MARQUETTE - The sounds of Rachmaninoff fill the greenhouse at the back of the Jacobetti Veterans Center in Marquette.
"Sometimes it's Tchaikovsky," said Gary Baker as he shut off the boombox. "The plants like it."
Baker should know because he's the one who makes the gardens grow at the center. And it's not just the gardens, but it's the greenhouse and the flowerbeds he lends his green thumb to maintain.
Gary Baker spends much of his day in the greenhouse at the Jacobetti Home for Veterans in Marquette. The 75-year-old U.S. Army veteran has developed a hydroponic system for the greenhouse and likes to play classical music for the plants. (Journal photo by Renee Prusi)
"My thumb," he said. "I put green food coloring on it. That's what I tell people."
With a wry sense of humor, Baker goes about his volunteer task. At nearly 75, Baker finds great satisfaction in bringing the beauty of plants and flowers to the center where he has resided for a several years.
Baker was born in Saginaw but was most fond of spending time outside the city.
"I spent a lot of time on my grandparents farm," he said. "They grew gladiolas on about 20 acres between Saginaw and Bay City. In the spring, I planted a bunch of gladiola bulbs around the building and I take them up in the fall. It reminded me of them."
In between the Korean and Vietnam wars, Baker was a U.S. Army paratrooper.
"I missed out on all the fun," he said dryly.
After his time in the military, he returned to Michigan.
"But I was tired of the weather so I moved to Florida and lived there for 20 years," Baker said. "Then I was in South Carolina for 14 years. After I got divorced, I came up here 18 years ago."
'Because of a medical condition, I can't tolerate heat any more so that's why I came this far north. But it's not cold enough here any more, either. Maybe I will have to try Hudson Bay."
Since moving to the Jacobetti, Baker has spent quite a bit of time in the greenhouse.
"There's enough to do here to keep me busy," he said. "I am happy when I am out here."
A serious spinal cord condition creates chronic pain for Baker.
"I am in pain all the time," he said. "I'd say I spend 12 hours a day out here. I can work for maybe two or three minutes, then I have to rest while the pain subsides."
Baker has worked on a variety of plants, for instance, bringing blooms to the offices of workers at the center as the flowers develop.
"I think the greenhouse should be functional in addition to being a nice place to visit," he said. "The folks from the special needs unit come out and sit in here a couple of times a week. The guys like to sit for a while.
"The greenhouse is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. all year long for people to come on in and enjoy it."
Baker said he doesn't have a favorite plant, but does like the gladioli.
"They are a family tradition, I guess," he said. "But I like all kinds of plants. I like raising unusual ones."
Baker has developed a hydroponic system for the greenhouse.
"It's not just for water, it's for nutrients for the plants," he said. "Algae was a problem for awhile when I first started, but I found a remedy for that."
Over the past couple of years, Baker has started cuttings for others.
"I would guess I have given away a few hundred plants since I started," Baker said. "Mostly to the staff here. They really seem to appreciate it."
Baker enjoys his time in the greenhouse. And the plants seem to appreciate his efforts.
"They like that I play music for them. It's on from the time I get here until someone else turns it off," he said. "The more I can let it play, the better."
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.