John Miller and The Old Schoolhouse Plantery
Written onMay 25 , 2016
The one lesson John Miller says he always remembers from his years at Writtle Agricultural College in Great Britain is this: “Any fool can grow it; the trick is to sell it.” As a grower myself, I can’t quite agree that “any fool” can grow high-quality, unusual plants successfully, but I can attest to the validity of the second half of this aphorism—if you can’t sell it, you’ve got an interesting hobby, not a business.
John has made it his mission to introduce—and sell—a wider range of vegetables, herbs, and ornamental plants to southern Vermonters through his business, The Old Schoolhouse Plantery. At least some of his unusual offerings—such as the South American tuber yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius)—are gaining favor at the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market, where he sells his plants in both winter and summer. But attracting new lovers of old, forgotten plants is not easy. Constant conversation with customers and lots of good signage are key to success.
Selling, however, doesn’t come naturally to John, who lives in West Brattleboro and came to the U.S. from London in the mid-1970s to hone his horticultural skills on a work exchange program. He comes across as somewhat shy, happier hovering over his plants in the greenhouse than chatting up customers. But once he gets going he’s overflowing with stories, just as his greenhouse overflows with plants in trays on the shelves, in pots and containers of all sizes under the shelves, and hanging from every conceivable cross-piece above. His stories are about people who have given him unusual seeds; stories of near losses and miraculous rescues; and a mystery plant that someone gave him because she didn’t know what it was. (It turned out to be a rare blue flowering Impatiens (Impatiens namchabarwensis) from the Nam Chab gorge in Tibet.)
The name “Old Schoolhouse Plantery” comes from John’s home, which once was the neighborhood one-room schoolhouse. As John guides me through the chaos of his greenhouse early this past spring, every few feet he pluckes a leaf and offeres it to me to try. The first offering was sharp, a little sweet, with a peppery afterbite: the Vietnamese cilantro (Persicaria odoratum). Its leaves can be eaten all season, unlike the cilantro most of us grow (Coriandrum sativum), which bolts and loses flavor in a few weeks and must be replanted. Still, John points out that it’s not easy to convince people to try something new: “It’s lack of education, lack of knowledge; people expect a direct substitute, but it isn’t, it’s something in its own right,” and people have to become accustomed to that. But, as he adds, “There’s 16 farmers selling kale, but only one selling Vietnamese cilantro. “ Being that farmer, with that special something no one else has, keeps customers coming back.
On the day of my visit, John is just back from the lumber yard, where he’d purchased wood and hardware cloth to build new protective boxes for his yacón and water chestnuts; his planting stock had just been devastated by rodent visitors. Holding up the meager remains, he sighes, “They’ve been eating things I never expected them to eat … the tillandsia [a plant that takes its moisture and nutrients from the air], they’ve absolutely destroyed the stems…. This was overflowing over the sides of this wire basket…. Look at the thorns on this century plant! They burrowed right underneath.” They also chewed right through the plastic crates in which the water chestnuts were growing under the greenhouse tables. John speculates that the warm winter may have allowed the rodents to overpopulate; whatever the cause, he had saved out 200 yacón plants for propagation, and lost almost all. He’d had to order in 20 more pounds of “caudex,” the stem from which new seedlings grow, at a cost of $800. These are just some of the ups and downs of one who delights in trying new things, challenging himself to provide just the right conditions to enable the plants to thrive.
John first learned about yacón while visiting a Finnish garden in Britain several years ago. “Trying to find it here was a challenge,” he reports. “I found it in Washington State, and everyone was saying how good it was,” so he started growing it. His main criteria for trying a new plant is, first, that it tastes good and next that it can thrive well in our environment (or indoors, in the case of his many succulents and other tropical ornamentals). Yacón is a tuber, sweet and a little crunchy, somewhat like jicama. It can be used in a wide variety of ways: cooked and raw, stir-fried and in soups. One of its very desirable traits is that it loses little quality over long months of storage. It also grows happily under wet conditions, which is great for John, whose land is in a flood zone that was underwater during Tropical Storm Irene.
