He’s Got the Dirt: Jim Wilson’s Missouri Cottage Garden

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Jim and Janie's 15-acre parklike property flourishes with the dedicated attention of the gardening partners. Their pond has a manmade island that's lavishly landscaped and equipped with an outdoor dining room.
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Landscape designer Janie Mandel and garden expert Jim Wilson are partners and best friends.
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A nearby herb garden is convenient for the kitchen harvest. The house affords season-extending protection from harsh spring winds and provides summer shade.
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Janie used her millstone collection as the stepping stones on this well-mulched path.

Jim Wilson knows gardens. Author of 14 garden books and former cohost of the PBS show “Victory Garden,” he’s advised and inspired countless gardeners. Retired (for the fifth time), Jim isn’t slowing down–he now can dedicate time to his own garden, and donates fresh herbs and vegetables to the Central Missouri Food Bank.

The home of Jim and his partner, Janie Lynn Mandel, called  Friendship Farm, includes a meticulously landscaped cottage garden on 15 acres in Columbia, Missouri. “She’s a designer. I’m a grower,” Jim says as he plucks a stray weed from the light and crumbly soil. “We like to keep it neat.”

Jim’s years of gardening experience mean he has quite a few gardening tricks up his sleeves. He and Janie have divided their 1,000-square-foot cottage garden into handy mini-gardens that they easily can plant, harvest and then rotate into the next succession crop. The little garden spot is filled with cool-season greens–lettuces, chard and spinach–along with sweet peas planted for fragrance and color. As the Missouri summer heats up, the couple will harvest the early spring greens and replace them with summer squash and cucumbers. Fall crops of collards, lettuce, spinach and turnips will wind up the garden season in the same well-tended soil.

Other garden areas are loaded with rotating crops, such as spring onions, which will be followed by edamame soybeans. Tomatoes and peppers are hardening off in a protected area as they wait for warmer weather and their turn in the nutrient-dense garden soil.

Jim’s years of garden experience also have taught him a few techniques to keep pests out of the garden–without chemicals. Jim and Janie carefully monitor plants to get early control of invading insect populations, which allows them to keep insecticides out of the food garden.

“I’m not saying that we don’t have our share of cinch bugs and squash bugs,” Jim says. “For example, earlier this spring the asparagus beetles moved in. We had to go through and smash the larvae by hand to get them under control.”

The food garden, snuggled next to the house, is tightly designed. Hardware cloth–a galvanized mesh wire–discretely surrounds the bottom 20 inches of the picket fence to keep bunnies from feasting on fresh garden veggies. Garden ornaments also serve as deer deterrents.

“Deer are reluctant to jump in anywhere they can’t easily clear the fence,” Jim says. “The obelisks, trellises and obstacles in the food garden are sufficient to prevent problems with deer.”

Just outside a garden entry lies one of the keys to Jim’s success: a giant, well-aged compost pile. Young tomato plants crown the pile, which is aged but still warm enough to give the tomato plants an extra jump on the season.

Tea time at Friendship Farm

Regular applications of compost, along with generous amounts of mulch, keep the hard-working garden soil fertile and productive. Another of Jim and Janie’s efforts that helps keep Friendship Farm relatively free of insect pests and diseases is Jim’s homemade compost tea–an aerated, water-based compost solution of live microbes that can be mixed and brewed using special equipment (available online or at garden stores). When sprayed on plants, compost tea suppresses diseases and pests, increases nutrients available to the plant, and speeds the breakdown of toxins.

To make compost tea, Jim first uses a machine to aerate tap water, which gases off the chlorine. Then he adds about 8 cups of compost to the compost tea brewer’s bubbling bucket. Jim also blends in his own ingredients such as, among other things, cricket manure and molasses. Next, he lets the tea bubble in the machine for 24 hours, which encourages the growth of millions of good, aerobic bacteria. He applies the tea by saturating the soil around the plants. The elixir also can be sprayed directly on the plants to feed the foliage.

Jim believes compost and compost tea can reduce the cost of fertilizers and chemicals and improve the overall health of garden soils on both a home and commercial scale. “Healthier soil means healthier food and more productive plants,” he says.

The well-seasoned gardener

Garden expert Jim Wilson has served as president of the Garden Writers Association and is a Hall of Famer in that organization. His literary swan song, Gardening Through Your Golden Years (Cool Springs Press, 2003) is dedicated to “Jane Helvey Mandel, a superb gardener and my dearest friend.” The book is a collection of expertise and time- and labor-saving advice from gardeners old enough to remember World War II.

At age 81, Jim continues to garden, though he works smarter these days. He’s never outdoors without a broad-brimmed sun hat and sunscreen. Having gone through skin cancer treatments, he wears a sun-shielding, long-sleeve shirt when he gardens. He’s rarely without a hoe, which helps him get up and down and steady himself along the garden paths. Jim and Janie hire a gardener to come in once a week and do the heavy work.


Further Reading:

Gardening Through Your Golden Years by Jim Wilson (Cool Springs Press, 2003)

Jim Wilson’s Container Gardening: Soils, Plants, Care, and Sites by Jim Wilson (Taylor, 2000)

Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis (Timber Press, 2006)

Compost Tea:

Earth Fortification Supplies Company
compost and compost tea products

Growing Solutions
compost tea brewers

Keep It Simple
compost tea brewers, composts

Soil Foodweb
information and recipes for compost tea

compost tea brewers

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