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An Unexpected Gardener

By Tom Lowrey, Senior Services Education Assistant
Sometimes we surprise ourselves. Ben Franklin is known to many of us as a regular contributor to the Midland Daily News, where he uses his expertise as an Advanced Master Gardener in his Sunday column, but as a twelve-year-old growing up in Chicago, he would have been very surprised to learn about his current passion for gardening.

“I always tell this story about God having a sense of humor,” says Franklin. “When I was a kid, my mother loved gardening. Every September she’d get this bucket of daffodils from Michigan Bulb Company, and she would make me help her plant them. That went on for about three years, and I decided that when I grew up, I would never ever have a yard.”

Years later, when Ben grew up and got married, the first place he and his bride lived had a few plants, and the landlord asked him how to take care of them. Ben agreed to do it in exchange for a reduction in his rent. When Ben moved to Midland, his first boss was the Vice President for research and development at Dow Corning, an “old farm boy” who enthusiastically shared his knowledge and love of gardening with Ben. “All of a sudden, I became infected by it,” says Ben. Even though he had very little gardening experience, and had taken no botany classes in college, Ben became hooked. He started taking horticulture classes at Michigan State. “The more I learned, the more I loved it; the more I learned, the more I knew I didn’t know. And I’m still learning stuff every day. That is what’s so interesting about gardening: You can never know everything.”

Because Ben worked as a toxicologist at Dow Corning, he naturally became especially interested in garden pests. So as a gardener he has focused his attention on integrated pest management. “If you do things intelligently,” he says, “you can minimize the amount of pests that invade your garden.” Also on Ben’s radar are invasive plant species, which are not native to North America but have been brought here from other places, either intentionally or unintentionally, and are often unwittingly distributed by people.

What about organic versus inorganic? Ben is not rigidly aligned with either philosophy, but does prefer to use natural solutions when possible. “As Master Gardeners, we are pretty much duty-bound not to promote the indiscriminate use of chemicals in the environment. That is why integrated pest management is so interesting, because if you use good practices, such as sanitation, you can eliminate the need for many of these materials. If you pick up the fallen leaf material from the base of your apple tree, you protect the tree from fungus. If you keep your grass tall enough, you help prevent the growth of unwanted things like crabgrass or violets.”

Ben often gives advice to people who worry about their yards and gardens. One of his biggest challenges is convincing homeowners “to just chill out, relax! Every plant wants to live. Just get out of its way, and look at the plant from the plant’s point of view.”

Common mistakes that homeowners make: Picking the wrong plant, planting plants too close to each other and picking the wrong site for a plant. A good motto is “Pick a site for the plant, not a plant for the site.” Pick the plant for your sun or shade conditions, soil type and condition, drainage and zone. “What you should never see,” says Ben, “is a hosta planted next to a petunia. Read the tag when you buy a plant!” Tags will tell you how much sun plants should get, how big the plants will grow and how far apart they should be planted.

What does it take to become a Master Gardener? “The first requirement is to love people. You’ve got to like plants. And you’ve got to enjoy sharing your information about plants with people. We are almost like disciples of gardening. We take what we know and we answer people’s questions and try to generate in people a better love of gardening. And if all you do is just take the classes and get the certificate, you haven’t done a good job.”

So… searching for something to be passionate about? Take a look at your back yard. And perhaps, like Ben Franklin, you might surprise yourself!