Rich Reed is a resident of Maplewood, Missouri, a neighboring community just to the East of my home in Brentwood. I met Rich through Freecyle, a service we both use to give away our extra plants and acquire new ones. Not only have we traded plants directly many times, we have found ourselves showing up at the same giveaway sites more than once! That’s not all we have in common. I have special challenges gardening where I do because I live in a condo and Rich has similar issues because he gardens in an apartment setting. I know I and my readers can learn some things from his experiences. I conducted this interview after Rich had moved into a new apartment complex where he was allowed to garden outside and also place some of his plants in the shared spaces inside the building. In his old apartment he had been confined just to his own apartment – his new liberation flourished into a lush indoor and outdoor environment that I’m certain must be good for the mental and physical health of the other human residents not to mention local animal life. I was impressed!
CH: How did you first get interested in plants?
RR: My interest in plants had to have started when I was a little kid. My Dad would take my sister and I to summer camp down in Pevely, Missouri every year from the time I was 8 years old up until I was 13 (oh, the memories!). The summer camp had two-week sessions, and there were nature classes five of the seven days each week. The nature instructors would have all of the kids go on ‘nature walks’ around the camp grounds, teaching us how to identify all of the different trees and flowers and plants….. I was instantly fascinated! I guess when you’re a kid, everything is fascinating, isn’t it? The first trees that I was able to identify from memory were the persimmon, sassafrass and sugar maple.
I also remember vividly how I was so obsessed with identifying poision ivy so that I wouldn’t catch it! So every day off summer camp, it seemed I was always trying to see if there was some posion ivy growing somewhere so I could say to myself, “Hey, I found some poision ivy!” I’m surprised I never caught poison ivy any of those years of summer camp, and to this day, I still haven’t ever caught it–nor posion oak or posion oak or anything from a poision plant, for that matter. The camp’s director one year had acknowledged my posion ivy obsession so much that I was given the ‘Poision Ivy Award’ (it was a certificate, and I can’t remember if it had a picture of the posion ivy on it or not). It gained a lot of laughs from all of the other kids and parents in attendance on the final day of camp.
Summer camp was also the place where I learned to identify my very first two flowers: the trumpet creeper (also known as hummingbird vine) and the Queen Anne’s Lace (also known as wild carrot). I remember being thrilled by the trumpet creeper’s bright red-orange trumpet-shaped flowers so much that I never forgot it! And as for the Queen Anne’s Lace–well, firstly, the name just sounded cool! Plus, I liked how the little white flowers looked like cotton balls from a distance. Except when I was a kid, I always spelled it wrong: ‘Queen Anslays’. So anytime I see these two flowers on the side of a fence or along a highway somewhere, it always brings back so many warm memories of summer camp. To this day, the Queen Anne’s Lace remains as my #5 favorite flower (yes, I have a ranking) behind the lavender, hyacinth, lilac (I favor the purple flowers!) and forget-me-nots.
During those summer camp years, my interest in plants had increased again while I was in 6th grade at Ladue Junior High School. My then science teacher, Ms. Perrin, assigned the class to do a leaf project. Basically, all we had to do was find about 20 leaves, attach them to a poster board using plastic wrap or clear contact paper (I chose the latter because it was easier 🙂 and write a description under each leaf identifying what it was. I remember overdoing it somewhat, as I had more leaves than the poster board could handle. I’m pretty sure there was a sugar maple in the group.
So yeah, summer camp and science class laid the foundation for my future gardening 🙂
CH: Where do you get your plant material?
RR: From everywhere! The main source of my plants, seeds, gardening equipment and what have you came from this wonderful phenomenon called Freecycle! People giving stuff away for free to others who can reuse them instead of throwing them away and filling up earth’s landfills–it’s an awesome thing! I have to thank my good friend Star for introducing me to Freecycle about a few months after I moved into my first apartment back in 2012. Once I realized that a lot of the members on Freecycle were gardeners and often were generous plant givers, I became hooked and have been using it as a source for other gardening material ever since.
Of course, I do my fair share of shopping in the gardening departments at places like Lowe’s and Home Depot or additional supplies. You can only get so much free stuff from Freecycle 🙂
CH: What is it like having so much more space to garden in now? You have a considerable amount of outdoor space to work with plus the apartment building has nice big atria with room for plants indoors. Your new apartment has a nice big window too.
RR: It is soooooooooo great having a lot of space to work with in my new apartment! My old apartment on Bellevue had almost no outdoor space, except for the empty patches of green in front of the property and the green space bordering the back parking lot. I wouldn’t have been able to do any serious outdoor gardening there if I wanted to, although I did try to raise some tomatoes, eggplant and strawberries in pots near my designated parking spot. Nope–wasn’t working. And something kept eating my eggplant! I was so disappointed. So I basically restricted myself to trying to grow everything indoors, but with very little success.
But thankfully, my landlord here at my new place has given me the freedom to basically fill the stairway landings indoors with whatever plants I want! So most of those plants from my old apartment that weren’t getting enough sunlight? Well, they moved in with me and they’re much happier now. The inside of the building has practically become my own little greenhouse!
