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A wise man of horticulture

Baldassare Mineo and his Italio Gardens are not the well-kept secrets I’d imagined. As I entered his office space, he showed me the history in yellowing newsprint of the Rare Plant Nursery, which he formerly owned, and how this magical place originated.

Our hometown paper has covered him a couple of times recently. B himself had written a book entitled “Rock Garden Plants, a Color Encyclopedia.” He’s spent a lifetime lecturing throughout the country, sharing his vast knowledge of growing things. A displayed photo shows him with Martha Stewart on her program in 2000. Clearly I didn’t have a scoop, but I still wanted to meet him.

His first name is the Italian equivalent of Balthazar, a name commonly attributed to one of the three wise men. I’d planned to interview him since I wrote about Cathy Wallace of Heaven Scent Flowers a couple of years ago. She’d mentioned her special connection with Baldassare in selecting unique greens for arrangements even in the seeming dead of winter. Though he doesn’t conduct this type of business with others, he is more than willing to share his wealth of knowledge and show off the abundance of his garden.

Though Italio Gardens and Nursery, at 2825 Cummings Lane in Medford, opens only on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon, I called him up and easily made arrangements to come for a visit later that day. He couldn’t have been more accommodating. Timing was such that I benefitted from a tasty chocolate cookie he’d baked for that night’s meeting of the Rock Garden Society.

He labors for the joy he receives in growing things, but he’s obviously a people person, too. Though he loves plants, B’s original direction pointed elsewhere.

“I wound up going to college and getting a degree in architecture. I applied to all the architects, which were like three. This was in San Luis Obispo. And while I was waiting for a response and a job, I started working part time in a nursery, and I never left horticulture.”

Visiting Italio Gardens provided a mental escape from the cold and fog, a place where life thrives despite them. But, though Baldassare served as the ultimate tour guide, pointing out stunning variegated leaves, rare evergreens and a few stubbornly optimistic bloomers like beautyberry and winter-blooming camellia, the 40-degree afternoon eventually drove us inside.

Baldassare’s focus is on rock gardening.

“A rock garden includes stones or even boulders. The biggest difference between a rock garden and a regular garden is fast draining, gravelly, rocky soil. Rock garden (high alpine) plants don’t like rich, heavy, highly fertilized soil. No matter where they’re from, high elevations or deserts, what they like is fast draining, nutrient poor soil. Rocks act as an insulating mulch and you don’t have to water as much.”

He explained how rocks cool soil in summer and retain heat to help prevent freezing.

For plant lovers pining for off-season camaraderie and a healthy horticulture fix, I offer the Siskiyou Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society. Baldassare is one ardent member of about 50 who gather at 7 p.m. the second Tuesday of each month. October through May, they meet in Lidgate Hall, behind United Congregational Church of Christ on east Jackson. For more information and to stay on top of events and meetings, see the website at www.siskiyousummits.org.

After 40 years of passionate dedication to an incredible museum of botanicals, Baldassare Mineo is feeling the urge to pass the baton to someone who loves this place as much as he does. His home and gardens, situated on 6.37 acres near Table Rock Road in Medford are for sale. Meanwhile, he’s looking for a nursery partner, someone with a fervor for propagation and growing things to help with weekly plant sales. To discuss particulars or arrange a tour, give him a call at 541-840-0929 or email him at italio@hotmail.com.

I look forward to a spring visit.

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer in Eagle Point. Reach her at pcdover@hotmail.com.