- Associated Press - Friday, June 10, 2016

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (AP) - If you were born without a green thumb, you might think Mel Niepagen is a godsend.

For the past three years Niepagen has been volunteering to plant container gardens for customers at Wendell Niepagen Greenhouses & Gardens. He creates arrangements for only the cost of the plants. He is the third generation of Niepagens to work in the family gardening business.

“My life is the greenhouse,” he said.

The 83-year-old Niepagen grew up in the family business started by his grandfather, Charles Niepagen.

“It’s the only thing I’ve ever known,” he said.

He said he remembers being in the business at the age of 5 or 6. His parents, Walter and Frieda, expected he and his siblings, Wendell, Norman, Joyce and Jeanette to all work in the business.

“Every evening when we came home from school, we’d have to transplant,” said Mel. He said he could fill 100 flats of transplants in a day.

His wife, Shirley, also worked transplanting seedlings. All of Mel and Shirley’s children — Cathy, Vickie, Don, Eric and Steve — worked in the family’s greenhouses when they were growing up.

Today he likes being in the greenhouses and volunteers daily at Wendell Niepagen Greenhouses & Gardens, owned by Mel’s nephew Lee and Lee’s wife, Anne Niepagen.

“They are kind enough to let me come play in this little room,” he said with a grin as he stood amid an array of colorful arrangements. He works in greenhouse No. 10, arranging container gardens with a variety of grasses, geraniums, petunias and succulents for customers from about 8 a.m. until about 3 p.m. — “when my feet start aching.”

Niepagen says he has nothing else to do this time of year and that is why he volunteers to plant container gardens. His other passion is baseball and he says he can’t get enough of it. He bow hunts and still climbs trees to do it.

“If it wasn’t for fishing and hunting, I don’t know what I’d do.”

“I used to have a big garden, but my cousin, Frank Niepagen, has a heck of a garden,” he said. “I can go over there if I need something.”

His longest break from greenhouse work came in 1951, when he enlisted in the Navy.

“I got a vacation for four years,” he said. “I’ve seen the seven seas, and been around the world twice. It was a good four years I had.”

In the Navy, Mel was a hospital corpsman stationed on two aircraft carriers off the coast of Japan that flew missions into Korea.

When he returned to Bloomington in 1954, he worked at General Electric by day and the greenhouse every evening and on weekends.

“I don’t feel any different now than I did 10 years ago,” he said. “I appreciate the work.”

He has planted a number of containers this gardening season, waiting for their new owners to pick them up from greenhouse No. 10.

“I’m their baby sitter right now,” he said, tending to them with water and fertilizer.

That connection to plants is just second nature to him.

“It’s not as much about the work as it is about making Mel happy doing the work.” said perennial manager Kelly Rawlings. “If Mel stopped planting he would stop moving.”

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Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, http://bit.ly/1TA7OUA

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Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com

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