Highlands County Master Gardener volunteer Charlie Reynolds loves to light up the world through the gift of gardening.
It may sound soft, said the retired navy chief, but "I've made the day a little brighter."
Reynolds, who has 18 years' experience as a Master Gardener and was nominated for Florida Master Gardener of the Year this fall, has spearheaded several community garden projects at Avon Park transitional housing, local schools and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sebring and Avon Park.
The cheerful 66-year-old hails from Michigan and believes his interest in plants started when he was stationed in Scotland with his daughter, Melissa, then 12. The single dad rented a cottage across from Argyle Botanical Gardens and enjoyed wandering through a thicket of 100 sequoia trees brought over from California by the Duke of Argyle in the 1600s.
After retiring from the service, Reynolds took a job as a security guard for the Michigan State University botanical gardens. But he ended up getting so many plant-related questions, Reynolds began researching on his own and eventually took the Michigan Master Gardener course.
After being laid off in 1994, Reynolds came to Highlands County where he dabbled in citrus caretaking and also became a Florida Master Gardener and, later, a Florida Master Naturalist. He has served as an officer with the Master Gardeners for five years, some of that time as president.
Not only that, but Reynolds went back to school at the age of 63 and earned a horticulture degree at then South Florida Community College. He was the only person his age in a classroom of young kids. "I was scared," he admitted. "Come to find out it was the most fun I'd had!" He added some advice to seniors: "Just do it. Go back to school. It doesn't hurt a bit."
Reynolds latest adventure is spearheading all of the local community gardening initiatives of the Master Gardener program throughout Highlands County.
The first garden started in 2011 at an Avon Park transitional housing neighborhood. Reynolds helps with the planting and growing of mostly vegetables. Each family is assigned a group of pots. When people move out, some of the garden can wind up neglected. Reynolds' latest idea is to start a 4-H gardening club made up of young residents to help care for the garden. "We have 10 applications so far," he said.
Reynolds said he especially enjoys working with the kids. "The kids in Avon Park call me Mr. Charlie," Reynolds smiled, adding, "I love it."
"One day they said, 'Mr. Charlie, we need some flowers,'" the veteran recalled. So he went out and bought the biggest, tallest sunflowers he could find - 12 feet tall. "Now we incorporate flowers," he grinned.
In addition to the Avon Park housing authority garden, Reynolds has helped with five school gardens at Lake Country, Woodlawn Elementary, Cracker Trail Elementary, the Lake Placid Montessori School and Avon Park Elementary.
With donations from the agriculture community, grants from local businesses and lots of help from people like 4-H leader Jackie Harris, Reynolds said local gardens are exploding.
Some of the most successful veggies planted have been tomatoes, green peppers, cabbage, lettuces, strawberries and okra. Reynolds also said they get experimental, planting things like cranberry hibiscus with its edible leaves.
He also likes the fact that gardening teaches kids hands on, common sense skills and where their food comes from.
At the Lake Placid Montessori School, the kids pick produce for their lunches and water by hand, Reynolds said. He added that he's never seen plants thrive so well without any fertilizer, including a huge banana plant growing in a pot.
At Lake Country, each classroom has its own area where plants are grown either hydroponically or in raised beds. Reynolds said he avoids chemical controls as much as possible on the gardens. "We start out with soap and water," he said, and if that doesn't work they "step it up from there." They also only use wilt-resistant tomato varieties.
Reynolds will also be helping to sell vegetable plants (including wilt-resistant tomatoes) and landscaping plants and giving advice at the annual Master Gardener plant sale on Nov. 9 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Bert J Harris Jr. Agriculture Civic Center Auditorium.
"It's so rewarding. You feel like you are doing something for the future. The kids are never going to forget this," Reynolds said.