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‘Uncle Rob’ gardens with natural creativity

At 15, Rob Senn’s first paying job was at a farm-fresh produce market in his hometown of Memphis.
He pushed 40 bushels of peas through a shelling machine daily.
Since then, his swarthy, sinewy hands have handled auto parts or lawn equipment during the day and scratched in the soil evenings and weekends.
“Dad had a little rose garden,” recalls Rob, now in his 50s. “He grew roses and gladiolas for the church altar. I had a spot on the side of the house and for my first girlfriend, I planted her name in tulips. It was Toni, easy. So when they came up, she said, ‘Ahhhh.’
“It was fun. I just like to grow things. Why? I’m a Taurus. It’s relaxing. Instead of going swimming or playing tennis, I like to get my hands in the dirt.”
Now that Senn has retired from almost 40 years of selling auto parts, moved to Johnson City and “it’s just me and my puppies,” he devotes about 40 hours a week to his gardens.
He has a yard full of them and for the past several years has shared his wealth of produce, flowering plants and gardening knowledge with lovers of farm-fresh produce at the Jonesborough Farmers Market.
In the mornings and afternoons, Senn works with his brother, Max, in a lawn service. In the evenings, he “piddles.”
“The first good day, you put peas in the ground as soon as you can work the ground,” he says, smiling at the thought of breaking out of the house after a winter. “That’s February. They might not come up until March but they’re in the ground doing their thing. It’s 50 degrees, I can go out there and piddle. My brother says, ‘What is piddling?’ ‘You can’t do a lot, so you take care of this and that, you scratch around here and clean up there.’ ‘Oh, he says, you’re just messing around in the yard.’ That would be my favorite saying, ‘I’m piddling in the yard.’”
Senn’s piddling — as daschunds Maggie, Marlow and Griffin watch — is mighty productive.
Though the yard surrounding his house on Odell Circle is modest — less than an acre — it is rich in multi-use beds, filled with flowers, vegetables and unusual found items and rocks.
Pots of pansies, colorful flags and tiny toy trucks overflowing with succulents adorn his porch, which is rimed with a bed of burgeoning gladiolas. He’ll cut those, as well as his sunflowers, peonies and roses, to sell at his Uncle Rob’s Garden Fresh Produce table at Jonesborough’s market.
In the last couple years, Uncle Rob’s piddling has spread.
He now has beds in both next-door neighbors’ yards, one of his lawn service customer’s yard and at the Carver Community Garden.
Not only are Senn’s sentiments about gardening intense, so are his gardening techniques.
“The first year, I didn’t have all the other gardens,” he says. “I just had my yard. People ask, ‘How do you get all this stuff out of this little space?’ It’s called intense gardening like they do in Japan. Say they plant beets, carrots and radishes together because they know the radishes are going to get through first and the beets and carrots come in together. When you pull a carrot, you are leaving room for the beet to get bigger.”
Senn packs a lot into his small spaces, wherever they are, “companion planting” when he can — heirloom tomatoes, torpedo onions, long red onions, garlic, fennel, rhubarb, strawberries, beets, snow and sugar snap peas, blue and pink potatoes, leeks, red okra, spinach, Swiss chard, arugula cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, peppers, purple potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes.
Jerusalem artichokes?
“Around here they might call it a sun-choke,” says Senn, a Food Network fan, who has been cooking since he was 5. “It has a tuber like a potato. You can cook it like a potato, cream it like a potato. You can slice it thin like a radish and eat it raw. You can roast it in the oven.”
Senn loves bringing the unusual to the table, rather than the everyday that can be had in a grocery store.
He shows off the stems of his orange and pink Swiss chard, purple passion asparagus and Egyptian walking onions with “bulbs” on their tips.
His tomatoes are only heirlooms, raised in his “hoop house” in the bit of a back yard.
“When I get the seed catalogs, it’s like the Christmas toy catalog is for the kids,” he says. “What’s new this year?”
Barrels of rainwater and barrows of leaves sit about, ready to mulch and water. His gardening is purely natural.
“I grow organic,” he says. “If it has pests, I usually pick the bugs off or I have some pyrethrin, neme (oil) or spinosa. It’s all organic. No Seven Dust, no Roundup for weeds. You’ll see me out digging up dandelions.”
And you won’t see any overripe vegetables on Uncle Rob’s table.
“If it’s not perfect, I won’t sell. I won’t even take it.”
But nothing goes to waste — if Senn can help it.
If overripe veggies can’t freeze, they are composted and their seedlings likely show up the next year in his composted beds.
In Senn’s fertile brain, a black metal futon frame found on the side of the road provides a framework for vining peas; a discarded wheelbarrow is lush with glads, lavender, chives, perennial geraniums and creeping Jenny; and an old yellow toy truck becomes a planter for a load of succulents.
Down to the alpaca “poo” he hauls in to fertilize his beds, “reuse, recycle, repurpose,” is Senn’s mantra.
The “green” gardener loves to share his wealth of ideas, as well as produce and flowers, too. Find him at the market to get valuable homegrown recipes, ideas and advice peppered with humor and creative practicality.