Down to Earth: Learning to Garden

A rough, tough teacher proves to be one of the best for a young man starting out in the world of dirt.

| February/March 2001

  • 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.

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