From his days growing up on a farm in Salt Lake City to his former job as a horticulturist for the Springs Preserve and Las Vegas Valley Water District, Linn Mills has dedicated his life to the great outdoors—and to helping others learn to enjoy the great outdoors. To wit: In 1992, Mills launched Southern Nevada’s Master Gardener program, which over the past two decades has spawned more than 1,000 certified Master Gardeners who have volunteered more than 270,000 hours to help local residents in their quest to build their dream garden.
Although Mills retired from the Springs Preserve and Water District in October, he still frequently gets his hands dirty, whether it’s through his Sunday gardening-advice column in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, talking horticulture at various local social clubs or tending to his own home landscape. And as we turn the corner toward another long, hot summer, the 76-year-old is quick to reassure budding horticulturists that it is indeed possible to maintain a perfect garden in our harsh desert: “Some of the best gardens I’ve ever seen have been right here in Las Vegas.”
What’s your best spring-gardening tip?
I’d have to tie it into soil preparation. People try to bypass that because they come from, say, San Diego, where they have a lot of organic matter in their soils. We don’t have any, because we don’t have any rain or any vegetation. So you have to take time to prepare the soil. And then you learn to plant at the right time [of year]. When you do those things, a lot of the issues people raise about gardening go out the window.
What’s your first gardening memory?
My mother always had herbs [growing] right by our door. My assignment was to weed. I got to grow the pumpkins, but I had to do all the weeding [first]. It took a long time, because you plant pumpkins in May but don’t harvest them till the end of October. So [eventually] I came up with an idea on how to keep kids into gardening, first by planting radishes, because you [harvest] them 21 days later. Then you get the spinach 10 or 15 days later, then the lettuce and so on. The idea was for the kids to always have a success story, to keep them going up to the pumpkin harvest.
Is there a landscaping faux pas you see around here that bugs you?
Aaarrggh! Have you ever looked around and seen all these plants sheared in gross geometric forms? That’s exactly what is not supposed to happen! And it’s spreading across this Valley like wildfire—and I mean like wildfire! Right now, the cassias are out in bloom—it’s a big, yellow-flowered bush. And if you let it grow naturally, it’s loaded with blossoms. But the gardeners always come in and shear them off. When they do that, they’re removing all the wood, as we call it, where the flower sites are. So all you’re doing is looking at a lollipop on a stump. And it’s ugly! You don’t need to drive very far around town to see it.
Is there a particular fruit tree people shouldn’t try to grow here?
Well, as soon as I say, “You can’t grow this,” you’re going to have 14 other people say, “Yes you can!” I once got a call from someone asking if we could grow cherry trees in Las Vegas, and I said no. Then I spent the next hour on the radio listening to people talk about success stories. But cherries need a lot of cold temperatures—we call them chilling hours, which is temperatures under 45 degrees. They need up to 1,500 chilling hours, and we only get about 300 here [annually].
What’s the last thing you planted that didn’t survive?
My wife loves gardenias, she loves gardenias—did you get that? They like acid soils, and they like iron and all that stuff. So I see a gardenia in the nursery, come home, put it out in the garden, and she’s so excited. Then I hear, “Oh, what’s gone wrong?” I don’t even want to [talk] about gardenias. I’ve seen beautiful gardenias here, but they’re so finicky.
Do the gardening questions you receive sometimes crack you up?
Oh man alive, I’ve got tons of those. I had this lady come in one time, and she had a radish this big [mimics the size of a softball], and she wanted to know when to harvest the radish. And I just kiddingly said, “Well, you gotta wait two weeks.” We opened it up, and it had cavities that you and I could sleep in!
What’s your least favorite vegetable?
Ha! I guess I gotta go along with George [H.W.] Bush on this one: broccoli. Now, I like cauliflower, but I just don’t care for broccoli. When I go through a buffet line, I’ll always pick up the cauliflower, but I never stop for the broccoli.