40 Years of Compost

Inspired by Silent Spring, master gardener Bob Dickey grows vegetables the old-fashioned way
By Adam Swenson

Bob Dickey is an energetic 74-year-old with an infectious laugh. His love of organic gardening is clear—he speaks of compost, earthworms, microbes, and full sun with the zeal of the truly converted. His excellent health and a youth that belies his age make a compelling argument for the merits of a diet heavy on the homegrown fruits and veggies.

Every true believer must see a fork in the road—in Bob’s case, he took the one less traveled and hasn’t looked back. In our interview he recalled watching huge barges chock full of sulfur “yellow as could be” pulling into the fertilizer plant across the river from his childhood home in Gibsonton, Florida, the winter home of various carnival personalities. (It’s the only town in America with a post office counter for dwarfs and zoning laws that allow you to keep elephants in the front yard.)

He recalls an awful stench coming from the plant: only later did he learn about the fertilizer’s effects on the local flora and fauna. When the fertilizer washes into the soil, “… it will kill the earthworms, it will kill all the beneficial [microbes] and most of the harmful [microbes] and it will feed the plant, but not the soil. So we’re eating artificially grown food. It’s like a big strong football player dies at 42 because he took steroids—it’s not natural.”

When Bob read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the early 70s, the controversial book resonated with him. “After I read it, I thought she was a hero,” he said. “She didn’t mean to harm anybody, she just told the truth. Reading that book affected me deeply. It was a watershed moment. I started organic gardening because I couldn’t bear to do it any other way.”

Bob’s method starts with the compost. Florida’s soil is hardly worthy of the name—“this used to be the bottom of the ocean, so it’s all sand here”—so Bob doesn’t even have a “garden” in the conventional sense. Instead he composts like a madman, producing enough to fill all manner of raised beds: buckets and barrels and old tires and sections of chain link fence brought into a circle and tied together. All of his plants grow right in the compost, a good way to deal with the problem of Florida’s less-than-ideal soil.

For the aspiring organic gardener, Bob says to focus on the soil first, and that means learning how to make great compost. “If you grow good soil, it will grow good plants,” he says. “You can’t grow good plants without good soil.”

He grows fresh produce 12 months a year, enough for his family, friends, and very fortunate neighbors. At the time of our interview he was growing Swiss chard, kale, collards, mustard greens, sugar snap peas, and tomatoes, though soon it would be southern peas and okra and others as the weather gets warmer.

A certified master gardener through the University of Florida, Bob lectures at the university, presents at libraries, invites people to his home garden, and consults at a 70-plot community organic garden growing just five blocks from downtown Tampa. “I invite people over here all the time… we live on five acres and we never sell anything, never charge a penny. I’ll teach anybody willing to learn.”

The community garden holds a special place in Bob’s heart. “The community garden probably has 70 plots—I think they charge $20 or 30 a year. I go over there when they call me and walk around and try to help people. They’re making compost successfully, their garden is flourishing, and all within five blocks of downtown Tampa. I love it. It’s wonderful. I’ve never had so much fun in my life.”