Labor of Love

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Have green thumb, will plant!  A Tribute to Dennis Patton.

Story by Judy Goppert    |    Photos courtesy of Dennis Patton, Johnson County K-State Research and Extension office and their master gardeners

When Dennis and Laura Patton built their home 33 years ago on a cul-de-sac in Overland Park, he was met with a pallet of green sod to enhance with plants, flowers, love and passion. His garden today is the culmination of hours, days and years of searching for plants. Ever the frugal gardener, Dennis sought out bargain plants at places like Lowes, Walmart, Westlake, and even ditches. He and his siblings grew up farming land around Caldwell, Kansas, which lit the fire for his finesse with plants. The garden also holds history, as his mother and grandmother gave him plants to nurture.

“This is a plant collector’s garden, created by a man who loved plants, flowers and flowering shrubs. That is what makes this garden special,” his wife, Laura, expressed.

Sadly, Dennis succumbed to lung cancer in March, very unexpected as he never smoked. He leaves behind a legacy as his life touched so many! Dennis was a mainstay at the Kansas State University’s Johnson County Extension office for 35 years as a Horticulture Ornamentals and Turf agent. Gaining the reputation as the go-to person for anything and everything gardening, Dennis’ name was attached to a myriad of articles where he offered invaluable advice to us all. He earned the respect of thousands of community members through the Extension Master Gardener program and was awarded their Outstanding Extension Professional in 2023, alongside his 40-year recognition as an agent in the system. 

The Patton garden was featured on the Extension Master Gardens Tour this past May, a testament to the horticulture he so loved. Laura has insight into why his garden was chosen. 

“Dennis wasn’t the instigator to put his garden on the tour. He planned to retire this summer and it was the last thing he hadn’t done in his career. He had mixed emotions about it. Dennis’ garden never lived up to his expectations. This is because early spring and late in fall are the best times to work on it, and those were the same times he was insanely busy at work!” she continued, “Time and money were the two big factors in his dissatisfaction. He was really looking forward to having the time to work on it after his retirement.”

A group of Master Gardeners stepped in to ready his garden for the tour. Laura noted that she believes the reason his garden was chosen is because it is attainable by the average Joe. She reiterated that this has taken 33 years of tending, and you can’t just walk in and think this is something that can be cultivated quickly. 

“There are a lot of plants here! Dennis teased me about it when we would go to a botanical garden, I would look at a plant and love it, and he would say, ‘We have it in our yard you just didn’t notice,’” she smiled. 

Tara Markley, director at Johnson County K-State Research and Extension, worked beside Dennis for many years. “Because of the way he wrote and taught, people felt like they knew him. If you had one conversation with Dennis, you were his friend,” shared Tara.

Markley met Dennis when she started at the extension office as a 4-H agent 11 years ago. 

“We were peers. When he came 35 years ago, he was involved in horticulture and 4-H. He shared his wisdom with me. Although he was an introvert like me, he realized gardening is a common thread people have,” she noted. “He was considered the rock star of gardening in the area! Recently, Becky Fast, Johnson County Commissioner District 1, also a 4-H-er, called Dennis the Taylor Swift of Extension.”

He found humor in situations and is known for such euphemistic quotes as, “Life is too short for ugly plants,” and “Whack it back” when you are pruning. They put that on a shirt for their gardeners. He also was heard to use the phrase, “It depends,” when it came to horticulture-related questions, because it does depend on many things when plants behave differently, from your soil, watering schedule or a myriad of other things. 

Growing up, Dennis picked up his cooking skills from his mother and grandmother, and like their father, oldest son, Caleb, and the Patton’s youngest son, Noah, know their way around a county fair. All the Patton men have earned grand prizes for their baking talents.

Markley continued, “In the three-plus decades Patton worked here, his wisdom and wit touched people across Kansas and Missouri. His title was horticulture ornamentals and turf agent, but his work as an educator and the master garden program defined him.”

It is evident that Dennis planted his heart in Kansas City, and his legacy will ever be etched in its landscape. After all, gardening is the finest form of therapy.

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