Southern Roots

Men laying new hardwood flooring

Reeves credits the 4-H Club for everything he knows about horticulture, and about being a radio and TV host.

If someone told the 10-year-old Walter Reeves hed be doing anything remotely related to gardening when he was an adult, he probably would have told them they were crazy. Thats because Walter was the oldest of five children that grew up on a rural Fayette County farm during the 50s. His family raised chickens and cows, and all of the children were expected to tend the large family garden.

I hated feeding those dumb chickens and milking the cows, Walter admits. And I swore that if I was ever delivered from farming and farm life, I would never garden again. Of course, that was the 10-year-old Walters view. The adult Walter now admits that, in retrospect, growing up on the farm really was exciting and he wouldnt change anything about his childhood.

It seems that those days on the farm did pay off because today, Walter is the host of the Lawn & Garden Show with Walter Reeves, a call-in radio talk show on NewsTalk 750 WSB-AM, and Gardening in Georgia, a weekly television program on Georgia Public Television. Hes also co-authored three successful books about gardening in the south; has written a weekly gardening column for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution for 12 years; has been published and profiled in numerous gardening magazines; and is now taping several gardening segments for the DIY Network and Turner South.

Walter himself will be the first to admit its been a long journey from his parents farm in Fayette County to his successes today. I never cared about being on the farm [as a child], he says. My mother and grandmother were the big gardeners and thats where my exposure began. But its the summers he spent at 4-H camp that really planted the seeds for his passion for gardening.

In elementary school I was part of the Fayette County 4-H Club because they had a weeklong summer camp, Walter explains. Going to camp meant I didnt have to work on the farm for a week. His intentions for going to camp might have been misguided, but Walter says, 4-H camp gave him his first exposure to public speaking and he relished in it. He enjoyed it so much he spent every summer there, and eventually became a counselor.

But as a teenager, Walter was even more resigned to get away from farm life, so he went to college to get a degree in chemistry. After three-and-a-half years of studying [chemistry], I realized I had no interest in it, he says. I loved working with children and my counseling work.

Upon graduation, he accepted a job with the University of Georgia Extensions Poultry Service, where he also got the opportunity to be a leader in the Clayton County 4-H Club. I set up educational programs with fifth and sixth graders, and also did extracurricular things with the older kids, Walter says. I so enjoyed 4-H as a kid, so [the job] was a natural fit.

Four years later, Walter moved to the DeKalb County Extension Service where he was in charge of a demonstration farm, home to animals you might find on farms across the state. He also set up tours of the farm for students of the DeKalb school system.

And it was at the DeKalb Extension that his path began to turn back to horticulture. It was obvious to my coworkers that I knew from experience how to solve homeowners horticultural problems, he says. When those issues came up, I would handle them.

Around the same time, (and luckily for Walter) WGST radio proposed a talk show about gardening and wanted someone from the Extension Service to host; needless to say, Walter jumped at the chance. I did that for a couple of years in 86 and 87, he says. Then after I left, WSB invited me to be guest host with Kathy Henderson on her show and when she left in 1994, they offered me the job.”

Its the exposure that he got from his radio shows that eventually led to more media endeavors. He was a guest horticulturist on 35 episodes of Lynette Jennings HouseSmart and has appeared on WSB, WXIA, WAGA and WGNX television stations numerous times since 1990 as a local expert representing the Extension Service.

Walter admits that it’s been a long journey form his parents’ farm in Fayette County to his success today.

So its obvious where his knowledge of horticulture comes from, but what does a rural farm boy with a chemistry degree know about being a radio and television host? Walter credits that knowledge to 4-H, as well. Every segment I do, whether on radio or TV, I learned from 4-H. They all have an introduction, an explanation and a wrap up. Ive really done nothing but the same thing since fifth grade, he says jokingly.

Today, gardeners can get tips from Walter just about everywhere they look, but he says his favorite outlet is radio. Other than getting up for a 6 a.m. show, radio is a lot of fun, he says. Its so immediate and personal. I get to talk to a real person with a real problem and help them solve it.

And speaking of gardeners, the 10-year-old who vowed never to garden again is now a self-professed garden junky. His home in Atlanta has enough property to grow just about anything he wants, but he admits that out of all of the plants he and his wife Sandi tend to in their vegetable and ornamental gardens, tomatoes are still his favorite things to grow. I have such a long history with the fruit, Walter explains. I have planted, weeded, watered, sprayed, picked, thrown, stomped, peeled, cooked, frozen, canned and eaten it. The smell of a bruised tomato leaf still conjures up 95-degree Southern afternoons to me.

While tomatoes may be his favorite things to grow, its the mystery and the discovery of gardening that Walter says he enjoys the most. If you look around, there are so many why questions. Why is that plant so healthy? Why is that one sick? What is this plant? Where should I plant this other one? What caused this failure or success? Each question has an answer if one just looks hard enoughand I like to look.

And yes, even Walter Reeves can have a brown thumb day, but he just chalks it all up to experience. There is philosophy I have when I advise people, he says. Gardening is fun and delightful. Its not something you conquer; its always a process. Youll have problems; flowers will die. I tell people to find a plant they can grow and then build on that success. Get good at one thing and then branch off from there. Just remember you dont have control over some things in gardening. Thats why its so fun and fascinating.

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