Hungarians celebrated as one on July 28 when György Bálint, the country’s best-known gardening engineer and horticulturist turned one hundred. Known as the gardener of the country, he has brought hobby and professional gardening closer to the people and is doing so even today.
Graduating with a degree in horticulture, Mr Bálint went on to become an expert in his field. Starting from the seventies, he was an editor and contributor to several magazines and publications. He later started hosting a popular Hungarian TV show called Ablak (Window) themed about gardening and farming in 1981. Being one of the most popular of its kind, the programme ran until 2009. Meantime, he published and edited several books and publications.
Even retiring from television did not stop him from engaging with his audience and speaking to those interested in a few gardening tips. He starts each of his days by sharing his thoughts on gardening news on his Facebook page, which is followed by more than 420,000 Hungarians, and answering emails and messages from his fellow gardeners, often with the help of his grandson.
One could argue that there are certainly not hundreds of thousands of hobby gardeners in Hungary, a country of only 10 million. Nonetheless, his calm voice on TV, charming personality, neverending enthusiasm, joyful nature and passion for the environment made the whole country love him and become a celebrity whose advice is always worth listening to, even if you are not into gardening.
“Looking back 100 years, I can say that cultivating the land is the most wonderful job you can have,” he said, speaking in an interview with the BBC in July, adding that he sees his closeness to nature as the main reason contributing to his longevity. “Modern societies should preserve a closeness to nature, (…) people should be able to enjoy the shade a tree gives, or feel joy when a leander starts blooming.” he continued.
“Those who grow their own, also tend to eat more fruit and veggies,” he told Reuters, encouraging everyone “with a garden, however small,” to raise fruits and vegetables. He stressed that gardening gave him purpose and a constant sense of achievement when he showed international journalists around his own garden bed in the outskirts of Budapest where he grows tomatoes, courgettes and green peppers.
“We definitely need to strive for self-sustaining communities,” he added, expressing his concern over climate change. “Data shows that by 2050 the world’s population could grow to over 10 billion people, and these people need to be provided for,” he noted.
He believes another secret to his long life was keeping active. Even in 2019, he is still actively participating in academic life, helping with building community gardens, giving lectures, attending gardening events and writing books.
Although Mr Bálint is a person of joy and love, he had to endure a lot of struggle in his life. As a person of Jewish heritage, he was sent to a concentration camp in 1942. He barely weighed 42 kilos when he managed to escape; only one of his two sisters survived the Holocaust. The ordeals continued after the Hungarian communists, who took power in 1947, deprived him and his family of his land. “I am not the only one who does not speak about what happened in World War II. Somehow, the whole society remained silent in the second half of the 1940,” he said, referring to his burdened past.
With the Soviet Union and Hungary’s communist regime finally collapsing, Mr Bálint renewed his commitment to public life. He was elected MP of the first Hungarian parliament as a lawmaker of the Alliance of Free Democrats party and served one term before he quit politics.
His short political life served as the basis of an unfortunate controversy earlier this year that involved his past. When the city council of the Budapest district where he lives proposed nominating him for the district’s honorary citizen, local councillors of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party turned down the initiative, arguing that he is a “liberal”.
Much to the honour and relief of the Hungarian society, several cities immediately rushed to offer him the prestigious title. In a rather modest way, he accepted the nomination of Várda, a small village in Hungary’s Somogy county Mr Bálint helped to become Hungary’s “first bird-friendly city”.
“Love, that is the most honest, is the most important,” he said, thanking the citizens of Várda in May. Luckily, the incident did not discourage him from staying as humble, positive and joyful as we know him.
Isten éltesse, Bálint gazda!