Half a century ago, Nebraska farm boy Mill Shires could never have imagined referring to himself as “the old man of the community gardens,” much less a certified Master Gardener and Master Composter.
“I couldn’t wait to get away from working on the land,” Shires recalls.
Now the 67-year-old Bellingham resident revels in digging in the dirt and sharing the wealth of knowledge he has acquired in his 60s with dozens of others at the Happy Valley Community Gardens on 32nd Street.
Recently, shortly after the technical – if not actual – arrival of spring following one of the most bitter of Whatcom County winters, Shires realized anew how much his spirit soars when he can work the soil he has grown to love.
“I spent the entire day gardening, and I was tired and sore. But it was the happiest day I had in months,” the personable gardening enthusiast says.
I spent the entire day gardening, and I was tired and sore. But it was the happiest day I had in months.
What would he have said 50 years ago if someone had predicted he would say that?
“I would have laughed at that!” he replied. “I was determined to get away from dirt as fast as I could!”
He figured his future would be spent largely indoors. After six years of study and four majors at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Shires left just short of a degree but found he didn’t need one to enjoy a successful career of more than 20 years as a representative for a Lincoln-based textbook company.
“It was the university’s two-year language requirement that tripped me up,” he says. “By that time (his fourth major), I wanted to be a psychologist, so I would have had to take German.”
But he encountered so much difficulty, his professor asked him what he was doing in that class. Soon, he was out in the working world.
“I had gotten married in my fourth year in college (to Carol, his wife of 45 years) and you didn’t need a college degree so much then,” says Shires, who came to Bellingham in 1996 to start “That Textbook Place,“ a college book store near Western Washington University. “But I’ve been a life-long learner, and I acquired my AA degree from Whatcom Community College.”
I came to realize that recycling and composting are so intricately intertwined that it’s hard to separate one from the other I wish I would have known when I was 30 or 40 what I know now.
He sold the store in 2000 and finished his career as retail stores manager for Skagit Valley College.
Mill and Carol are the parents of two grown children, Blaine residents Jennifer and Christopher, and have four grandchildren.
They also have many “adopted” friends at the community gardens, where they tend three plots that total 600 square feet.
“We’re seeing lots of younger people at the community gardens,” he said.
When Shires was working for the textbook company in Lincoln, not far from the small town of Mead where he grew up, Carol wanted to have a small garden at their home.
“I put in a garden bed for her,” he says, recalling how that was the start of what for many years was a modest interest in home gardening, complicated by endless book-business travels.
“Somebody told me about the community gardens here,” he says. “They’re still privately owned but under city management. We bought our plots in 2010 and found I loved sharing ideas with others.
I was determined to get away from dirt as fast as I could!
“One of my gardening neighbors there told me I should become a Master Gardener,” he said. “He told me, ’You have the best qualifications. You’re passionate and factua,l and you’re good at communicating with people.’ So I got help from coordinator Beth Chisholm and took a course through our County Extension (which partners with Washington State University). In one year, I became certified. Now I try to provide a solid base of verified research and information for home gardeners.”
Mill grows vegetables – “They taste wonderful!” – while Carol tends flower beds, and they both work on landscaping. They are among numerous gardeners there who contribute to the Bellingham Food Bank.
But that was only the start.
“Two years ago, I took advantage of a new program at the County Extension, the Master Composter and Recycler Program,” he says. “Now I participate in the Food Plus Program, with everything going to Green Earth Technologies in Lynden. They cook all the waste and make rich, wonderful compost.”
He emphasizes how important compost is for the best possible growing soil.
“I came to realize that recycling and composting are so intricately intertwined that it’s hard to separate one from the other,” he says. “I wish I would have known when I was 30 or 40 what I know now. But I plan to keep doing this for 30 years.”
But with his enthusiasm, he would be the really old man of the community gardens.
There are three community gardens operated by Bellingham Parks and Recreation:
Happy Valley Garden
Location: 32nd Street between Taylor Avenue and Donovan Avenue
Season: Year-round organic garden
Location: 10th Street at Wilson Avenue
Season: Year-round organic garden
Location: Lakeway Drive and Woburn Street
Season: May 1 through Oct. 31 non-organic garden