March 13, 1997

Winter Green Devoted Greenhouse Gardener Gets Jump On Growing Season

By The Spokesman-Review

FROM SOUTH SIDE VOICE page C3 (Thursday, March 20, 1997): Correction The name of greenhouse gardener Richard Herrmann was misspelled in last Thursday’s South Side Voice.

Light snow was blowing through Richard Herman’s back yard, but the climate inside his greenhouse was totally tropical.

The smell was akin to fresh-cut herbs.

Thousands of tender seedlings and a smaller number of mature plants were bathing in the heat and humidity, gaining strength for the growing season.

“I’ve always liked to plant stuff, ever since I was a kid,” said Herman during a recent visit to his 14-by-24-foot hothouse on the South Hill.

The 69-year-old retiree is serious about gardening. He grows plants for the pleasure of it, and then gives them away to charitable causes as well as family members and neighbors.

“If you are going to make a job out of it, it ceases to be fun,” Herman said.

Even in the dead of winter, his crop is green and healthy.

He seeded hundreds of geraniums on Jan. 8, and already they stand one to two inches tall.

They need a good head start in the greenhouse to produce brilliant pink and red blooms during the outdoor gardening season.

Herman said he’ll keep some of the geraniums for himself and his family, and give away the rest.

This season, he is donating 1,000 starter plants to the South Hill Senior Center for a fund-raiser. Proceeds from a plant sale will go toward construction of a new $1 million senior center, a project that’s been a dream of the center’s members for years.

“We are very grateful,” said Myrna Johnson-Ross, the director of the center. “It’s so nice of him, and we need the help.”

Other groups have benefited from Herman’s generosity in the past. A few years ago, the COPS organization in the city raised money with his plants.

Last year, schoolchildren at Franklin Elementary made about $200 selling Herman’s plants as a class project. The proceeds were donated to a rain-forest protection fund.

Some of the students sent Herman thank-you letters afterward. Herman keeps the letters in a shoebox.

A boy named Jonathan wrote, “On Thursday, our plant sale was gone in five minutes, and we made a lot of money for the rain forest.”

Herman was born on a farm in Indiana, so he learned at an early age the know-how and patience it takes to be a green thumb.

He came to Spokane in 1946 as a member of the Army Air Corps, he said, and was discharged from the former Fort George Wright in 1947.

He met and married his wife, Susan, in Spokane, and in the 1950s got a job on the pot lines at Kaiser Aluminum’s Mead smelter.

The job took its toll on his body. Herman retired with arthritis in 1982.

He is still hobbled by bad joints, but his disability doesn’t stop him from spending a couple of hours a day in his greenhouse and garden.

He wears a baseball cap from British Columbia’s Butchart Gardens. It’s a gift from one of his eight children.

Like most seasoned gardeners, Herman has lots of tricks to make things grow.

He starts plants in good potting soil, made from No. 1 Sunshine peat moss, which is soft and fluffy and gives emerging roots the right amount of air, water and nutrients to grow quickly.

His experience has taught him which varieties and strains of plants perform best in Spokane’s climate, and he keeps pests under control with the right kinds of insecticides.

He favors dianthus because it releases an intense fragrance from carnationlike blooms through much of the spring and summer. Dianthus is well suited to Spokane and is commonly found in perennial gardens.

He also has good luck with dwarf dahlias, asters, impatiens, lotus vines and the old standbys, marigolds and petunias.

Herman’s back yard is one of several gardens strung along the rear of homes on South Altamont Boulevard, where he lives.

Herman uses his own tomato starts to grow the popular summer crop and then shares his bounty with his gardening neighbors.

His favorites are like a who’s who of the tomato world. They include Early Girl, Beefsteak and Sweet 100s, the latter being a small cherry tomato with intense flavor.

So far, Herman hasn’t branched out into the newer varieties on the market, he said.

He also uses the greenhouse to get a jump-start on corn, starting seeds in pony packs and then transplanting them into the outdoor garden when the soil warms up in late spring.

He said he can be eating sweet corn several weeks before anyone else in town.

Because Herman does a good job with tomatoes, corn and a couple other crops, such as cucumbers, he has plenty to give to his neighbors.

In turn, they give him some of their produce, such as lettuce, onions and broccoli. By trading back and forth, the neighbors keep well supplied with a variety of low-cost produce throughout the season.

Herman returns the favor by wintering over some of his neighbors’ house plants. The rear of his greenhouse is jammed with ferns, an orchid plant, larger geraniums, succulents and fuchsias.

He built the greenhouse two years ago with the help of his son-in-law, who did most of the carpentry.

The hothouse cost nearly $10,000 in materials for the concrete foundation, pea gravel floor, wood frame and transparent walls made from weather-resistant corrugated plastic.

At one end is a large natural gas heater for keeping the temperature a minimum of 60 degrees. It costs about $35 a month for gas and electricity in the greenhouse during the winter.

At the other end of the house is an exhaust fan to keep the temperature on sunny days to a maximum of 90 degrees.

The house retains so much solar heat that the temperature will rise to 90 degrees even on the coldest days of winter as long as the sun is shining, he said.

Herman also fiddles with ornamental plants. He has been experimenting with hibiscus, one of Hawaii’s most recognizable flowers. He cuts shoots off a mature plant and uses the shoots to start new plants by getting them to root.

His yard outside the greenhouse is adorned with more than two dozen trees, including a stand of pines and four different fruits.

Two rows of raspberries and a row of grapes flank either side of the vegetable patch, all of which are bare now, but they will be greening up soon.

Like most gardeners, Herman is anticipating the arrival of another spring and the new growing season.

“It keeps you going,” he said of his hobby. “I just like to see things grow.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 Color)

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email