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chip miller didn’t think he was the retiring sort


by gordon d. fiedler jr. salina journal

charles “chip” miller, the local horticultural agent for kansas state research and extension, was in his office in the basement of the city-county building when a nun walked in with a bug question.

she told miller she had been sharing sleeping quarters with a refugee from central america and feared she was the victim of bed bugs.

“there was something biting her,” miller said. “especially on her thighs. and so, she was sitting there in her black skirt, all nunlike, and she goes, ‘look!’ ” miller pantomimes lifting a skirt. “she wanted to show me the bites on her thighs!” he remembers turning away, but not quickly enough, and thinking, “ahh! i’m going to hell! i’ve seen a nun naked!”

as of this friday, miller won’t be flashed by any more nuns or be amused or stumped by questions from folks who call or drop in with specimens. the long-time agent is retiring on his 63rd birthday.

“it sounded way too young when i was 60,” he said.

but about six months ago, retirement appeared more appealing.

“what do i want to accomplish and what am i going to do the rest of my life? do i have what it takes to be a successful retired person?” he decided he did, despite his deep affection for the position he’s held since 1985.

“i love this job,” he said.

even the weird questions and requests.

“somebody asked me what were the moon signs for putting up fence and ‘castorating’ cattle. i found there are moon signs for those things. we try to supply all the information we can, but it’s supposed to be research-based.”

sometimes miller has turned detective to solve horticultural mysteries, such as the case of the scarlet winter blossom.

“i got a call about a red flower blooming in the snow,” he said. “this person had an atrium at their house, there was snow on the plants and everything. i had to come out and look at this plant that suddenly bloomed red. so i went there and it was plastic.”

this was not his only encounter with an artificial life form.

a woman bearing a hideously large spider-like creature imprisoned in a glass jar stopped by one day for help with identification.

“the lady could barely glance at the jar,” miller said. “she said, ‘my husband sent this in so you could identify it. it was in our house.’ ”

he unscrewed the jar and dumped the plump, jiggling critter out on his desk.

“i’m not sure what to say,” he told the woman after a cursory examination. “well, i’m sorry to tell you, but it’s plastic.”

he said the woman reddened from embarrassment, then grew noticeably angry.

” ‘i’m going to kill him.’ and she walked out. so that went wrong for (the husband), probably.”

some mysteries remain unsolved, such as the case of the exploding garden.

“we once had a situation where at the edge of the garden, the soil was spontaneously exploding,” he said.

the plot was about a dozen feet from the house, and the flying dirt was landing on the roof.

“we went out there and you could see where it had burst up. you could see it on the roof. it didn’t look staged to me. we called in specialists and conferred upon it and came up with zip,” he said. “a lot of things happen in soil that nobody really understands.”

as scary as an active backyard dirt geyser might seem, some encounters are more frightening.

“here’s a new one,” miller said, jumping from his office chair to fetch chunks of wood.

“ever seen hedge completely eaten up by borers?” he holds up the wood, bagged in plastic like crucial courtroom evidence.

“osage orange. a man claims he actually saw asian long-horned beetles.”

if true, this is an ominous ecological turn of events.

the borers, which have a taste for all hardwoods, are supposed to be confined — so far — to michigan. he said the u.s. spends hundreds of millions of dollars to check the spread of such pests.

“i called the entomologist at kansas state and said, ‘this guy swears it’s asian long-horned beetle.’ ‘well, if he’s right, we’re screwed.’ ”

miller said the borers attack trees and they die. “it’s one of our new imported pests of really economic concern,” miller said.

miller knows firsthand how species can adapt to new environments. he’s a transplant from delaware.

miller was in his first year in college studying marine biology when a friend, whose parents went to school at kansas state university and marymount college, talked up kansas.

“he said you could drink beer at 18 and there are a lot of good-looking farm girls. i figured that’s the place for me.”

even without these particular attributes, kansas was not a hard sell: miller had been considering a move out of delaware for some time.

“i wanted to be independent. it was time to fly the nest,” he said.

he transferred to kansas state, changed his major from marine biology to general biology and graduated in 1969.

“with the biology degree, of course, i got a job as a branch management trainee at a bank,” he said.

after a stint in the air force, he worked in air pollution control in kansas city, then returned to kansas state for a master’s degree in horticulture.

he worked as a rose breeder until he applied for the extension job. he found the challenge appealing.

“i could work with all age groups,” he said. “i could try to change people’s habits, teach them better, more environmental or sustainable ways, help people solve problems that are important to them.”

it was miller who introduced the master gardening program to local gardeners. the program started in 1972 in one county in washington state and now has spread throughout the u.s. and into canada. locally, there are about 80 master gardeners.

among the program’s most visible projects is the demonstration garden across the road from kenwood cove. the plot demonstrates different water use levels for different plants and also provides a site for annual and perennial flower trials for kansas state.

if miller tried to do only a few things during his tenure here, it was to lecture people on water conservation, pesticides and the importance of plant diversity.

“water is the biggest one, as far as home landscapes are concerned,” he said. “a close second is pesticide use. both of those problems can be solved or ameliorated by plant selection and placement. if you pick the right plant and put it in the correct place, you don’t have to water it for life, you don’t have to spray it for anything. it’s just a good choice.”

he practices what he preaches.

“i don’t spray insecticides on my yard. i haven’t for decades. i don’t see a need to.”

that said, kansas sometimes can be an unforgiving landscape because of its longitude and latitude.

“our rainfall from the eastern border of kansas to the western boarder is greater in variety than between the eastern boarder to the east coast,” he said.

also, kansas is in the middle of the cool season and warm season grass zones.

“we call ourselves the crabgrass zone because fescue likes to be more north of us and bermuda likes to be more south of us. that’s what makes kansas a real challenge because we have this wide variation in rainfall, and also we’re right in the middle where things transition.”

but that offers opportunities for diversity, he said.

“there are so many different fruits we can grow you’d have to have a huge estate to plant one of each,” miller said.

yet, most people are unwilling “to get dirty” and would rather do their gardening at the grocery store.

“people don’t look at growing their own food in the home landscape as an opportunity. it’s just work. they can go to the grocery store and find 70 different (products) from every continent in the world,” he said.

this a reason, he said, for the demise of pick-your-own vegetable operations.

“nobody wants to get down on their knees and pick strawberries. they’d rather go buy a quart at the store.”

some day, miller may be in a position to further embrace diversification if he relocates to iowa, where his wife has family.

he’s set his sites on the area near decorah, iowa, the home of seed savers exchange, a nonprofit organization that saves and shares heirloom seeds. he figures they could always use another volunteer.

but in the meantime, he’ll tackle home projects he’s not had time to get to, spend more time with his daughter and generally keep busy.

“i have a lot of hobbies and interests. there’s tons of things to do.”

ngordon d. fiedler jr. can be reached at 822-1407 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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