Behind Jeff Gillman’s quizzical but friendly smile lurks a fearless garden warrior, ready to take on bogus advice and dubious garden practices.
“No more mulch volcanoes around trees,” exclaims Gillman, UNC Charlotte Botanical Garden’s new director. “I couldn’t believe that after we moved here. And no more crepe murder, either.”
Crepe murder is gardening slang for mercilessly amputating the limbs of crepe myrtle trees, leaving ugly stumps, a practice that’s botanically unnecessary and potentially harmful.
Gillman, 45, brings a national reputation to Charlotte as a bestselling garden writer, a contributing editor at Fine Gardening Magazine, a founder of gardenprofessors.com, and a regular on the popular indie garden blog, GardenRant.com.
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Gillman has appeared on “The Martha Stewart Show,” talking about his best-known book, “The Truth About Garden Remedies.”
As Gillman told journalist Meleah Maynard, something inside him snapped when, as a young horticulture professor at the University of Minnesota, he heard a nationally know garden guru dispensing tips on TV that he thought were nonsensical.
“I was so offended I immediately started researching some of his claims,” Gillman recalls, and his bestseller was born.
Gillman earned his Ph.D. in horticulture at the University of Georgia, where his adviser was Michael Dirr, himself a nationally recognized expert.
The charismatic Dirr converted Gillman from a career path in entomology. Gillman had wanted to be an entomologist from the time he was a kid, growing up on a farmstead in Pennsylvania.
His father, a chemist, grew a small orchard near the house, and Gillman watched what happened the years they sprayed and the ones they didn’t. Always a pragmatist, he became adept at digging worms out of the apples in the nonspray years.
“I’m no entomologist,” he now says, smiling, “ though I can tell a fly from a bee, and that can be helpful.”
Not one to put on airs, Gillman has set up shop in a corner of UNC Charlotte’s busy greenhouse workroom, dusting off an old desk across from the potting bench. He says he is grateful to be surrounded by exceptional co-workers and a wonderful collection of plants, the legacy of past director Larry Mellichamp.
Gillman’s right-hand adviser, veteran Botanical Garden Assistant Director Paula Gross, is also an old friend. They were graduate students together at Georgia. Another local connection is UNC Charlotte political science professor Eric Heberlig, Gillman’s undergraduate college roommate at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, and his co-author on “How the Government Got in Your Backyard: Superweeds, Frankenfoods, Lawn Wars, and the (Nonpartisan) Truth About Environmental Policies.”
Gillman plans to use his writing and teaching expertise to spread the word about the Botanical Garden’s exceptional collections, which include orchids and tropical plants in the greenhouses, carnivorous plants, and enchanting rambling outdoor gardens. A new gem is the Mellichamp Native Terrace, spotlighting plants indigenous to North Carolina.
Gillman and Gross plan to continue the popular plant sales – the next one is Oct. 16-17 – and classes, but they want to add other activities, as well. They are plotting strategy, beginning with careful planning, researching best practices at other botanical gardens throughout the Southeast.
“The beautiful thing about UNC Charlotte is that our botanical garden is on campus.” Gillman says. “Our role here is to work with the urban environment, something different from Minnesota or UGA.”
Charlotte managed to land Gillman in part because of another of his passions – his family. He enjoyed teaching at University of Minnesota, he said, but he and his wife decided to move with their two children closer to family in the Carolinas.
Gillman took a position at CPCC’s Horticulture Technology program on the Cato Campus two years ago, where he was a popular and innovative teacher. When his dream job opened at UNCC, he couldn’t say no, he said. He praises CPCC as an excellent choice for horticulture students and a place where faculty truly care about their students.
Gillman insists that those who offer garden advice back up their opinions with scientific evidence. To his credit, Gillman makes a point of testing garden advice himself. He’s ground up eggshells to see if they repel slugs (they don’t, but beer traps work), and sprayed organic clove oil on weeds (sometimes kills the tops but not the roots, and may be dangerous.)
He even tested playing music to plants at University of Minnesota. His graduate student hated the experiment, complaining that she had to climb into a growth chamber to make measurements while the rock band Rush (Gillman’s choice) boomed from speakers.
The results were inconclusive, but Gillman told journalist Maynard people should sing or talk to their plants if they want to: “I find it empowering to talk to things that won’t talk back.”
Don Boekelheide is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org