A Master at gardening: John Norton’s a pepper and tomato expert

By Chelsea Retherford | Living 50 Plus

In the next couple of weeks, John Norton will begin putting out tomato and pepper sprouts he’s been nurturing and monitoring in his basement since February.

Though his home garden boasts several raised beds that produce a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and berries all year long, Norton is known locally among his fellow Master Gardeners as a tomato and pepper plant expert.

“If you have a question about raising tomatoes, John is our go-to guy,” said Lisa Maples, former president of the Shoals Master Gardeners Association. However, Norton admits that hasn’t always been the case.

He says much of what he knew about gardening was enhanced by classes he took in joining the association.

To become a Master Gardner, interested participants must pass an intensive horticulture training course provided by the national Master Gardeners Association. Graduates from the program are also required to volunteer in their communities by giving lectures, creating and maintaining gardens, conducting research and other projects.

Just as Maples refers to Norton as a “go-to” for tomatoes and peppers, she said she frequently refers to fellow Master Gardener Paula Kelley whenever she has questions about native plants.

“I do recognize them, but that’s something I learned since I’ve joined the Master Gardeners,” Kelley replies humbly.

Norton agrees with the stance.

“With vegetable gardening, I felt like I knew a lot, but I found out I didn’t know much at all,” he said with a laugh. “You know, with gardening, you’re learning a little bit every time you do it. If something works, you have something to build on. If it doesn’t work, then you know you’ve got to make a change.”

He and Kelley said their club, like many Master Gardeners associations across the state and country, have dozens of members in the area that can assist interested beginners and veteran growers alike.

“If people have problems with their gardens, I’ve learned where to find answers,” Norton said, before he listed several people who have dedicated their research to specific plants, or a particular aspect of gardening that allowed them to specialize in their passion.

“Arbor Wilson is our go-to expert in flower arranging,” Norton said. “Margie Anderton, native plants. She is the go-to person for the TVA wildflower trail. Tommy Flurry, peaches. There are many, many more. Somebody could call up a question about one plant or another, and we could find somebody within our group who could help them.”

Kelley said answers to questions can usually be found on the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s website — www.aces.edu — but the site can also direct inquirers to Master Gardener experts on their topic.

Norton discovered his special interests were growing tomatoes and peppers from seeds.

Norton tells people before he joined the Master Gardeners in 2013, his tomatoes were surviving. Now that he’s learned some of the science behind his gardening practices, he says his tomatoes are thriving.

“The things that old time farmers and older people know about gardening, they’re all good, but they didn’t know the science behind the things they were doing,” he said. “A lot of the things they were doing were exactly right.”

Since joining the volunteer program, Norton said he’s learned some tested tricks that help him grow bigger, healthier tomatoes every season.

A couple of those tips include adding calcium nitrate fertilizer to the soil throughout the vegetable’s growing season, and spraying his tomatoes for blight, a plant disease typically caused by fungi.

Norton said he starts all his tomato and pepper seeds about the same time each year — in the early spring or late winter. This year, he planted rows of jalapeños, serranos, Thai chiles, and Ghost peppers in small peat pots around Feb. 19. He planted his tomato seeds the following weekend.

By Feb. 28, he had lots of little pepper seedlings sprouting tall, soaking in the light from the heating stations Norton built in his basement in Killen. The peppers still had several weeks of indoor nurturing to go before they were ready to be transplanted to the outdoor beds.

“Tomatoes and peppers are warm weather plants. A couple of chilly nights and the weather will knock them down,” Norton said. “The Extension Service recommends not putting warm weather plants out in the garden until after April 15. After I start the tomato seeds, it takes seven weeks for them to get ready to put outside.”

Though he started in late February, he said gardeners can choose when to plant their seeds based on when they hope to harvest the fruit.

“The Extension Service office has a chart that illustrates when they should plant in the ground,” Norton sad. “If you want to harvest tomatoes the first week of July, then you back up so many weeks and start your planting then. You can calculate and arrange the exact time for when you want to pick your tomatoes.”

He said most varieties of tomatoes take 55 to 75 days to mature after the healthy plant has sprouted. He chooses to start from seed seven weeks before that growing period to give him better control of his harvest.

