Commemorating Chao-Fu Cheng

Chao-Fu Cheng (February 18, 1942 - March 17, 2015)

Chao-Fu Cheng
(February 18, 1942 – March 17, 2015)
Photo by Kathy Morris 2012 for Tompkins Weekly.

Sad and unexpected news about one of our gardeners

I don’t like sharing this news over the internet, but trying to call all gardeners is not feasible. I did try and call those who I thought would be most affected. If I missed you, sorry.

On Tuesday March 17, 2015, Chao-Fu Cheng, a longtime gardener, died at Cayuga Medical Center. He died from a blood clot in his brain. If you didn’t know Chao by name, he had that wonderful plot right near the tool shed on the highway side. He was a master gardener and his plot reflected that. He was there a lot and always happy to help new gardeners. We will never know how many new gardeners benefitted from both his knowledge and willingness to help with the physical work. The press often found him working in his plot and he generously gave his time for interviews. I used to tease him that he was our ambassador. I cannot imagine the gardens without Chao.

What shall we do to commemorate him?

As a start, today I put a red candle in a glass jar in his plot. Others can add what they would like to add. As one gardener said, “That plot is Chao.” What do people think of the idea of planting his plot as a food donation plot this year and donating the food to Loaves and Fishes, where Chao volunteered for years? Other ideas? A perennial food garden?

This web page is a place where gardeners can put photos or stories about Chao. Jo Todd will begin this by sending some photos she has of Chao working in his plot. To do this simply send what you would like to have uploaded to me or

I will work with others to write an obituary for the Bangs Funeral Home website.

As of now no service is planned. We might contact both Loaves and Fishes and the Master Gardeners at Cooperative Extension (Chao was a master gardener) and offer a combined service from the three “centers” of his life: the Community Gardens, Loaves and Fishes and the Master Gardening program.

If you have ideas of other ways to commemorate him, please share them on the email list. Chao’s passing is a loss for all of us in the gardens, so let’s share ideas about our response.

JUDITH BARKER, Board President


Gardeners’s Testimonies:

“Thank you for letting us know, although I am just devastated to hear this news. I only got to know Chao last year, but we became fast gardening buddies and I spoke with him every time we were at the garden. He helped me out all season and he was one of the main reasons I became devoted to the gardens so quickly. I will miss him as I know will many others who knew him even longer through the gardens and his many other contributions to the Ithaca community. I was just at the gardens last week the day before he passed, I now realize, and as I glanced at his plots emerging from the melting snow, it did not seem right not to see him there. I was looking forward to when he would be back again in the coming weeks tending his seedlings and offering a smile and friendly advice to new gardeners and old. The gardens will not be the same without him.” K.T.

“Chao was an amazing person. His life seemed characterized by community service and humility. He was a model for all of us here in Ithaca.” L.K.

“I have spent the past couple of years being inspired by Chao’s love of gardening and the care that he demonstrated in so many ways.  His presence and commitment supported so many and created a foundation and community for gardeners.” C.K.

“The news of Chao’s passing is a sad moment for us. I would suggest that the plot be used as an instructional plot dedicated to him used to assist and educate less experienced gardners. Produce from the plot could be donated to Loaves and Fishes.  To me this would reflect and give tribute to him for his contribution to both the garden and Loaves and Fishes communities.” R.P.

“Wow. This is so sad. I gardened next to Chao and he always had tons of helpful advice and shared his produce with me. He was such a sweet and humble person! I agree that it would be fitting to use his plot for instructional purposes and donation, as Ronda described. He had a wealth of knowledge and his legacy is both to feed the hungry and to help new gardeners feel welcome and make the most of their experience in the gardens.” K.F.

“Chao was so generous with his knowledge and kindness, so willing to help others. I join the others who will miss him and am so grateful for this information.” L.P.

“This is such sad news — Mr. Chao was such a friendly man and a skilled gardener. He was always happy to share advice, seedlings, and produce. The idea of a training garden with the produce going to Loaves and Fishes sounds like a good idea. Ideally we’d be able to keep the plot half as well as he did…” M.S.

“Chao was THE gardener I talked with every time I’d go there to grow my food, and he would always share some chives, garlic, beans, tomatoes, or other delicious veggies from his plot. One of the nice memories of a discussion I had with him was about how to grow Romanesco (which I didn’t know much about, except that I luckily got a beautiful one from my yard one year). This fed our conversations for a few weeks. I also was gardening while I was very pregnant, and brought my baby many times after she was born. He would always have a kind word. Little things, but really nice memories. He was kind-hearted, and would always be there to give advice and talk about gardening. His plot is one of the most beautiful veggie and herb garden I have ever seen. He would remove stones from the soil one by one with a fine sieve every year, and tend to his plants like each one was a treasure. He was a great advocate for the Ithaca Community Gardens, and the reason I and many others wanted to get more involved with the Ithaca Community Gardens! His death is definitely a huge loss for the Gardens, and Ithaca….” L.dF.

“This is so sad and unexpected. He was a big part of what made the gardens what they are. A very kind, generous and knowledgeable man. Making his plot into a educational and donation garden will remind us and future gardeners of his legacy, I very much like the idea.” M.Z.

“I also really like the idea of an instructional/donation garden in Chao’s honor and if you need a sign i would be more than happy to paint it in honor of such a kind man. His passing is a real loss. But we have all benefited from knowing him and we are putting that inspiration to good use. He would be pleased i am sure.” M.A.

“Chao was quite dear to me. He had an endlessly generous spirit and always had seeds, vegetables, or a story to share. I always felt so lucky that he decided to “adopt” me, watching carefully over me and my garden plot (as he did with many gardeners). When I was still figuring things out my first year at the garden, I think I ate more vegetables from his garden than from mine! And what a joyful laugh he had — he always seemed like he was living exactly the life he wanted. Seeing Chao every week was one of my favorite things about gardening, and he will be dearly missed.” P.

“From my first summer in Ithaca, it seemed that my path was always crossing with Chao’s — from Horticulture department field days, to Loaves and Fishes, to the Gardens. It seemed that wherever I went, Chao was there — quiet and humble, yet always smiling and eager to share. When I joined the community gardens, I quickly came to admire his skill and dedication to the Gardens. As I would get on my bike to head home, he’d often beckon me over to his plot and fill a plastic bag with so many tomatoes, long beans, and sprigs of basil, I’d have to give some away myself!
I remember his lovely display at Open Garden Day last year, with seeds and different types of vegetables. Before the event began, he came over to my plot and eagerly asked if he could ‘borrow’ a Daikon radish. He wanted to show folks some of the more unusual vegetables and varieties.  I had plenty of Daikons poking their white shoulders out of the soil, so I didn’t think anything of pulling one out for the display. Yet at the end of the day, he came back and carefully laid the radish (leaves still perfectly intact) in my bag. To me, that memory reminds me of the great care he brought to everything he did — from trellising his tomatoes and long beans, to mentoring a new gardener, to preparing a meal at Loaves and Fishes.
I last saw him on Christmas Day at Loaves and Fishes, when he came out to the dining hall to eat after helping prepare the meal. Of course (like the gardening nerds we were), we talked about how we pass the winter looking at seed catalogs, dreaming of what we’ll plant in the coming year.  I teased him: “I bet you already have your plot for next year all planned out, down to the last square inch!” I can still remember the sound of his laugh and the light in his eyes at the thought of it. I hope that we can remember all we have learned from Chao to plant a plot he would be proud of, a plot that will bring joy to the gardeners and visitors who see it and nourishment to folks who are hungry.” M.G.