Some people just know who and what they’re going to be when they grow up. For Randy Knight, his boyhood dreams weren’t of scoring touchdowns or impressing people with an M.D., or even being a superhero. What he wanted to do, for the rest of his life, was garden.
“While my friends were ordering things from comic books, I was ordering gardening seeds from my mother’s catalogues,” Knight said with a smile. “It has never been a question in my mind … I have always known what I was going to do.”
And so he spent his days tinkering around in his mother’s garden, getting seeds from all the women in the small Texas town he grew up in. His jobs in high school and college always had him surrounded by plants, and he graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in floriculture and horticulture.
Knight likes to say that gardening is his “vocation and avocation,” and, at 75 years old, it’s something he’s enjoyed doing his entire life. He owned Poole and Fuller, a nursery and then landscaping business in Winter Park for 25 years and even had the contract to keep Park Avenue’s landscape beautiful for a time.
When he turned 70, Knight retired, but his plant passion certainly didn’t. The next day, he greeted Debbie Komanski, the executive director for the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens, with a big grin. He’d decided what he was going to spend his retirement days doing — tending and beautifying the museum’s gardens. He just can’t keep his hands or heart out of the dirt.
“I feel better now than when I used to work for a living. Flowers and plants are so fascinating to me,” he said. “I just love any plant.”
And that’s easy to see. A humble smile spreads over his lips as he talks about the different plants he takes care of at Polasek, and a lifetime’s worth knowledge and excitement spill out. His zeal for plants is hard to describe. He has a calm adoration for each bit of green he sees. He points out his collection of cycads. To most, they’re just plants, to Knight, they’re a captivating species on the verge of extinction, and he’s going to help save them.
“Randy is an exceptional gentlemen who has a passion for gardening and nature unlike anyone I’ve ever met,” Komanski said.
Now he spends at least 40 hours a week volunteering as the museum’s horticulturalist and landscape curator, and has transformed the grounds from just having a nice lawn five years ago, to the beautiful gardens it has today. The museum was the place where late sculptor Albin Polasek retired, and is the home of more than 200 of Polasek’s works of art. There, Knight, whose small porch at home is packed with plants, has a sprawling outlet for his gardening love.
But it’s not just his love of foliage that makes him work so hard at the museum, it’s also his connection to the Polasek family. Emily Polasek, Albin’s wife, was a longtime customer of Knights and took his advice for the gardens often. He formed a friendship with Emily, whom he said always made him feel special. After he attended her 94th birthday party, he realized all of the men there thought he was her favorite, Knight joked. The special creative energy that Emily, Albin and his work exuded is what close friend Pam Paisley said keeps Knight drawn in.
“It’s the spirit of the place, and Randy has somehow captured, carried that spirit along,” said Paisley, the museum’s garden volunteer coordinator.
And the volunteer gardeners who work with him at the museum see his love, too.
“He considers himself sitting in God’s backyard,” said Jane Butler, who’s been volunteering for over a year.
They all say that his feelings for gardening are contagious.
“He has unbridled enthusiasm,” Paisley said. “Randy Knight never met a plant he didn’t love.”
You can join Randy Knight and Pam Paisley Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon for free, fun hands-on gardening at the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens. No reservations are necessary. For more information about the museum and gardens, visit www.polasek.org