Down to Earth: Learning to Garden

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illustration by Gayle Ford

Throw all of ’em in!” my boss yelled over the pounding noise of the shredder’s engine. Obediently, I threw several handfuls of cracked and broken clay pots into the gaping mouth and into the rapidly spinning hammers. With a loud crash, they exploded into a million pieces.

We were making potting soil, a job I had come to hate only because my boss always chose to do it on the hottest, most miserable days, and on the days I was dressed in good clothes for seeing landscaping clients. “Why can’t he just tell me the day before so I could bring extra clothes?” I wondered to myself. But I feared the contrary old man too much to ever complain aloud. And I was determined to persevere in order to try out some ideas I had about growing herbs.

I’d been hired to manage Mr. Riffle’s garden center and landscape business in central Missouri. Being manager meant doing everything, and doing it exactly the way my boss said. He didn’t enjoy creative ideas and he had little tolerance for variation in how things were done.

Soil making meant stooping over and shoveling for hours at a time. We layered topsoil, composted cow manure, sand, and sphagnum peat moss in a mound about 12 feet wide and 50 to 60 feet long. At one end of the mound was the giant gas-powered shredder; next to it was a pile of bags of vermiculite that I had hauled on rainy days from a warehouse miles away.

It was a dirty job, the shredder throwing chunks of rock and dust from the vermiculite back into our faces. But Mr. Riffle worked right along beside me, always in his dress pants and shirt. He was a tough teacher, a crusty fellow, quick to anger and even quicker to criticize. He had won the greenhouses, flower business, and garden center in a poker game some years before. Being thrifty, he set about making his winnings pay off by turning a once-dying business into a thriving, profitable one.

His interest was primarily landscape plants. From him, I learned how to shear a 6-foot-tall upright juniper in less than two minutes using a machete. I learned about rose varieties, grades, rootstocks, and suppliers. And I learned about light timers for chrysanthemums and carnations, how to make an acceptable floral arrangement for a funeral, and lots of other things from this stern old man.

But my interest was herbs, and even though Mr. Riffle said there wasn’t much market for them, he eventually let me do some experimenting when my other work was caught up. Even while constantly telling me I was wasting my time, he taught me about seed germination and heat mats and proper light for small seedlings. I started flats of parsley, covering them with sterilized boards for darkness to speed the sprouting. I ordered sweet marjoram seed, took rosemary cuttings, planted different kinds of basil and thyme.

I potted up my seedlings while they were still less than a half-inch high into 2-inch pots. Mr. Riffle let me put some of my herbs in the tomato house to sell with the tomatoes and peppers. I put some in containers–one of each herb in a patio pot–and put them in the garden center. To his surprise, and my delight, people bought the herbs and asked for more. This was in the early 70s, when herbs were just being discovered in the Midwest.

When Mr. Riffle saw that my experiments were making him money, he eagerly threw himself into growing herbs. He planted dill and cumin and cilantro (although no one could figure out what to do with cilantro back then). Soon we had bay and borage, catnip and calendula, five kinds of thyme, three kinds of basil. Soon he’d forgotten that I’d had to plead with him for space for my herbs, and it became his idea. He’d seen a trend and he had risen to the occasion, I heard him tell a customer.

Either way, herbs caught on with the garden center crowd. Mrs. Riffle started planting herbs in strawberry pots; the floral designers began potting up expensive brass planters with herbs. My lowly little herbs graduated from the drafty old garden center out back to the classy gift shop in the front of the store.

Soon I added native gingers and spicebush to the garden center’s list of landscape plants and I began doing herb-garden designs as part of landscape plans for new houses.

My experiments with growing herbs and the lessons I learned have served me well over the years. So thanks, Mr. Riffle. You were a tough teacher, but a good one.

Jim Long, an herbalist and owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas, travels the world teaching and learning about herbs.

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