Ronald A. Knab: A reason to get up in the morning

Ronald Knab lives in a small South Toledo apartment packed with 26 citrus trees including orange, lime, lemon, gogi, papaya, and figs.
Ronald Knab lives in a small South Toledo apartment packed with 26 citrus trees including orange, lime, lemon, gogi, papaya, and figs.

Today, The Blade launches the fourth year of Weed It & Reap, in which Tahree Lane speaks with area gardeners who love what they do, whether in plots small, large, or with unusual content. Tell us what's unique about you or your garden in a sentence. Contact tlane@theblade.com, call 419-724-6075, or fill out the questionnaire at toledoblade.com/weedit.

Name: Ronald A. Knab; former carpenter, living in Old South Toledo.

Garden specs: Inside, I have nearly 100 plants in my tiny, one-bed apartment. Outside, plants are on the front and rear porches plus several strips of land. Because the soil is poor, I grow most veggies in sunken buckets with holes drilled in the bottom.


When did you start gardening? Childhood, helping mom with her beloved roses in Erie, Mich. I'd spear some carp in the creek and bury them between two rose plants. In 9th grade, a friend and I got permission to take over the barren greenhouse at Erie-Mason High School, and for four years filled it with all sorts of houseplants, tropicals, and vegetable seedlings. In my 20s and 30s, I spent 10 years on three islands in South Florida collecting palms, hibiscus, bougainvillea, and cacti. Returning here I slowly added unusual houseplants, citrus, and tropical fruits (gogi, papaya, figs), along with produce in the summer.

What do you grow? Chancing upon six half-dead Madagascar palms of two varieties in a Kmart one winter 15 years ago, I offered the manager $2 each. I made the same deal at four other Kmarts and ended up with 36 palms. I learned that cutting a ‘V' in the top makes them branch out, which results in sculptural appeal. I'm down to a dozen of my favorites, and most of them top out at five or six feet. Prize specimens are worth about $100 a foot.

Five years ago, I ordered my first citrus trio (Meyer lemon, key lime, and myrtle-leaved orange) from Logees in Connecticut. I bought additional citrus from Bensell Greenhouse. The count is now 29 trees, including Buddha's Hand, an old cultivated lemon. Six trees bore fruit this season; the best are the lemons.

Favorite plant: Jeez, where do I start? A four-branched Madagascar palm, each branch going wonky in different directions. A beautiful one was stolen from my front porch last fall. Hope it promptly died! My fave citrus is the American Wonder Ponderosa Lemon, a lemon-grapefruit hybrid only two feet tall. It produced four lemons this winter the size of baseballs. Then there's the orchid cactus collection (several kinds including night-blooming cereus), now getting to the age (root-bound at five years) when beautiful five-inch flowers will appear in mid-spring, only lasting a few days but well worth it. I gave away 15 at Christmas.

Give us a tip: Citrus trees do not like wet feet. Angel Trumpets (brugmansia) with amazing hanging flowers, are well worth their cost. Most papayas grow quickly but require a second variety to pollinate.

Hours spent gardening: In summer, about two hours a day. In winter, an hour daily misting and watering, moving plants to various windows for optimum time in good light. My apartment has no southern exposure.

Annual expense: $200, maybe less now that I think I have enough plants, at least until I can find a better place to live!

Challenges: My apartment is about the size of a 40-foot single-wide trailer. No south-facing windows; simple grow lights help a bit in winter. And limitations to my health, especially fatigue.

I'm proud of: My AIDS diagnosis in 1996 was a death sentence. But that winter the new triple-cocktail meds were approved and they saved my life. Before that I'd lost three best friends in Florida to AIDS. The good Lord gave me a second chance. I owe it to my friends and all the other AIDS sufferers to make my second chance count. My plants plus my other hobbies building architectural paper-model kits (of castles, cathedrals, ocean liners, landmarks) and making doll houses give me a reason to get up each morning. It's not been easy living on disability, but it's getting better. At 55, I'm no spring fowl. I do the best I can with what I've got.

Tell us a humorous gardening anecdote: Now that some of my lemons are producing fruit I'm saving their seeds and have 30 pots of seedlings from four varieties. Citrus seedlings are called pips so I call the parent tree Gladys Knight.