By Suzy Lowry Geno
|Doug Oliver, greenhouse manager of Blount County Farmers Co-op, has a variety of Bonnie tomatoes on hand to satisfy their customers’ needs.
When Doug Oliver was growing up on an Etowah County farm along the side of old Highway 411, he didn’t think the many hours of planting, weeding, plowing and harvesting would have any impact other than helping his family earn money for their livelihood AND providing food for extended family throughout the year.
But the skills Oliver learned during those formative years working alongside his dad (as well as his uncles and aunts) and the knowledge he’s worked to gain in the years since are now helping gardeners throughout Blount County and beyond.
While some other Alabama Co-ops have decreased or even discontinued their line of potted and vegetable plants, Oliver has worked to increase the inventory at Blount County Farmers Co-op until now they are selling more than four times what they did as little as three years ago!
Like his father, Wilburn, before him, Oliver retired from Goodyear in Gadsden. But just as his father and uncles raised cotton and other row crops to sell while maintaining a garden to feed their family, Oliver always had a vegetable garden at home even when he lived in town. Later he began collecting different types of rhododendrons and azaleas and in later years even helped friends with several large landscaping projects.
||Doug Oliver, greenhouse manager of Blount County Farmers Co-op, keeps an assortment of herbs available at the Co-op.
When the Co-op’s Board of Directors was discussing who could best oversee their wish to expand their plant line, Oliver’s name was first.
The quality of the plants and the care they are given while they are waiting for customers to transport them to their new homes is a major part of the difference between what the Co-op offers. Watering is carefully overseen and done by Oliver and temperatures are maintained in the two greenhouses but it’s the specialized SERVICE that sets the Blount Co-op apart from the other stores who sometimes try to sell plants just like they sell canned goods or toilet paper—with little or no care.
Oliver can advise even the newest gardener on which plants to select, how to carefully plant them and how to provide the needed care.
"I tell people, never put a 10-dollar plant in a 50-cent cent hole," Oliver said. "But you can put a 50-cent plant in a10-dollar hole with much success."
And what’s a 50-cent hole? One that’s just barely big enough to squeeze a plant into!
|You will find a wide selection of flowers, both for planting and hanging, at Blount County Farmers Co-op.
"If a plant has a root ball," Oliver explained. "The hole should be at least three times as big as the root ball and you should always use some type of mulch, even if it’s just grass clippings."
"Everybody should have a soil test done," Oliver said. "If the soil doesn’t have the proper nutrients, you need to know what it needs so you’ll know what to add. You need to know what to expect out of a plant once it’s in the ground, too."
Oliver explained you can get soil test bags at the Co-op and bring the soil back to be sent off and tested. "They’ll send back a full report," Oliver said.
It appears to Oliver more and more folks are returning to having home gardens, even if they’re just container gardens, which are ideal for apartments or those gardeners who don’t wish to have to worry with tilling and pulling weeds.
Oliver has sought out and now has in inventory a wide selection of clay, porcelain, and other pots, from eight inches up to 60 inches, which are ideal for such containers.
||Blount County Farmers Co-op is expanding their plant section.
Likewise too, more and more folks are growing their own herbs to compliment their vegetables, whether homegrown or purchased at the local farmer’s market or grocery store.
"We have so many different types of peppers now because there is such a demand for them. And one thing that has surprised me has been the cantaloupe plants; once they put on those leaves you can just bet they’ll have runners soon."
Flowers and bedding plants have really "taken off" in addition to the vegetables.
"I think a lot of folks have found out a well landscaped yard can add up to 20 percent to their property’s value," Oliver said.
"Knock Out roses are a big tool in landscaping now since they bloom all summer," added Oliver.
The Co-op had 600 such roses in stock when this article was written and were expecting a shipment of an additional 150!
A full variety of fruit trees and shrubs are also on hand, with Oliver saying while most plant fruit trees in the fall or spring, they can be planted throughout the summer.
"IF you’re willing to water them properly and consistently. We have everything from blueberries, blackberries, muscadines, apples, peaches, apricots, nectarines and more," stated Oliver.
He won’t sell any fruit tree unless it’s in a container, noting those that are "bagged" are less likely to live once transplanted.
"Susan Parker with AFC’s Lawn and Garden has been really helpful to me," Oliver explained. "The Co-op is just a special place. It’s really by the people and for the people. You don’t get a better bunch of people than those who shop at the Co-op. It’s like they’re all family. Whether they’re young farmers like Daniel and Amy Allman on Straight Mountain or Frank Sloan, who has been around a while, you just feel like you’re going to see some of your friends when you drive up."
Blount County Farmers Co-op Manager Paul Thompson has much praise for Oliver, noting the plant department wouldn’t be thriving without his leadership.
"We really appreciate what he’s done. He’s doing a fantastic job. It takes a special person to take care of the plants AND the people the way he does," Thompson said.
Oliver doesn’t begin fully stocking the greenhouses and other plant areas until he believes the last frost has come. And he tries to keep things going until Thanksgiving.
"We sell a lot of mums for high school homecomings so we try to keep a good variety of those then," he said.
While Oliver thinks it’s important to have a good balance between the new technology and the "old ways" of doing things. He believes the trend to "get back to the soil" is good.
"I can remember the old Victory Gardens during World War II," he explained. "That would be hard to do in some cities now. The biggest problems for the small farmers now, and those in the city who want to farm just a little, is the bureaucracy. A lot of times small farmers are hampered by the federal bureaucrats who have lost touch with reality. I think it’s time we went back to letting people go back to minding their own business in a lot of ways!"
"It’s important for folks to know the Co-op’s business is conducted in Blount County for Blount County, and it’s the same in the other counties," Oliver explained.
"I know here it really does feel like you’re going to see your best friend when you drive up."
Oliver is usually around the Blount Co-op tending his plants and inventory each day but if a customer needs his additional expertise after he leaves, he can usually be summoned quickly by cell phone as he now lives in Oneonta. Just ask for him!
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County.