Master Gardener Bob Dickey shares tips and lessons learned from 35 years of organic vegetable gardening, reminisces about growing up as a Carny kid in Gibsonton, and lets us in on his favorite places for Southern cooking and seafood. Photographed at his farm in Brandon.
What’s your favorite thing about living in Brandon? The five acres I’m on.
How did you start growing organic vegetables? Thirty-five years ago I wanted to grow something to eat. The book Silent Spring came to my mind and I thought; I want to be an organic grower. I knew nothing so I got a magazine and I read and became fascinated by compost. I thought, wow, free stuff that will grow plants! I was determined to make compost so I kept trying until I got it right. I called the Hillsborough County Extension office thinking they would embrace me and my ideas, but they told me I was wasting my time. They laughed at me and said compost isn’t worthwhile, but they were wrong!
Which community gardens are good places to get inspired? Tampa Heights Community Garden on Frances Ave. There’s another really good one in Brandon at the Great Life Church on Parsons. There are several others in Tampa. They’re all pretty new and full of nice cooperative, energetic and nteresting people.
Give us your top 5 gardening organic gardening tips.
- Slow down. I tell people who want to make compost – what’s your hurry?
- Start small.
- Get healthy soil. You’ve got to find someone who can provide or tell you how to make healthy soil. You can’t grow healthy plants in poor soil.
- Find out what to plant and when to plant it. You can’t grow Big Boy tomatoes down here. They won’t do.
- Stick with the organic approach. You can’t do half and half. You can’t do a little poison and a little organic.
What are your favorite vegetables to grow? Collards, mustard greens, green beans and black-eyed peas – they are prolific and easy to grow.
Where do you buy garden supplies? Shell’s Feed and Garden Supply for seeds and cotton seed meal. That’s all I buy. And a store in Plant City – I know how to get there but I can’t tell you the name of it. They have everything and they are friendly.
How did you become a Master Gardener with the Hillsborough County Extension office? I’m an organic grower. I don’t use any pesticides or toxic chemicals. One day I looked in the paper and I saw they had an opening for a new agent at the extension office. I liked what I was doing so much I thought, I’ll go over there and see if they’ll hire me! They didn’t, but she said they were starting a master gardener program in Hillsborough County and I’d be perfect. You have to take a course – it’s quite lengthy and very detailed. You pass an extensive test and you get certified. Now they include organic gardening.
What does a Master Gardener do? Since I’m the only organic vegetable gardener in the office they send me places like Tampa Heights Community Garden. We speak at a lot of places – Greenfest at UT, UF, here, there and everywhere. There is also a gardeners series at the public libraries and every month we give talks.
Any other gardening tips? I was talking to an old Florida cracker guy many years ago and told him I didn’t know where to get seeds. He says to me, go to Publix and buy dried black eyed peas and plant them. It’s that easy.
What do you like to do when you’re not gardening? I’m very involved in athletics at the school where I go to church. I’ve been a church person most of my life. I’m a not a bible thumper but I’m active. I coach the girls fast pitch softball team, I’m a 4th degree black belt in judo and I used to teach tennis.
Where do you like to eat? I love seafood. My favorite restaurant of all time is Fred’s Marketplace in Plant City. It’s a buffet. They use the same recipes they used when they opened years ago. They have BBQ, catfish, grits and tomato gravy, friend green tomatoes, green beans, squash. It’s as Southern as you can get.
I have cuban coffee several times a week at La Cubanita. There’s a little family restaurant in Seffner called Plummer’s. It’s a little redneck but they serve all homemade good food. The catfish on Friday night is all you can eat.
There’s a great seafood place called the Fish House in Ruskin on Shell Point Road. It’s an open air restaurant. They serve some of the best seafood I’ve had in my life. It’s quaint, you’re outdoors. Excellent!
Tell us about how you grow up? I was born in Michigan and raised in Gibsonton because my family was in the carnival business. My father ran rides. My brother and I revel in this was part of our life. We were fascinated by the people like Al Tomaney, the Giant, who was 8’-4″. His wife Jennie was a wonderful lady. She had no legs. They owned Giant’s Restaurant and Camp. There was the 600-pound Fat Lady. People paid to look at her so she sat all day and read a lot and was very well versed. Beautiful person, wonderful mind. Priscilla. the Monkey Girl, had black hair all over her. She wore a veil in public because people would stare at her.
Why did the Carnies settle in Gibsonton? There’s no carnival business in the north in the winter. It snows and there’s no work. So, they came to Florida. Why the first guy came to Gibsonton, I have no idea. The circus people settled in Sarasota. They were European entertainers and artists. The two did not mix.
What was the biggest challenge growing up as a Carny? Carnies were held in low esteem because people thought we were all the same – all crooks. If someone knew you were a carnie they didn’t want anything to do with you. There were carnies I didn’t like either and I didn’t want anything to do with them. We despised people who would cheat others. People have to be taught prejudice. My mom and dad never taught us that.
What’s your philosophy of life? Making money is a waste of time. I love what I’m doing. Gardening. Coaching the girl’s softball team. Making orchid sculptures out of shovels. Spend your time doing what you love.
Bob does not use email. If you would like to contact him you may reach him at 813-685-1055.