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Thinking inside the box

Blake Whisenant has created an urban gardener's dream: a self-contained miniature garden that bursts with produce.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published May 19, 2007


Blake Whisenant, in the light hat on the left, teaches a class on Wednesday about gardening with an Earth Box. Whisenant runs the Whisenant Farms Earth Box Research Center in Ellenton. He grows lots of different plants and teaches classes twice a week so that customers can learn all the want on growing plants with the Earth Box.
photo
[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
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ELLENTON 

At 77, Blake Whisenant is living his dream in this old Florida town, best known for its outlet mall and antebellum plantation where the Confederate secretary of state hid out at the end of the Civil War. It is here that Whisenant, a rancher-inventor with a business degree from the University of Florida, found his true calling: the EarthBox.

The EarthBox is a 30-inch-long plastic container filled with a special concoction of soil and fertilizer and blanketed with a mulch cover that looks a lot like a shower cap and keeps rainwater out. Plants in the box are watered daily through a built-in tube, a process Whisenant invented more than a decade ago while daydreaming at church.

"We had just had 19 inches of rain drown the tomato crop and I said to my wife: 'Before I die I want to know if it's possible to grow them in a box above the ground so they won't get flooded.'" Now, 13 years later, Whisenant spends most days at his EarthBox Research Center at 1023 Ellenton-Gillette Road, a light-filled garden shop with wooden floors and comfy rocking chairs and a good selection of Tilley outdoor hats.

The research center sits in the old part of town, behind a bank and next to a grocery store on nearly 2 acres of land. There's enough room for a canopied outdoor classroom and dozens of blooming EarthBoxes that Whisenant eagerly shows off to visitors.

And there are plenty of visitors. On a recent sunny Wednesday, Marion Peck from St. Petersburg stopped in to buy her 12th box (a complete EarthBox kit, not including vegetables, sells for $47.45; (slightly more online; see box on 3F for details).

"I have a pool and no garden area," said Peck, who discovered the boxes a decade ago and uses them to grow vegetables and flowers. "It's hard to go wrong with this if you do exactly what they tell you."

She said her grape tomato plant yields so much she has to give many tomatoes away. Employees eagerly pass around a photo from a man who claims to have grown more than 40 pounds of tomatoes in just one box.

Originally the EarthBox was intended just for tomatoes, Whisenant says, "but people said to me: 'That's amazing what you can grow in that little old box, why don't you grow other things - so I did,'" he says.

Now he grows flowers, herbs and vegetables so big, many look like prehistoric specimens. Boxes burst with tomatoes, collard greens, broccoli, radishes, sugar snap peas, sweet peppers, cabbage, cucumber, corn, rainbow chard and cauliflower.

He points out more EarthBoxes bursting with impatiens, geraniums and petunias. Others grow fragrant healthy herbs, including orange basil, rosemary and mint.

"It doesn't matter what type of soil you have, with this you can grow things on a roof or concrete. You can have these in an urban area and farm continuously," Whisenant says. "And what's so beautiful is that it uses less water" than a conventional garden.

"It's the best container I've ever seen and I believe it's the best in the world."

A lot of people agree. The Home Shopping Network recently sold 14, 000 in one day, and word is spreading worldwide. Many of Whisenant's customers live in countries where traditional vegetable farming poses a challenge. He is now involved in a program with the United Nations, he says, and thousands of EarthBoxes have made their way to Africa, Guatemala and Mexico.

Last month Whisenant was lauded at an informal "EarthBox Day" in New York City, an event that linked 100 New York schoolchildren with other school-age gardeners around the world.

The EarthBox, he says, "is a wonderful opportunity to reach kids and teach them about agriculture because kids are natural gardeners. They want to grow things, but they often can't because of where they live.

* * *

Growing things is in Whisenant's blood. His late father, Robert, who emigrated from Cuba at the turn of the 20th century, is honored in the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame, and his family has farmed tomatoes in the area since 1901. He still runs the 2, 000-acre tomato, citrus and cattle ranch with his wife, Virginia.

All three of their sons farm in Manatee County, and Whisenant says he believes they will carry on the EarthBox business long after he is gone. He is looking to that future and currently working on several projects, including developing a soil that won't have to be replaced after seven or eight years.

Longtime employee Betty Edwards, 76, has worked at the research center for the past 12 years. Her husband, Sonny, 77, who also works there, grew up with Whisenant.

"He's the most uplifting man I've ever known, generous, honest and kind, " she says of her employer. "When you think this just started as a little hobby for him . . . and look what it's turned into today. It's because the EarthBox really is what he says it is. It works."

Wearing gardening clothes, green apron and a khaki sun hat, the mild-mannered and soft-spoken Whisenant offers free gardening classes at 10 a.m. every Wednesday and Saturday. The seminar attracts gardeners and would-be gardeners from the Tampa, St. Petersburg, Bradenton and Sarasota areas.

It also appeals to people like Barb Lataillade, a missionary from Haiti. Lataillade is looking for a new way to grow vegetables in the remote Haitian villages where she works.

Whisenant spends the morning showing Lataillade mammoth vegetables, and he sends her back to Haiti with a free EarthBox to try.

Whisenant pauses occasionally to point out more boxes blooming with cascades of lush, colorful flowers.

He plants a box of heirloom tomatoes for a couple who want to watch and get advice straight from the inventor himself.

Whisenant gives them more than advice; he offers a prediction: "Take this home and on June 7 at 3:30 in the afternoon you can pick them."

Can he really predict when the plant will offer up ripe, juicy tomatoes?

"Pretty much," he says with a knowing smile, "pretty much."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com. A version of this story appeared in some regional editions of the Times.

 

Garden in a box

The EarthBox is available at Whisenant Farms EarthBox Research Center, 1023 Ellenton-Gillette Road in Ellenton.

Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

Free gardening classes are taught at 10 a.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. Taking a class with Blake Whisenant is a treat . Make sure he is teaching the day you wish to visit; call (941) 723-2911.

For purchase information: www.earthbox.com; toll-free 1-800-917-3908. Also available on Amazon.com.

[Last modified May 18, 2007, 19:34:55]


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