Growing up in Michigan, gardening has been a natural part of Bill Pioch's life. Both of his grandfathers had farms and good-sized vegetable gardens. Even at 10 years old, Bill was growing roses and tomatoes at his home.
But life sometimes takes a wrong turn. As an adult Bill got away from gardening due to a drinking problem. However, 18 years ago he cleaned up his life, became sober and rediscovered his love of gardening all over again.
Now Bill gardens so intensely, it's as if he's trying to make up for lost time. He lives in an apartment on the outskirts of Detroit, but he does most of his gardening at his lake house four hours away on Torch Lake.
Bill's passion is heirloom varieties. When he first got back into gardening he found a farmer growing some old-fashioned sweet corn varieties. "He was growing varieties I remember eating as a kid," says Bill. Bill saved some of the seed and got hooked on heirlooms. Over the years he has grown an amazing number of heirloom varieties including 125 varieties of tomatoes, 25 varieties of peppers, 25 varieties of eggplants and 35 varieties of garlic. While he grows all the common vegetables, Bill especially likes heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, Chinese vegetables, such as yard long beans and pea sprouts, white beets and purple carrots. "I do grow some hybrid broccoli and cauliflower, but I feel the heirlooms are generally better flavored and more attractive," says Bill. Having six different gardens around his home, Bill is able to grow out different heirloom varieties each year to keep his seed supply fresh.
Besides gardening, Bill's other love is cooking. "I grow to eat," he says. One of his specialties is herbs. He has a 50 x 75 foot herb garden designed like an English cottage garden. He grows a wide variety of herb plants including 15 different types of basil, pineapple sage, garlic chives, mint and tarragon.
Bill's key to success is growing healthy, robust seedlings in his APS seedstarting systems. "I wouldn't start my seedlings in anything but my 22 APS systems under lights in my home," says Bill. He starts vegetables, flowers and even artichokes and alpine strawberries in the trays. "The root systems are so strong that I have little transplant shock. I used to transplant my tomatoes 2 or 3 times before planting in the garden. Now I only transplant them once into 4 inch pots because the APS system allows me to grow such great roots," says Bill. "I even give the APS systems away as gifts to friends. They all love them," he says.
Another system Bill likes is the self-watering containers for his tomatoes. I have nine Tomato Success Kits on the deck of my apartment," he says. But Bill grows more than tomatoes in them. "I grow eggplants, peppers and even basil in the containers," he says. Not only are they productive and easy to use, they can be beautiful. "When I grew different colored basil varieties, people were amazed at their beauty," he says.
Bill also likes trellising his tomatoes with bamboo poles. "I trellis the plants in teepees like I saw years ago in the Gardener's Supply catalog. It's beautiful and the plants never blow over," he says.
Bill loves to share the bounty of his gardens. He grows more than 2,000 tomato seedlings a year and gives many of them away to a number of volunteer projects. "I work on demonstration gardens through the Michigan State University Extension programs with "at risk" teenagers and through the county corrections department's WAM program (Weekend Alternatives for Misdemeanants)," says Bill. "I've been in jail in this country and internationally, so I want to help these kids not take a wrong turn in their lives," he says. The gardens provide the perfect opportunity for Bill to connect with the teens. "The kids get excited about working in the garden and very proud of what they accomplish. I've seen kids bring their parents to see the gardens and come back to volunteer even after they are done with the program," he says. The gardens yield more than 20,000 pounds of produce, and ninety-five percent of it goes to the local food bank. For all his volunteer efforts, Bill was named the Oakland County Master Gardener of the Year in 2005.
Even though volunteering is close to Bill's heart, the gardens are ultimately a place for him to find peace and serenity. "I love watching things grow. I wasted so many years in bars drinking. Now I want to spend all my time outdoors in the garden," he says.
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