“I love to start the seeds because there are new varieties of pepper seeds every year. There are thousands. I can’t get to them all,” he said. “I plant what I call my money plants — they’re the ones I use for canning.”

Norton and his wife, Iris, enjoy fresh tomato juice all summer. He cans enough so they keep a stock of juice all year. His love for gardening means he gets most of his produce and herbs from his own backyard.

“So, you know, I have tried-and-true tomato plants — the ones I grow specifically for canning. Then I’ll try to grow some different ones each year just for bragging purposes,” he said.

When Norton first began growing peppers from seed, he also started dabbling in hot sauce making.

Though he admits he doesn’t particularly enjoy the spicier peppers and sauces, he prefers growing some of the hottest peppers he can find.

“It’s fun. I try to keep one bottle of each sauce I make,” he said. “I have quite the collection now.”

After developing a new recipe for the peppers he grew in that particular season, Norton bottles the sauce, gives it a name and slaps a fun label on the bottle. Then he gives most of his product away.

“There are some hot-sauce-crazy people,” he said and laughed. “There are quite a few Florence Police officers who love hot sauce. I give them everything I can.”

When asked about his recipes and process, he answers: “It’s a state secret,” acknowledging the role his hometown plays in his gardening life.

Norton wasn’t always an Alabama grower, however.

He was born in Michigan, where his mother, Betty, earned a degree in landscape design from Michigan State University.

“She influenced the way I looked at plants and gardening,” Norton said. “We had a small garden in which we raised vegetables, and she taught me how to do that. We had a lot of fruit trees that they had planted. We harvested apples, plums and pears and peaches.”

Even when the family moved to New Jersey when Norton was young, he said his family always kept fruits and vegetables growing in their yard.

“I grew up in the north part of New Jersey with the rocks. That was primarily my job, picking up rocks and getting them out of the garden area. It wasn’t much fun, but I tried to make it fun,” he said. “Mostly, we grew green beans, zucchini, and squash. Things like that.”

When Norton moved to Florence in 1990 for work, he admits he didn’t have much time for gardening. He certainly didn’t have the free time for all the volunteer work required of him as a Master Gardener.

As a contract manager for Raytheon, formerly known as Rust Engineering, based in Birmingham, Norton was among the engineers on a NASA project that oversaw construction of a rocket plant in Iuka, Mississippi. Later, Norton began working with aluminum supplier Constellium in Muscle Shoals.

When he retired from that position in 2012, he said he had more free time to pick the hobby back up, but he found a new set of challenges when he first began to plant vegetables in North Alabama soil.

“It was quite interesting to try to deal with the red clay of the South,” he said. “Believe it or not, it is not easy to garden in North Alabama. It’s very difficult, actually. There are too many things that can influence your crop. The climate gets too hot. The air is too moist, and the soil is the worst I’ve ever seen. When we moved to Killen, I found out I couldn’t put a shovel in the ground without hitting rocks.”

Though gardening in North Alabama is tough, it’s not impossible.

Through his work with the Master Gardeners, Norton said he’s learned to do most of his planting in raised beds outside his home. At one time, he even helped manage several raised beds along with other Master Gardeners, Lauderdale County Extension agents, and area residents for a community garden outside the Lauderdale County Extension Office in Florence.

“Anyone with Master Gardeners would be happy to help people learn how to build raised beds. We’ve done it for several schools in the area, individuals and other groups,” Norton said.

While he admits Master Gardening isn’t necessarily for everyone, he recommends the club to any interested gardener who has the time to dedicate to the program, even if they are just beginning to test their green thumb.

“I’ve met a lot of interesting people and befriended many,” he added. “A lot of times, we’ll do some gardening projects together, and that’s fun. It’s great to have like-minded people helping with projects.”

“This helps your community,” Kelley said. “It helps you get out and get exercise. It helps you socialize with other people. It’s just a win-win.”

When Norton isn’t “winning” with his fellow Master Gardeners, he said he’s reaping the rewards from his labors at home when he shares his fruits with family and friends.

“When I feed the kids and grandkids, that’s when it’s the most rewarding,” he said. “You don’t have to make them — they’ll try everything. We’ve got blackberries, raspberries and blue berries too. There’s something for everybody here.”