‘Garden Geezer’ sinks his shovel into local soil

Author and longtime PBS host Jim Wilson now calls Columbia home.
Monday, August 11, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:31 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Perfection for Jim Wilson is his Bose Wave radio facing out of the kitchen window while he conducts classical music with one hand and weeds his garden with the other.

The 78-year-old master gardener and author has found true happiness in his career.

For Wilson, life is all about having fun. His e-mail address identifies him as “Garden Geezer,” which he chose “because it’s true.”

Wilson’s accomplishments are many. He co-hosted the television show “Victory Garden” on PBS from 1984 to 1994, has written 14 books and is the spokesperson for Plant a Row for the Hungry, a nonprofit organization that encourages farmers to donate food to food banks.

Wilson was introduced to gardening at a young age on his family’s Mississippi farm. He graduated from MU in 1948 with an emphasis in agronomy.

After living all over the country, including California and South Carolina, he returned to Columbia 13 months ago to spend time with “a beautiful lady and a heck of a gardener,” his partner and best friend, Jane Mandel.

When he isn’t traveling to various conventions or promoting his latest book, Wilson can usually be found in one of the three gardens he shares with Mandel. If he’s not there, he’s probably in front of the computer.

His latest work, “Gardening Through Your Golden Years,” is a book celebrating gardening for the elderly. Wilson believes it is important for the elderly to stay active. He noticed there were no books on the subject and wanted to fill the niche.

Wilson says seniors must change gardening techniques in response to getting older. He calls it “gardening smarter.”

One of his suggestions is not to take on big projects. If seniors must plant or move heavy trees or shrubs, he recommends getting some hired help. Wilson and Mandel have a helper who does the grunt work for them.

A gradual switch from large, high-maintenance gardens to container plants close to the house is another good idea, Wilson said.

Wilson also suggests retrenching, or closing off some flower beds and replacing them with low-maintenance shrubs. Most importantly, don’t feel bad about cutting back.

“Ailments come with age,” Wilson said.

Wilson brings a hoe with him when he goes into the garden, because “getting down is a lot easier than getting up.” He often uses the hoe for support.

“I don’t want to say, ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!’”

He believes a spirit of optimism emerges from “Gardening Through Your Golden Years.” It is for people who are already gardening at 65 as well as those who are looking for a hobby in the years to come.

Wilson is looking forward to the years ahead of him. Another book is due for release in January 2004, which will be about native trees. Wilson has not yet decided on a title.

He has been traveling to garden conventions and promoting his new book, but much of his travel will end in late spring, which will allow him to spend more time at home. He said this is a welcome change from his current average of 100 days of travel per year.

In the meantime, Wilson is keeping busy and having fun.

“I have been the luckiest man in the world for doing what I love to do for so many years,” he said.

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