As for my apartment unit itself: yes, the big window in my living room area is perfect for growing things as well because, as it faces at a bit of an angle, it gets great exposure from the sun as it rises in the east in the morning and sets in the west during the afternoon to early evening. And since the area is much wider than it was in my old apartment, I have many more options for growing things besides just common houseplants.
Though the absolute BEST thing about my new place is having the freedom to finally be able to plant outdoors! I feel liberated and free, like I can do anything I want! Having so much land to work with is an exciting thing, and I want to plant everything I can possibly get my hands on! It’s like a playground for me, or a big science lab where I can play with stuff to see what works, and if it doesn’t, I can always try something else. It’s like, I can finally express myself in gardening the way I really want to.
CH: What are the challenges of gardening in an apartment setting?
RR: There are so many challenges! The main thing would be trying to garden within the rules and regulations of the property itself. Like certain plants that may be harmful if touched or may prove to be too invasive (like English ivy or mints) may not be allowed. Thankfully, my landlord allows me to plant the mints. Some landlords may have their own landscapers who take care of all the gardening, in which case, everything would be restricted to just raising houseplants indoors. And of course, one has to consider the safety and health of the other tenants. So leaving gardening equipment laying around, which could potentially lead to an accident, or tracking water and dirt and bugs into the building are a couple of potential dangers.
The other challenges come with gardening inside of an apartment unit itself. There’s the confined space to deal with–usually near any windows that get sufficient sunlight. But there’s often not enough sunlight, so that eliminates just about all of the exotic sun-loving plants and fruits and veggies. Can you imagine I was actually trying to grow pumpkins inside of my old apartment in a tiny 4-inch clay pot? Not happening. Even tried a little indoor pond (it was actually a fish tank filled with tap water) with some water hyacinth floating atop it, but that didn’t work either. Goldenrod? Didn’t make it a week. Cannas? Well, they grew, but no blooms. And why did I even have a banana plant in my bedroom when the shades were down almost half the time? I even thought a couple of evergreen shrubs would look good in my old living room. Yep—they too ended up in a friend’s compost bin. So with an apartment with no outdoor space available, you have to think small and simple: a few herbs, a few mints, a couple of nice houseplants or two….. I always say if I could grow every fruit, vegetable, plant and flower in the world, I would, but that’s simply not possible in an apartment setting.
The other challenge is more of a mental one. It’s like, you know that you love plants and flowers, yet every time you get up in the morning or come home from work, you see this small amount of greenery growing out of little containers, deep down wishing you could be doing a whole lot more with it. It plays on your mind some, and honestly, you sometimes might even get jealous of other gardeners who do have all of the outdoor space in the world to work with. So it almost forces you to find a different avenue to flex your gardening muscles, so to speak: a church community garden, a relative’s backyard….. Or to just move into a different home altogether, which I eventually did, but for more reasons than just for gardening 😉
CH: How do your neighbors react to your efforts?
RR: There are mixed reactions I get from my neighbors—both the tenants inside of my apartment building and the people living up and down the street. Most of my neighbors are in awe and in love with what they see. A few think that the way I have the flowers arranged look a little junky. Some seem to be indifferent and show no reaction at all when I see them walking past me to get into their car or to get something from their mailbox. My landlord is very happy with what I’ve done, and has even pitched in to help get the gardens looking more professional. But in general, I believe everyone who sees what the property has become since I started gardening in April are pleased that there is actual greenery of some kind taking shape when there was absolutely nothing there (except for a few boring yew bushes in front of the property and some old walnut trees in the back of the property) for years and years prior to my arrival.
CH: I imagine the fact that you are out there a lot working makes it easier to meet neighbors. Have you formed some good new relationships through the garden?
RR: Oh yes! Me being outside with a shovel in one hand and a water hose in the other has given me lots of opportunities to interact with my neighbors, and as a result, I’ve formed a few new relationships with others who are not only gardening enthusiasts, but also have an appreciation for organic living, which is another interest of mine in addition to gardening and freecycling. A very good neighbor of mine who lives right across the hall from me, who coincidentally is also named Carolyn, encourages me all the time to keep adding beautiful plants to the building, and has also generously shared some organic produce from her church’s garden with me. I even have a little helper occasionally named Brian who’s only 8 years old, but sometimes helps me water the plants and get rid of weeds. And there’s at least three other neighbors who have already expressed interest in helping me plant some things in my vegetable garden either this fall before the first frost comes, or when spring rolls around again next year.
CH: Although you don’t have as much produce as you’d like yet, you mentioned sharing some of your produce with neighbors. Do they share things with you because of the garden, such as plants, recipes, tips, etc.?
RR: Absolutely! As I mentioned, there’s my neighbor Carolyn, who shares her organic produce from her church’s garden. And she also has given me some extra planters and plant stands. But I also get plants and produce from other neighbors as well. Someone gave me some hot peppers recently and a while ago, another donated some aloe vera, even though I already had plenty! And I get a never-ending supply of gardening tips and recipes for things on an almost daily basis—even some from the landlord himself! It’s great!
