Neil Sperry

This is what horticulture was like when Neil Sperry started landscaping in the ’60s

A good friend called me the other day. “Neil, I have an intern working for me this summer. He’s a senior in Landscape Management, and I’d just like to have him meet you.”

We set up a time and met for lunch. There must still be a lot of “teacher” left in me from growing up the son of two teachers on staff at A&M, then having taught myself and marrying a teacher who turned into a long-term school board member. I love working with young people, especially when they’re coming into my industry.

So my friend asked me, “What changes have you seen in horticulture during your career?” And it was that question that just about knocked me over backwards. Oh, it was a perfectly harmless and very good question, but it caused me to realize how long my journey has been and how much fun I’ve had along the way.

I knew from the time I was 12 that I wanted to go into horticulture. I was already mowing yards. At age 13 Mom and Dad were taking me to “drive-up-to-the-door” nurseries so I could look around and dream. We had only one small one in Bryan, but they took me to Houston to meet the people at Teas and Cornelius Nurseries. I mapped out entire day trips. That was around 1960. I soon got a nursery license and qualified to get truckloads of plants delivered to our house in College Station so I could run a small backyard nursery and landscape contracting business. (In retrospect, I think it helped that my dad was the planning and zoning person for our side of town. It also helped that I mowed all the neighbors’ yards.)

So from those early roots, let me share a few observations from back then.

The majority of nursery stock was sold balled and burlapped. Much was still being sold bare-rooted, packed in moist sawdust and sold only in winter. Container-grown nursery stock didn’t hit the big time until West Coast growers started shipping it in during the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Much of it came in crimped 1-gallon cans, but I spent many an hour on the top end of a Red-Headed can cutter designed specifically to cut rusty old 1-gallon food cans filled with nursery stock.

Landscapes consisted mainly of long rows of shrubs in “foundation plantings.” That was because we still had many houses with tall, unsightly pier-and-beam supports that needed to be screened. Even to this day we are still trying to get people away from those boring straight lines and toward curved beds with more natural looks.

Flower and vegetable transplants were sold in plant bands made out of thin wooden strips. In fact, many transplants were bare-rooted entirely. I met the Greyhound bus to pick up bundles of pansies from the sandy farms in Lindale, Texas, on Fridays in October. I’d put them into my bicycle basket and pedal off to my customers’ houses where I’d plant them and water them in. By the 1970s we were buying our plants in cell-packs where you’d get four, six or even eight small transplants in a molded plastic tray. I can still feel my fingers pressing them up and out from the bottoms as I set them into the freshly tilled soil.

Line trimmers came along in the 70s and 80s, but before them we had edgers with metal bars. I had a trimmer that used coathanger wire for its blades. I can’t even think about the hazards that thing must have posed, but there it was, offered for sale and I had one. It was a lot better than my old teenager’s technique of using a hand-axe to edge.

My dad was the state herbicide specialist with Texas A&M in the 50s and 60s, so I got to help him trial new products that were seeking governmental approval for use in killing unruly or toxic weeds. Most of his work was on behalf of the sheep and goat raisers of Texas, but the same products were coming into the market for consumer use in landscapes and lawns. I got to watch as the research was being done and the products were being released. That was a wonderful education. It taught me to respect real research, and to this day it’s what keeps me from embracing home remedies and testimonials.

Plants that were most popular one or two generations ago? For shade trees, we hadn’t learned that quality really pays off in the long run. We were still going for speed. Fruitless mulberries, cottonwoods, silver maples, Siberian elms (oh, my!), Arizona ash and even mimosas. Now, you’ll have a hard time even finding any of those trees sold in any retail nursery.

Popular shrubs in the 50s and 60s were Pfitzer junipers and arborvitae, but people finally got tired of bagworms. There were lots of crape myrtles, but we hadn’t learned how to grow them as small accent trees. We had vitex, but they were just big shrubs. Waxleaf ligustrums came along in the 60s and 70s, and then the winter of 1983-84 so badly damaged them that hardly anyone went back with them the following spring.

Jump ahead to current days and we have a multitude of great trees and shrubs, often with many different types in each category. Instead of just having a few crape myrtles and buying them only by color, we now have more than 100 named varieties, so we can predict how tall and wide they will grow. Ditto for nandinas, abelias, hollies and almost all of our other best shrubs.

Groundcovers were almost unheard of in 1960. Now almost every landscape sports one or more beds. They’re the perfect transition from shrubs to turfgrass, and groundcovers can be grown where grass just won’t grow due to shade or steep slope.

I love talking about horticulture. It’s an exciting field, and it’s wonderful to see young men and women getting into it. It’s a rewarding career – I know from first hand experience.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at www.neilsperry.com and follow him on Facebook.

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