The natural gardener

Wilmer Mills is a natural gardener who has little interest in many modern conveniences, especially the computer.

“I am an agrarian, a dinosaur,” he said with a smile. “I like the slow lane.”

Mills is a happy man when he is working in one of the three large gardens on his family property in the Plains, outside Zachary.

“My garden is just like me, a work in progress,” he said. “I go out and look at it, and some things look good and some things need attention.”

Even as a little boy, Mills loved gardening. His 99-year-old father, Albert C. Mills, taught him the basics and started him with his own little rows.

“When he was invited to a birthday party, his mother would say, ‘He can come if he finishes weeding his garden,’” said Mills’ wife, Betsy.

From 1972 to 1980, the Millses lived in Brazil, where Wilmer Mills served as an agricultural missionary. He taught gardening in three different schools and in the countryside, where he moved around with a large diesel tiller donated by First Presbyterian Church.

“They had me preaching and teaching,” Wilmer Mills, who was sent from the Plains Presbyterian Church, said.

Gardening for Wilmer Mills is a year-round project, with a garden for each season. As one plays out, he clears it and plants for the next season.

He mainly uses organic fertilizers like compost and manure and only rarely uses chemical pesticides.

“I plant enough for the raccoons, deer, bugs and diseases,” he said.

Wildlife, he said, is a constant problem, and he’s tried lots of ways to combat the deer and raccoons.

He’s used hair from the barber shop, kept a radio playing all night and tried bug lights. He’s had the best luck in deterring deer by putting white plastic bags on the fences around his garden.

“White is an alarm system for deer,” Mills said. “That will keep them away for a while until you plant peas or sweet potatoes.”

The deer will even brave the white bags for a meal of those favorites.

His latest deer trick is to dress scarecrows in his dirty work clothes from the day before.

“The smell, the fresh human scent, keeps them out of the garden,” he said.

Maintaining the soil at the proper pH — a measure of how acidic or basic it is — is one of Mills’ most important jobs these days.

“What you want in a home garden is a pH of about 6.8, which is a slightly acid soil,” he said. “You can check it with litmus paper or send a sample to LSU.”

He also adds ash from burned limbs and branches to enrich his soil and as a substitute for lime to counteract acidity.

Members of both Wilmer and Betsy Mills’ families go back to the area’s earliest settlers, the Young family. Several of the heirloom plants in the garden, like Mills’ Black Bibb Lettuce, have been planted by family members for 200 years. Wilmer Mills carefully saves the treasured seed from year to year.

He’s always experimenting with old and new varieties of plants, even tending a stand of sugar cane that he uses to make syrup at Thanksgiving.

“We used to plant mustard greens, turnip greens, collards, cabbage and spinach in the fall,” Mills said. “Now we add Swiss chard, kale and bok choy. We’ve discovered that we like different things.”

At present, Mills is working on four books including one on family gardening. Now semiretired from a commercial seed business, he produces enough in his garden to supply his family, his aging parents and to give away to friends and neighbors.

“My father is my inspiration,” Mills said. “He made gardening fun. We’d tend to the garden, and then he’d take me hunting and fishing.”