By Amy Mangan • Photos By John Jernigan
Walking through the garden with Ray McNeal, Sr. is a lesson in both horticulture and life. As a respected Marion County businessman and gardener for over 60 years, Raye knows the landscape of both very well.
“I’ve always been a gardener, even when I was a little boy,” says Ray. “Farming started out as a necessity and I’ve grown to love it.”
An Ocala native, Ray kept his gardening passions alive while running several successful auto-parts businesses. His family became active members in the community. His wife, Helen, is the retired Marion County Supervisor of Elections, but always managed to find time to cook and preserve the fruits of Ray’s harvests. Even the McNeal’s children got involved at early ages into gardening.
“The kids used to load our vegetables in their red wagon and would have them all sold before they got into town,” laughs Ray.
It’s a cool spring day when we take a tour in Ray’s backyard garden. He stops to check on each flower, vegetable, and fruit, making sure everything is ready for optimum growth. Ray points out the successful graft of a citrus tree. There are certainly plenty — over 50 trees of 20 different varieties are sprinkled between each other, scenting the air with muscadine, tangelo, and orange.
“I know every tree and plant in this garden,” says Ray, looking over the expansive crop.
He plants according to seasons. Fall is the time for mustard greens, turnips, carrots, beets, broccoli, and radishes. Spring encourages crops of potatoes, tomatoes, peas, beans, corn, and okra. And all seasons are a time of giving for the McNeals.
“I give away more than I sell,” says Ray, noting family and friends are most often the lucky beneficiaries of his rich harvest.
His gift continues through instruction, too. Ray volunteers twice a month at the Marion County Agricultural Center, answering questions from gardeners who call. This is in addition to the calls he receives at home every day from friends wanting some of his expert advice.
“I’ve helped a lot of people get started in gardening,” adds Ray.
And he hoped to inspire one more as he gave this spring visitor a bag full of vegetables, stopping first at his gardening bench to instruct me on the proper way to prepare and cook collard greens. Ray says he always makes sure his guests leave with plenty of vegetables and fruits. noting this is one of the best gifts he can give.
Want A Better Garden?
Try Ray McNeal’s expert advice.
• Plant what you like, not what your neighbors like.
• Be precise. Draw out a plan of what you want your garden to look like.
• Identify a source of water for your crops.
• Make sure you have a minimum of six hours of sunlight a day for your garden.
• Keep a gardening journal.