Honoring our veteran gardeners of Michigan

Meet William Jacobs, 21 years in the Air Force and a lifetime of gardening expertise.

Bill Jacobs
Veteran Bill Jacobs has been keeping a garden diary since 1974 to help track successful vegetable varieties over the years. Photo by Sarah Rautio, MSU Extension.

As a local Michigan State University Extension horticulture educator new to Tawas City, Michigan, in 2015, I had a lot to learn about the community and their gardening needs. It did not take long for veteran William (Bill) Jacobs to stop by our Iosco County MSU Extension office and introduce himself. In he walked with a stunted tomato plant in his hand and a veteran cap on his head.

Bill and I began our conversation as I would with any client. We reviewed the tomato variety, discussed its current cultivation conditions, examined the signs and symptoms of the problem and investigated the possible causes. We hypothesized that it may have a virus, perhaps originating from seed. “You keep it Sarah—we’ll both watch and see if we can figure out what is wrong with it.” And so that began our relationship—and it is still going strong.

Five years have gone by since I first met Bill. As much as I appreciate what MSU Extension has done to support Bill with his gardening every year, I have also learned a lot from him. He has taught me many things about gardening and about his service in the U.S. Military.

American flags in a coffee mug
Veteran Bill Jacobs was a member of an air traffic controller team in Okinawa, Japan, when they were awarded the Air Traffic Control Facility of the Year in 1969. Photo by William Jacobs.

Bill served an impressive 21 years (1951-1972) in the U.S. Air Force within the Air Force Communication Service (AFCS 27270) as an air traffic controller. He was enlisted at Air Force bases around the world: Sampson, New York; Keesler, Missippi; Sidi Slimane, Morocco; Spangdahlem and Bitburg, Germany; March, California; Châteauroux-Déols, France; Chennault, Louisiana; Galena, Alaska; Langley, Virginia (where he met NASA employee Adah Metz and married her); Kadena, Okinawa; and Wurtsmith, Michigan.

Bill jokes around about the circumstances that influenced him to join the U.S. Air Force at age 17. He found his first job less than exciting, which led his veteran father to suggest he join the service. Bill’s original intentions were to join the Navy, but there was a wait to get in. He vividly recalls the recruiter’s response, “But we can get you into the Air Force right away.” Bill, anxious to change jobs, quickly conceded with “OK, I’ll take it!” It turned out to be the best job he ever had.

“I was very proud of what I did,” said Bill. “You don’t get to be an air traffic controller unless you are a bit above average.” And that describes Bill—an accomplished air traffic controller. In fact, he and his fellow controllers received a prestigious award in 1969 as “The air traffic facility of the year,” an outstanding achievement.

Bill loved his job in the Air Force and has memories of working with some great people, including Wisconsin native Joe French. Bill describes Joe as a very talented controller and dear friend. I asked Bill if he had the chance to do those 21 years all over and there was no hesitation: “Oh, yes, for sure!”

Bill has fond memories of his service time but was also drawn to gardening at a very young age on his family’s farm in Virginia. That love of gardening eventually followed him to Michigan. A former MSU Extension Master Gardener, he recalls his first vegetable garden in Tawas City as less than ideal because it needed some improvements, such as raised rows (i.e., there is very sandy soil in Tawas). Since then, Bill has perfected many gardening techniques and is a great gardening teacher and mentor to others, including me. He regularly applies science to gardening—tracking information in a diary, appreciating the value of healthy soils, dealing with plant diseases and encouraging pollination. Here are a few highlights of what Bill does best.


Bill has designed an easy, inexpensive system for composting that incorporates both the green and brown materials needed for good nutrient balance. I was able to interview him to learn more about his easy composting routine in the fall.

Growing healthy vegetables

With many years of experience growing vegetables, Bill has learned—and taught others—about techniques that increase vegetable production and mitigate disease and pest problems. Here are a couple examples from his garden.

Different kinds of vegetables
Bill grows many vegetables on supports, such as cucumbers. This keeps the plants off soggy grounds and helps Bill keep a better eye on any problems as they arise so he can deal with them quickly. Disease-resistant cucumber varieties and weather can also affect their success. Photo by William Jacobs.
Raised garden bed
Bill has a smaller raised bed garden near his house that he protects from animal damage and frost damage with a permanent cover in early spring (left) and chicken wire later in the year when the cover is removed (right). Photo by William Jacobs.

Supporting pollinators and saving seeds

Bill is a big supporter of growing vegetable gardens that also support pollinators and beneficial insects. He models how easy and inexpensive it can be to do this if you learn how to save flower seeds and acquire some patience for weed removal of pollinator favorites until flowering is complete (but before weeds go to seed).

Flowers that attract pollinators
Bill learned the importance of creating space for pollinators and other beneficial insects and regularly plants flower corridors alongside vegetables. Pictured here are a beautiful mix of Fireworks Asters planted from seed (left) and a naturally occurring wild mustard plant that Bill decided to leave in the garden until after it fed some bees (right). Photo by William Jacobs.
Flowers in muffin tray
One of the most inexpensive and easiest ways to build pollinator gardens is to save annual flower seeds for replanting, like these zinnias. Saved seeds can be planted in a pollinator garden the following year and re-saved every year, creating a never-ending annual inoculation of annuals into the pollinator garden. Bill often saves seeds by placing mature flower heads in cookie tins to dry. Photo by William Jacobs.

Thank you, William Jacobs, for all that you have done for our country and for all that you do in your garden to learn and teach others about the science of gardening. We encourage everyone to take a moment and thank our veterans for their service, especially during November as we celebrate Veteran’s Day. And if you know a veteran who gardens, ask them a bit about what they do. You may learn a thing or two.

For more information on what MSU Extension is doing to help support veterans, particularly in agriculture, see MSU Extension’s Veterans and Agriculture websites.

To learn more on gardening topics highlighted in this article, see:

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