FROM STUDENT TO TEACHER

Dr. Charlie Johnson

By Kathryn Fontenot

Gardening is challenging. Storms, diseases, herds of insects, and unidentifiable problems lurk out there. The unpredictability and the constant need to prevent or overcome hurdles is why it is absolutely imperative that all gardeners learn from one another. 

Dr. Charlie Johnson has shared his experiences with many budding gardeners and professional producers alike. Charlie Johnson grew up 15 miles east of Waynesburg, Mississippi, 3 miles across the state line in Alabama. He and his six brothers and one sister lived on a 160-acre farm with their mother and father. On the farm, they grew vegetables out of necessity. His grandfather lived down the road and had gardens too. “Everyone grew a garden … it’s how you ate,” said Dr. Johnson. He particularly remembers turnip and collard greens prevalent in everyone’s garden. 

Charlie Johnson grew up gardening and learning from relatives how to do so, but furthered his knowledge by enrolling in Jones County Junior College in Mississippi. After two years, he transferred to Mississippi State University (MSU), where he obtained a student worker job that would solidify his desire to become a professional horticulturist. Working under the direction of Dr. Lamar Moore, earning $1.10 per hour, Charlie hauled and mixed sheep manure with soil to form potting mixes for tomato breeding projects. “1 scoop of manure to 2 scoops of soil, steamed in a large vat, sterilized the media.” He loved this job. “The university allowed me to drive a ‘64 Dodge pickup truck to haul all of the manure. I wouldn’t dare dream of asking college kids to do this kind of job these days, but I loved it. It was more than I had ever earned in my life, which is most likely why I went from earning C’s in community college to A’s and making the President’s List at MSU. There was no way I was going to lose that job.”

During the summer, Charlie and Dr. Moore would take the crosses they made in the greenhouse and trial all of the tomatoes in the field. They grew 5 acres of tomatoes each summer, collecting data on all of the crosses. He went on to obtain a Master of Science degree from MSU. After that, he took a job at MSU’s Beaumont Research Station, which according to Charlie was the loneliest place on Earth. He claims no one ever visited the station except for a salty older woman named Ada Bel Hinton, who was loud and cussed … even the station dog didn’t like her. But it could not have been too lonely because during these “lonely Beaumont days growing collard and turnip greens, sweet corn, watermelon, and tomatoes” he found time to date a girl he met at church named Rebecca. They married in August of 1977 and in January of 1978 he began work on his PhD at Louisiana State University (LSU).  

While he wasn’t particularly interested in continuing tomato breeding, it was Dr. Teme Hernandez who offered him a scholarship to continue working in a tomato-breeding program. In an impressive two years, Charlie finished his PhD (maybe with some prodding from Rebecca) and took what he called “the most ideal job” at LSU’s Calhoun Research Station. There he began his career as Dr. Johnson. 

Dr. Johnson bred peaches for the southeastern climate. Peaches, he says, require patience and skill. He remembers sending new peach lines each year to producers in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama to plant at their farms. “No one ever really told you if they thought the peach was a bust, but they sure commented on the good releases.” Dr. Johnson also worked with other researchers at Calhoun to develop watermelon varieties, eventually releasing ‘Louisiana Sweet’. If you haven’t grown ‘Louisiana Sweet’, you are missing out! Watermelons are a huge challenge to breed he claims. They are open-pollinated and bees are constantly crossing lines. To prevent problems, they would separate varieties by a minimum of 200 yards and still fight deer, raccoons, and hungry personal from tasting their hard earned crosses.  

From Calhoun, Dr. Johnson took a position as a professor on LSU’s Baton Rouge campus teaching horticulture classes and conducting research breeding fruit crops. 

Dr. Johnson has always been a favorite professor of horticulture students. He is incredibly smart and very gentle mannered. “Dr. J,” as some students know him, taught really fun courses, including plant propagation, principals of fruit and nuts, and advanced tissue culture. At work, Dr. Johnson’s favorite crop to grow is peach trees. He had many crosses at both the Calhoun Research Station and the Idlewild Research Station. But at home, he prefers to grow watermelon (in large yards) like at his home in Calhoun where he and Rebecca had 5 acres. Now in Baton Rouge, his preferred backyard crop is tomatoes, particularly tomatoes planted in raised beds. He claims growing tomatoes has been challenging – a common thought of many gardeners. Dr. Johnson has tried many heirloom varieties, but he says, “For as much effort as I put into it, I don’t get much out.” I can also vouch for that. Heirloom trials at LSU have been hit and miss throughout the years, very dependent on the weather. I asked Dr. Johnson what other failures he’s had and he claims he has never made a decent pumpkin or cantaloupe crop. I somehow doubt that is due to a lack of garden skills, but more likely because of Louisiana’s terrible summer weather. 

“You’ve got to grow your own transplants. Buying large onion sets from Texas and other places never works out.”

On the other hand, Charlie Johnson is very good at growing onions. It took him a while to figure out the secret to growing a large bulb onion. “You’ve got to grow your own transplants. Buying large onion sets from Texas and other places never works out.” Large sets bolt in our sometimes-cold Decembers. Once an onion bolts, its focus shifts from bulb enlargement to seed production. He was willing to share his secret to large onions with us:

• Purchase short-day onion seed.

• Use tried-and-true varieties such as ‘Texas Super Sweet 1015Y’, which are cheap, open-pollinated seed. He also recommends ‘Georgia Boy’ and ‘Granex 33’.

• Plant the seed (in trays) between the last week in September and the first week of October.

• Plant very thin transplants (sets) “thin as hair” into the garden on December 1.

• With proper fertilizer and water, large bulbs will be harvested the second or third week in May.

Other onion tips he shared include planting on black plastic mulch because the bulbs push up right through it and stay much cleaner. But the key really is planting the seed and then transplanting the sets at the correct time of year. 

Dr. Johnson also recommends that readers visit the gardens of Monticello in Virginia. He claims Thomas Jefferson’s home and terraced gardens are beautiful. He also likes all of the gardens in Colonial Williamsburg. 

Speaking of historical gardening, the garden book Charlie recommends all readers check out is Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf. This book details how our founding fathers had excellent gardening skills and further explains how those horticulture skills shaped our nation. The book also highlights the plants that Jefferson and Franklin carried from the New World to Europe for trade, which Dr. Johnson thought was very neat for anyone interested in horticulture. 

Charlie also suggests that those fascinated by large agriculture should visit the San Juaquin Valley in California, where vegetables are grown for mass production. This area has always fascinated him. Recently Charlie and Rebecca visited Tuscany, Italy, where he enjoyed seeing all the farms along the roadside as they travelled. These small homestead garden/farms reminded him of the family-oriented subsistence farming in the southeastern United States in the 1960s. 

During his tenure at LSU, Dr. Johnson influenced many students. He was passionate about the many courses he taught. Although Dr. Johnson recently retired, he continues, as all good gardeners should, to pass along his knowledge to others. He is currently a member of the Baton Rouge Camellia Society and he attends meetings regarding LSU orchards and, thank goodness, still takes calls from former students regarding anything from mysterious plant symptoms to proper pruning techniques and anything in between.

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