to a squirrel scurrying around on a nearby patch of grass, and told me he keeps a bucket of peanuts for it.

“She can’t focus very well, because she can’t see a lot,” he said. “I call her One Eye. I feed her all winter long.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 34 years. Her columns appear here weekly. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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