I’ve been doing this gardening thing for a long time, and over those years I’ve accumulated a lot of rich memories. I thought I’d share a few of them now.
One of my early calls as Dallas County Extension Horticulturist was from a guy who said, “Neil, I have monkeys throwing hedge apples at cars.” Well, I’d just gotten my job (and a new mortgage and my wife was pregnant). I wanted to answer him respectfully, so I asked a few questions. It got more bizarre, so I asked if I could come see the nature of the problem. Turns out it was a drive-through animal park. The guy did have a problem, but this nervous, green-as-grass horticulturist didn’t have much of an answer. At least he knew that I tried.
Then there was the Friday I came back to my office in Downtown Dallas – in fact, in the old red “castle” after doing a program at WFAA-TV. They put my calls on those old spindles, and I had a bunch. One was from an older lady who asked, “Is there any way to make my mulberry fruitless? I’m tired of all the mess.” I assured her there was no way, that fruitless mulberries were a different type of mulberry, and that they were grown from cuttings. “OK. Thanks,” she said. And we hung up.
But for some reason, that callback sheet made its way back onto my spindle. Monday morning, without noticing the redundancy, I called her back. “Hi, Mrs. Smith. Neil Sperry here from the Extension office. How can I help you?” To which she replied with this little gem: “You folks give great service. A young man called me last Friday. He didn’t know much, but . . .” I don’t really remember what else she said.
A gentleman called at one point. I’m assuming he was a gentleman, because he wasn’t sounding very much like one that morning. His tree hadn’t leafed out that spring. He’d bought it from a guy on a truck who had been driving through the neighborhood. That was January. When it failed to leaf out, this man went out for a closer look. He found that the branches were nailed onto the trunk. And when he started to dig it out of the ground, he discovered it was “growing” in a bag of concrete. No roots at all.
A former neighbor asked my advice in helping a plant with iron deficiency. I suggested a liquid iron spray. A month later she called back. “It hasn’t worked at all, and it’s ruined my patio.” “Patio?” I said. “I didn’t hear anything about a patio before.” She didn’t sound pleased.
We drove over to her new house. That girl had hosed down her plants several times. The overspray had colorized half of her patio with a rust-colored stain. And the liquid iron product hadn’t done anything to help her plants – her gold spot euonymus! So if you ever see me caution people about the staining properties of iron additives, that’s where I learned always to give out that warning.
I went to Line 3, to a caller to one of my radio programs. I heard an unusual sound. My board operator whispered in my ear, “I think he’s asleep.” I whispered that to my audience as I put him back on hold. Periodically I checked back, but he was always asleep. I guess he finally woke up, but it wasn’t during my program.
For several years I did a “kids only” program at the beginning of the vegetable gardening season. I had prizes for them, and that eventually spelled the end of the program as adults used their children to win the prizes. But to the point of my story. One of my first calls was from a sweet little boy who wanted to know which end of the bean “went down.” I answered him that it really didn’t matter. I moved on to a 12-year-old with her question. “Mr. Sperry, I grow chrysanthemums.” (I was impressed that she used the full plant name.) “Mine didn’t bloom very well last fall. I don’t know if I gave them too much nitrogen, or if I did something to mess up their photoperiod.”
Well, step back, Neil! I’ve taken more than 400,000 phone calls in my time on the air. (I keep a record of them all.) Hers was the most impressive one ever. I wonder what she’s doing now.
Back to my days in the Dallas Extension office. One afternoon I had a call asking me to give a value to a measured amount of bat guano (manure). It’s a very rich source of plant nutrition. I made a call to College Station and gave the best answer I could. Two hours later, another call from a different guy, but asking the very same question. “This is odd,” I told him. “I’ve had this same call twice in the same afternoon.” “Oh, I know why. He’s selling the cave, and I’m considering buying it.”
I was signing books at one of the Home and Garden Shows when our kids were very young. They were at my feet beneath the table playing, but they could hear what was being said. Two nuns were standing back from the line. At a quiet moment one said to the other, “I always wondered what Neil looked like.” To which the first nun replied as she smiled, “We’ll keep listening anyway.”
And at another book signing in Grayson County there was a stir at the end of the line. “Neil, you need to see what this lady has.” Not wanting to be impolite to the people in front of me I assured them that I’d hurry to get to her quickly. They insisted, “No. You need to see this right now.” The rest of the crowd stepped aside so she could lay a old copy of The Wizard of Oz down in front of me. “Open it!” someone urged. There on page 1 in my own mother’s handwriting was my name. It was my copy of that book. The lady had bought it for me at a used book store earlier that day and had brought it that night as a gift.