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Thomas DeBaggio, Va. gardener who wrote poignantly about Alzheimer's, dies at 69

CHANTILLY, VA - NOVEMBER 5: FILE - Tom DeBaggio, in Chantilly, Virginia on November 5, 1999. DeBaggio, an herb and gardening expert is suffering from an aggressive form of Alzheimer's Disease. His wife and son are expected to carry on the family business. (Photo by Michael Robinson-Chavez/The Washington Post)
CHANTILLY, VA - NOVEMBER 5: FILE - Tom DeBaggio, in Chantilly, Virginia on November 5, 1999. DeBaggio, an herb and gardening expert is suffering from an aggressive form of Alzheimer's Disease. His wife and son are expected to carry on the family business. (Photo by Michael Robinson-Chavez/The Washington Post) (The Washington Post)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 12:08 PM

Thomas DeBaggio, a nationally prominent herb grower and gardening author who became a defiant and poignant voice for fellow Alzheimer's patients, died of the disease Feb. 21 at an Annandale nursing home. He was 69.

After a brief journalism career - he complained of editors always scissoring out his left-wing opinions - Mr. DeBaggio found himself with little income and a young family to support. He started selling tomato seedlings he raised from his garden in the Arlington County neighborhood of Ashton Heights, near where he grew up.

By 1975, the adventure had developed into a nursery run from his home. He converted most of his yard into greenhouse space, where he raised thousands of cuttings of lavender, rosemary, mint, scented geraniums and other plants that caught his fancy.

Patrons and gardening writers flocked to the home, drawn by the aromatherapy experience of entering the greenhouse and the astonishing range of varieties that Mr. DeBaggio grew.

To his loyal customers, he commended a variety of rosemary that was winter-hardy in Washington, and he introduced about a dozen varieties of herbs that he had raised as selected seedlings or mutations, including a rosemary variety named for his wife of 47 years, the former Joyce Doyle.

Mr. DeBaggio wrote or co-wrote several well-regarded books about herbs. Even while consumed by the business, he channeled his need to write by penning a column in the nursery's catalogue.

In the spring 2000 nursery catalogue, he began to note periodic moments of confusion and forgetfulness. "The seeds become familiar companions as I teeter on the cusp of spring," he wrote. "It is at this time of year that I become acutely aware of the trembling life that is within me, as well as in the seed."

He had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's - a rare disorder that affects those younger than 65 - and said he initially tried to reach out to another new patient on the advice of the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

"I called and his wife answered the phone," Mr. DeBaggio told the New York Times. "I said who I was and that I had been asked to call him. She said: 'He doesn't want to see you. He doesn't want to talk to you. Goodbye.'

"That told me a whole lot about Alzheimer's," Mr. DeBaggio said. "It's a disease you hide."

But Mr. DeBaggio decided to confront the degenerative brain disease by going public about it. He appeared on Oprah Winfrey's TV talk show. His journey into darkness was chronicled by National Public Radio. And he wrote two books about his life and the effects of the disease, "Losing My Mind" (2002) and "When It Gets Dark" (2003).

The books explored early memories - his first haircut and other childhood scenes - with the increasing difficulties he faced as his memory and body began to fail.


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