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A female kiwi tree resides in the garden. Next to the female tree is a male kiwi tree, distinguished by its darker leaves.

Gardener goes out on limb

Trying it all from nut trees to kiwi plants

Demonstrating a garden tool that he adapted for easier weeding, Miller putters around his extensive gardens.
Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Richard Miller shows a Cherokee purple tomato that he grew in the backyard garden of his Grabill home.
Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Richard Miller grows myriad fruits and vegetables around his home in Grabill.

No one could ever accuse Richard Miller of having a cookie-cutter garden.

Miller, 75, likes what’s different, and to him, that means growing things – especially fruits and nuts – not often seen in home gardens in northeastern Indiana.

In his front yard, he has peaches, chestnuts, cherries and black walnuts. Two hazelnut trees flank a side garden trellis and gate. Almond trees – both the hard-shell variety and a soft-shelled variety known as Russian almonds, live in the backyard along with eight hickory nut trees, Bartlett pears, plums, a couple of apple trees, an apricot tree and a lush grape arbor.

He has blackberry bushes, blueberry bushes, strawberry plants, rhubarb. Just for fun, about four years ago, he put in some kiwifruit, a plant native to China.

“I haven’t had one fruit yet,” he says. “I’m hoping.”

Indeed, Miller’s yard is like a little Garden of Eden – with one of this, a pair of those, a few of that. He acknowledges being an exuberant “specimen gardener” who grows things to please his palate, his horticultural whims and “just to see if I can.”

Miller says if there’s a secret to his cultivation skills, it’s that, since moving to the property in 1999 from the Leo-Cedarville area, he’s been constantly improving the soil, adding “tons” of a black dirt mix to his plots, which span his front yard and three lots in the back.

“This is all clay ground. Hard clay,” Miller says. “I wouldn’t get anything … if I didn’t replace the soil every three years. The clay just takes over.”

He says the garden has thrived on hard work. When he and his wife Ann first moved in, there were only a few shrubs on the property. Now, barely a spot of bare ground can be seen – and he’s out weeding and trimming and harvesting at least two full days a week.

Patience, he says, is his other secret.

He says he doesn’t get upset if it takes awhile – sometimes years – for a plant or tree to produce. If it doesn’t produce at all, he chalks it up to experience.

He says he was excited about trying to grow pecan trees a few years back and bought 14 of them. But they typically need a warmer climate and didn’t get off they ground. “They all died,” he says with a shrug.

This year, he notes, has been particularly trying – the heat and drought has blunted his harvest. “I’ve been gardening for years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.

Sadly, he says, he’s had no grapes and no cherries – blossoms of the latter lured by early warm weather were then hit by an early cold snap.

“They all dropped off. Usually I have tons of cherries,” says the retired industrial engineer who also tends a large vegetable garden with tomatoes, beans, peas, asparagus, corn, cabbage and the like, and flowers and herbs.

His front walk is lined with portulaca with flowers in pinks and yellows and oranges – he calls the little drought-resistant succulents moss roses – and clematis vines, no longer in flower, climb his front fence.

Inside it, there’s a homemade trellis. Red roses, pastel-shaded gladioli and hydrangeas are still in bloom; irises and a couple of hibiscus shrubs are pretty much played out for this season.

He’s got a fountain that he built using old teapots out front and a small waterfall in the back. Many of the plants are labeled with hand-burned wooden signs.

Despite – or maybe because of – the weird weather, Miller says he’s gotten a bumper crop of peaches, which his wife cans, in the last two weeks. And the almonds and chestnuts are going strong.

So, he’s satisfied.

“I say there are only two kinds of good trees – nut trees and fruit trees. I cut down all the maples,” he says. “You can have ’em.”