Tom Duke has enjoyed a diverse career path in his 72 years. In the early 70s, his flight
experience in Vietnam aided instruction at Tyndall Air Force Base. The early 80s found
him the owner/operator of Bay Crown and Bridge Dental Laboratory. In the early 90s
he assisted his artist wife, Terry, as they travelled to art shows around the United States
and, for the last 20+ years, he has been an instructor for the Bay County school system.
Of those careers, he says “Instructing was the most challenging and rewarding.” But his
fascination for gardening has endured for more than 40 years. Now retired, it fully captures
his imagination – especially organic gardening, and he relishes sharing his journey
with other garden enthusiasts. Tom’s home and garden encompass three quarters of an
acre in a quiet densely-forested neighborhood.

WHAT IS ORGANIC?Gardener-Tom Duke-2017-5
The United States Department of Agriculture defines “Organic” gardening as gardening without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. For Tom, the word “organic” especially means no artificial fertilizer. He explains how nothing ever goes into the garbage truck. Larger pieces of wood are cut to length and burned in a smokeless catalytic converter-equipped air-tight stove, a practice the Dukes have perfected for decades to heat their home. The resulting ash is then put on the mulch pile and enriches it with nutrients. Tom’s mulch generation begins with chipped leaves and small branches that cure for six to eight months, adding vermiculite, peat moss, crushed oyster shells, and sea grass recovered from the shoreline of Carl Gray Park. These materials take a long time to break down but the result is a rich mixture that Tom describes as 100% organic. He avoids neighbors’ grass clippings and commercial mushroom compost as they can contain pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. He chuckles when he talks about his secret weapon – chickens. They sleep in the trees and roam freely, producing nutrient-rich manure used as fertilizer throughout his garden and grounds. Kitchen scraps go to the chickens. In return, each morning, there is an egg hunt for the plentiful supply of eggs found hidden in the landscape. Egg shells return to the compost pile. Within an hour’s harvest of seed sprout, baby greens, herbs, and spices, there is a supply of three days of lunch and dinner treats. The efficiency of the garden arrangement allows lunar-directed planting in a matter of minutes while the mulch eliminates time-weary weeding. In summer, an automated system disperses enough water in an hour to hydrate plants for five days.

Five years ago, Tom read “Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space,” by Mel Bartholomew (2005). Of all the gardening books Tom has studied, this book struck him as brilliant. Raised beds allow for a more concentrated and controlled growing environment, reduce pests, and are especially practical if land space is limited. Raised beds are also easy to cover during frost or freezing weather.

For Tom, seasonal plant selection and growing methodology naturally changes in response to real-world experience and exposure to new concepts. For instance, several years ago, Tom’s gardening emphasis on Hawaiian Golden pineapples (a record harvest of 65) gradually morphed toward a more conventional vegetable garden. He began experimenting with a mulch-only planting medium to produce peppers, tomatoes, and onions, and gradually introduced Chinese vegetables, herbs, and spices. He now uses raised beds exclusively, with the northern border of this year’s summer garden introducing golden sweet potatoes interspersed with blue
potatoes while the southern border will feature a variety of red and purple carrots.

The list of edibles Tom grows reads like a seed catalog. Depending on the season, his garden will have a variety of 45 common, and maybe not so common, vegetables, edible herbs, and flowers, most grown from seed and of heritage lineage.

Over the years, Tom has shared his garden produce with geese, turkeys, goats, and a pony. Although the garden itself is fenced, Guinea hens, chickens, ducks, and a male goose traverse the paths and grounds giving the garden a feeling that visitors say feeds all the senses. A pond is home to four large water turtles while an area under the fig tree is dedicated to a habitat for a herd of street-rescued box turtles. All the turtles love their daily hand feeding. Tom says his daily hands-in, hands-on relationship with the earth, its plants, and its critters keeps him optimistically enthusiastic, yet grounded, to a practical sense of life’s cycle of reality.

Laura Roesch

Laura Roesch, born and raised on Florida’s east coast, earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Radford University and a law degree from Indiana University School of Law. A retired judge, she is a voracious reader with a lifelong passion for books. She and her husband collect vintage cars and motorcycles. You may see her driving around town in “Maybelline,” a purple 1956 Chevy Belair–her favorite in their collection.

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