The Practical Gardener

The first time I met Bill Taylor, he was presenting a workshop on growing vegetables. At the time, I was impressed with his storehouse of knowledge, and I envied his ability (as a retired gentleman) to devote his days to his passion.

Since that time, I’ve periodically heard his name associated with impressive gardening feats. Typical was the time he delivered 500 pounds of tomatoes, harvested from his garden in a single day, to the Manna Food Bank. Fact is, whenever I hear someone mention Manna’s Grow-A-Row for the Hungry Program, I think about Bill Taylor.

The beginning of the growing season is a good time to talk about this worthy project, started about 20 years ago by the Garden Writers of America Association. The premise is pretty simple: If everyone who tends a garden planted an extra row of vegetables to give to the needy, it could take a major bite out of hunger in America. Manna Food Bank is the collection-and-distribution point for a 17-county area that stretches from Boone to Cherokee. But these folks aren’t looking for the culls that home gardeners don’t want. They need cleaned, bagged, fresh veggies that can be distributed quickly. In fact, they won’t accept produce that hasn’t been cleaned, because they don’t have the facilities to wash it.

I was making some inquiries lately and was told that Bill had donated a whopping 3,000 pounds of produce to Manna last year. On hearing that, I just had to call him to pick his brain a bit.

For a gardener, Bill is in an enviable position — a retiree with a one-third-acre piece of flat land that gets sun all day long. He spends about five hours a day in the garden. As a working guy who has a hard time juggling my day job and other commitments while finding even a minimal amount of time to spend at Jardin Fou, I had to ask him what it was like before he retired. Bill told me he’d worked for 42 years as a salesman at Hajoca Plumbing down on Swannanoa River Road.

“Here’s what the garden did for me,” he said. “I had monthly quotas that were a continual stress, but I could go home in the evening and walk out into the garden and my stress dissolved away. A couple hours of work in the garden and I could sleep like a baby.”

Taylor orders seeds from about a half-dozen different catalogs each year, carefully choosing hybrids or old-standby heirlooms with great track records. He grows “Celebrity” tomatoes because of their taste and disease resistance, and an heirloom paste type called “Classica” that resists blossom-end rot. He grows “Arcadia” broccoli ordered from the Maine-based Johnny’s Seeds because it can weather a freeze or hard frost without damage. He grows “Silver Queen” (a 94-day-to-maturity, classic heirloom sweet corn variety), along with “81W” (an 81-day hybrid that tastes similar to “Silver Queen” but grows fast enough to spread out the harvest).

I asked Bill how he starts all the seeds he needs for so large a garden, and he said he’d figured that part out a long time ago. He takes the seeds he wants to grow to a local greenhouse operator he’s known for many years. Bill pays the fellow to start the seeds in flats at the appropriate time, and he gets a call when the seedlings are up and ready. The money and aggravation he’s saved over the years more than make up for what he spends to have professionals produce outstanding seedlings.

I was also curious about what Bill likes to eat and how he preserves it. “I love any sort of green except spinach. Great Northern beans, sweet potatoes, boiled cabbage, Irish potatoes, pickled beets, relish … I pretty much love it all,” he said. And Bill is still eating veggies canned last season by folks who enjoy canning but aren’t much for gardening. He delivers the veggies to them and they do the canning, in exchange for a share. Like his system for starting seedlings, this is an admirably practical approach that enables him to spend more time doing what he likes in the garden while making sure the things he doesn’t want to do still get done.

Much as I love to garden, my kids are not too crazy about it. Bill says his three kids hated gardening too. He grew up in West Asheville, where his mother “got me to planting hollyhocks when I was 6 years old, and from then on, I always had piddly little gardens wherever I lived.” And even though his kids weren’t much for gardening when they were growing up, Bill says his son, at least, has belatedly taken to growing tomatoes and a few other veggies.

Besides his one-third acre, Taylor also has what he calls a “Candy Roaster garden” that’s about 70 feet by 60 feet. Here he grows eight rows of his favorite roasting potato, “Kennebec”, as well as cushaw and “Candy Roaster” squash. Candy Roasters average about 25 pounds and the meat freezes very well, so it’s available for making terrific pumpkin pies all year long.

Bill has been gardening at his current site for about 10 years. He uses mostly organic strategies and makes sure he takes soil samples each year to keep the nutrient levels up. “You have to be a Philadelphia lawyer to read those printouts that the state sends back each year, so I take it to where I get my amendments and they tell me what I need.” Bill lets the three resident groundhogs take what they want from his garden, saying, “It’s not the produce they take that I have a problem with as much as the holes they dig.” A greater nemesis, he says, is pigweed that came in with a big load of cow manure from a local dairy. To maintain a high level of organic matter, Bill gets leaves from a neighbor who does lawn work. “This fellow has a machine that sucks up leaves and shreds them in the process. It is just wonderful stuff for the garden.”

Bill doesn’t grow fruit of any kind, and he has someone else do the rototilling each spring so he doesn’t have to maintain a machine. In talking to Bill, what inspired me the most was the fact that he plants what he wants in his garden and can focus on the growing, because he’s found other ways to get the rest of the necessary work done. It’s a practical and eminently sensible approach.

Taylor will be delivering fresh veggies for the needy to Manna Food Bank again this year, whenever he harvests. You can do the same with any extra veggies you may have. Just call the good folks down at Manna at 299-3663 to find out the particulars. They are centrally located at 627 Swannanoa River Road, and it’s an easy way to contribute to a wonderful cause.

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One thought on “The Practical Gardener

  1. Vickie Davis

    I grew up in the mountains of NC. My granny always made candy roaster pies. A cousin of mine moved to Washington state when I was 6. That was a verrry long time ago. Recently he called wanting candy roaster seeds. I now live in SC and have been unable to locate them. Do you have any suggestions?Please advise.

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