Confessions of a Horticulturist
One man’s lifelong passion for growing things
By Phil Koch
As a young boy, gardening was not last on my mind. It wasn’t even on the list. The first backyard I ever had was concrete. It was four flights down. No trees to be seen anywhere. Central Park was the nearest grassy area to wrestle and play tackle football on. We needed to take the trolley to get there.
During World War II, 9-year-old kids in New York City spent much time at school, church, air raid drills and rationing — for the war effort. So it was that neighborhood kids from the tenements in East 56th Street were invited to plant gardens in some of the highest price sections of the City. Alongside the East River Drive near 64th Street was a grass-lined walkway owned by the Rockefeller Foundation. A neighborhood action group arranged for kids like me to have small Victory Gardens. It was a 200-square-feet patch — my first garden. The planting, weeding and tending yielded things such as lettuce and cucumbers to bring home.
Beginning the following year, 1945, I spent the next three summers on a small family farm in New England. It was a different life for a kid from the East Side of New York. There were cows to milk, hay to harvest and a real, serious garden that produced food that the family needed to preserve for winter. That experience sowed seeds of vocational interest.
In 1954, (now age 19) I enrolled in an agricultural college to major in plant protection technology — a fascinating combination of science and agriculture (insect, disease and weed control.) When I attended school early to try out for the football team, others told me that the major was available in both the schools of agriculture or horticulture. There was a difference in the “learn by doing” curriculum. All agriculture students were required to perform 13 weeks of “Barn Duty” — six weeks tending cows, two slopping hogs, chickens, horses etc. Every horticulture student was required to identify more than 300 plants and shrubs, learning both common and scientific names. The ag option seemed like hard work. I became a horticulture major.
One of the courses in horticulture was “Vegetable Growing.” A classmate and I designed and planted a 30 x 30-foot garden. Of course, we “chemical specialists” weren’t going to pull weeds like our less technically informed classmates. But we made a classic error. Measuring out the weed killer, it seemed like too little. Better add more. We applied the herbicide generously. Then we applied the leftover so as not to waste it. Two weeks later our plot looked like a moonscape. The ground was sterile. No weeds. No veggies. Nothing! The professor wasn’t happy. But he empathized with the lesson learned.
As life evolved, my wife and I moved to Greensboro. The joys of home ownership included the urge to garden. Through the years I have grown sweet corn — harvested by raccoons the day before we were to pick it. There were tomatoes — that attracted box turtles who ate only the bottom of the lowest hanging tomatoes they could reach. I’ve grown zucchini — which attracted nobody. Zucchini is the gift that keeps on giving — at the same time your neighbors are trying to give away theirs.
Much of home ownership gardening now is maintenance. Keeping the grass mowed and shrubs pruned is a joy, but only when you are young and have the right equipment. There’s the social pressure to look good (or good enough.) My yard was neat but not a showplace. I’ve kept the fact that I was a horticulture major a secret. That only would add pressure. My career in agricultural chemicals marketing was a good cover.
Now in my 80s, I pay people to do the landscaping and maintenance work. I handle the flowers. The annual soil-mixing, planting and fertilizing are things I enjoy. Flowers are lovely, colorful, but above all, thirsty. I don’t recall a horticultural class in hose maintenance, leak-fixing while staying dry or how to physically drag a hose all over the yard.
The joys of gardening are turning more into memories. It’s hard to garden with a cane in one hand. As I age, I am revealing more of my past life. I am proud to call myself a horticulturist. Everyone knows better than to ask me questions for fear of getting my life history with the advice. h
Born in New York City Phil Koch moved to Greensboro in 1975 with his wife, Anne, and four children. He retired from Ciba-Geigy agricultural division in 1994. In 2012, he returned to college and graduated with a degree in history in 2017—- at 82, the oldest ever to graduate from UNCG.