In addition to selling yacón at the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market, John has been wholesaling it at local food co-ops, including the one in Northampton, Massachusetts, where it is starting to do very well. He still considers his Plantery obsession a hobby, and one that gives him considerable pleasure, but he’d like to see it become a viable business. The yacón sales are a source of optimism. Water chestnuts are another—he started growing them just for fun, as he’d heard that homegrown water chestnuts were far superior to the familiar canned variety. Apparently his rodent visitors thought so, too, but once he can rebuild his supply he’ll be plying these at the farmers’ market once again. His overall gross income has doubled this year compared to last, and new ideas are percolating. There’s the Babington leek (a nice substitute for ramps that overwinters well) and the Chicken Leg shallot, which he says is a cross between shallots and onions and grows to 3 to 4 inches in size. He will consider almost any plant with an interesting profile as long as it doesn’t tend toward invasiveness if it should escape cultivation.
One of the first unusual plants that set John on this path was Cilician parsley. This is a more delicate, woodland plant than the robust Italian parsley most of us are familiar with. According to food historian William Woys Weaver, it hails from a time when “piquant green sauces reigned supreme on the tables of medieval kings, and when parsley was first among all other green vegetables, not the afterthought garnish it has evolved into today.” Cilicia was a district of Armenia that existed between 1198 and 1375. Apparently its seeds were saved, handed down and passed around since then, and eventually they came to the Astoria, New York area in the 1960s. William, the food historian, was growing this plant in his Pennsylvania garden in 2002, but John could not find any commercial source of the plant or seeds in the United States, so he figured he had found a niche. The taste is citrusy, and John claims it makes a fantastic tabbouleh.
John has eaten everything edible that he grows—“I haven’t found a vegetable I don’t like”—and it turns out many of the plants that we don’t often think of as edible actually are. For example, he points out that all dahlias are edible, but there’s one, dahlia imperialis, or tree dahlia, that is very tall, with a huge tuber that is rich in inulin, also present in yacón, Jerusalem artichoke, and the spring bulb, Camassia. When cooked slowly, the inulin caramelizes and its sweet-earthy flavor is at its best. Canna edulis, an edible canna lily, also has great potential as a starch substitute, John believes.
He also grows a wide variety of potatoes; among the most popular is Bintje, a Dutch heirloom from 1910. Many sources claim this the most widely grown yellow-fleshed potato in the world, including in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe—being an “heirloom” doesn’t necessarily mean a variety is obscure. John says it’s the most popular potato by far in Italy. “Over here it’s an heirloom, a niche crop; in the U.K. it’s sold at every chip shop.” What distinguishes this variety, he says, is that “it grows fantastic, it produces well, and in the end, it tastes great.”
Making a business out of a hobby requires perseverance, ingenuity, and some tricks of the trade. John discovered that he could sell many more mini-pots of baby succulents for $4 each or 3 for 10 dollars, than if he sold 4-inch pots for $10 each. They take only a month to reach selling size, and one tray of 72 plants brings in nearly $300. As a grower, you have to balance what people are willing to pay and what is worthwhile for you to do. The little succulents that don’t take much work make up for the more time-consuming items that John has to sell for much less than they’re worth. He’s also learned he can train a certain type of jade plant into a bonsai shape and create little bonsai landscapes; these make popular gifts and are much easier to care for than “real” bonsai. Recently John’s spouse, Diane Miller, a craftswoman, started decorating little glass orbs using fabric that house pretty terrariums of air plants, which appeal to many.
If he can make local customers happy with his vegetables, and keep tourists intrigued by his ornamentals, John can engage in a hobby that year by year may allow him to bring in more income. And despite the setbacks, such as this year’s rodent attack, it’s clear that little will stop John from his passion—turning people on to the diversity and wonders of the plants that burst with color and life all around him. “Look at this! It’s one of my favorites. I’ve been growing it for 30 years,” he says, showing me a large, gangly succulent (Aeonium arboretum ‘atropurpureum’). “It hardly produces any side-shoots, but I’ll keep growing it because I love it. If it ever does [produce side-shoots again] I’ll sell them at $4.” For a plant that’s been nurtured for three decades, that will be a bargain.