CH: Have you noticed any change in the wildlife around the apartment since you started the garden? For example are there more or fewer insects, birds, etc.?
RR: That’s an interesting question. I do see a lot more squirrels, rabbits, bees, dragonflies and wasps, yet it seems nobody else sees these things at all. Supposedly, there’s an owl near the property, but I haven’t seen him yet. I do see raccoons occasionally, but not very often. And despite some of the neighbors’ fears that my raspberry plants will attract snakes, I haven’t seen any of those either. I will say that, for the most part, my gardens haven’t been attacked by insects and other critters, although I suspect there are some slugs chewing holes in the coleus in the front of the building and something snacking on the tomatoes in the vegetable garden. Maybe there’s just not that much wildlife in this part of Maplewood.
CH: What personal goals does the garden help you work toward?
RR: Ah, another good question. All of this gardening is giving me a whole lot of experience, so I am now looking to get into landscaping of some kind professionally. I didn’t realize how much I would love actual gardening living in that old apartment for a couple of years, but as I learn more and more and my passion for it grows and grows, I feel like it’s time I’ve taken that passion to a whole new level.
I’m also wanting to become more self-sufficient. Growing my own produce and not having to go to the grocery store anytime I want some kale for my stews or some parsley for my Eggplant Parmesan….. I think vegetable gardening is a lot more challenging than regular flower gardening, because what has to be taken into consideration is that you’ll be consuming what you grow, so care has to be taken on minimizing or doing away with altogether those pesticides and herbicides, knowing when to harvest—there’s so much to learn!
Most importantly, I just want to live a healthier lifestyle, and that’s where my interest in organic living comes in. Of course, one is only able to do so much when you’re on a budget, but I try to do the best I can. Good health starts with good eating, I’d say, and growing organic produce is a nice way to promote that while being able to reduce the number of trips to the produce department at the grocery store.
I look at plants and trees and insects and animals so much more differently now than I have in the past. It’s no longer something just to look at because they look interesting; it’s something to really embrace and to take care of. So additionally, gardening helps me to get out more to enjoy and appreciate the environment!
CH: What benefits do you think the garden and plants have for the people and animals that share your environment?
RR: Of course, there are the many physical health benefits that come with plants: food, natural medicines and remedies, oxygen….. But then there are the many mental health benefits for people as well. Seeing all of the bright and interesting colors and shapes and designs—observing something beautiful has a way of lifting one’s spirits and inspiring the mind. And gardens have a way of introducing a sense of peace and tranquility to the landscape–a kind of paradise to get lost inside of.
CH: Do you belong to any gardening or plant organizations or do you have close friends or family that you can share your interest with?
RR: Presently, I’m not a member of any official plant/gardening organizations, but I would someday like to fit that into my already busy schedule. However, I do have many friends and relatives to share my gardening interest with, namely my Aunt Vera, who has been my #1 inspiration to garden from the beginning, my best friend Jerry, my friend Matt, plus the many fellow gardening enthusiasts I’ve connected with through past Freecycle transactions.
CH: Where do you get your gardening knowledge from? Books, internet, trial and error, word of mouth, gardening clubs, visiting gardens, all of the above?
RR: ALL of the above! Though I would say I get the most knowledge from simple trial and error. Actual hands-on learning is the best way to learn anything, I think. Seeing what works and what doesn’t….. I do a good deal of Internet surfing and read lots and lots of articles on how to grow certain plants; I don’t do too much in the way of books, with everything being so digital nowadays. Learning from other fellow seasoned gardeners is always a great help. And sometimes, I like to take little drives to different parts of St. Louis to observe other people’s gardens and to get ideas for what to do with my own. So all of these are good learning tools.
CH: Do you have other hobbies?
RR: Too many, in fact! When I’m not outside gardening, I like writing (mysteries are my thing, but nothing published yet), computer gaming and traveling (when I can find the time). I also happen to be quite the eclectic music lover and CD collector, so I can go from listening to jazz, blues and New Age music one minute to 80’s hair band rock, country, techno and disco the next; there’s always something different playing in my car when I’m out on the road.
CH: Will it be hard for you to leave your garden if you ever decide to move or will you enjoy starting the whole process again?
RR: I’ve thought about this a lot since I started outdoor gardening for the first time in my life this year. I really would eventually like to move into a house with my own yards someday, once I’ve gotten some things in order, though much of that would bank on my career direction. Though at the moment, I’m content in my tiny spot right here in Maplewood. But should there be a drastic change in my life—for better or for worse—I believe it would initially be hard for me to leave everything behind because I’ve already put so much of my time into the gardens that have been created. Maybe harder if I had to move into another space with no outdoor gardening space whatsoever. But perhaps just as hard knowing that I’d be leaving behind the people whom I’ve bonded with through my gardening. With a new house, though, I could at least begin again from the ground up, and that was part of the fun and excitement that I had when I first broke ground in my vegetable garden way back in April.
CH: Thanks Rich for taking the time for such thoughtful and helpful answers!
PS: I conducted a second interview with Rich in 2017 for a new article. Read it here! Adventures in Indoor Horticulture With Rich Reed