The Dirt: Barry Kable

Barry Kable is one of the most enthusiastic people I have ever met. The 73-year-old retired truck driver and plant fanatic bounds up his driveway to meet us at seven o’clock on a Thursday morning. We’re exhausted, at the end of a week-long plant hunting expedition, but it takes only about six seconds for Barry’s joie de vivre to rub off. Soon we’re excitedly chattering about rare pachypodiums, strange orchids and Barry’s horticultural inventions whilst exploring the compound of greenhouses down the back of his property.

“People often say there’s no opportunities in life anymore,” Barry tells me as we enter the first of his greenhouses, filled with baby phalaenopsis orchids. “Yeah, there is. Opportunities come past you every day of the week, it’s about whether you recognise them and reach out and grab them or not.” He tells me he’s always been a looker, open to new things and new opportunities.

“I’ve had my own business nearly all of my life, mostly in the transport industry,” Barry says. “About 20 years ago my wife Ann was getting a shade house built because she wanted to have a few ferns. I was driving past in one of my trucks and dropped in at home. I sat down and had a cuppa with the guy who was building the shade house and, long story short, the business he was working for was for sale. I bought it. I got out of trucks bit by bit and developed the shade house business. That’s what actually got me interested in plants. I was selling a lot of shade houses into the orchid market so I got into orchids first. Orchids led me to bromeliads and they led me to other plants.”

I set this up for my retirement as a hobby, but I over-did it,”

“And now, instead of being a hobby it’s nearly a full-time job. I haven’t really retired.  But I love it. I love it.” Barry pseudo-retired around five years ago and spends “all day, every day” with his plants.

“Plants have given me a purpose into retirement and beyond,” he says with grin. “Quite often I’ll hear a comment at an orchid society meeting like ‘I’m not going to buy that flask of orchids because it’s going to take five years before I see a flower and I might not still be here.’ I say ‘Don’t tell me that, don’t tell me that!’ Make that a reason to be here. I wouldn’t mind buying a flask of orchids that won’t flower for 15 years. I’d say, yeah that’s good. Make it a reason to go on!”

GR: Are orchids your one true love?

BK: I think so, yeah.

GR: Aside from Ann?

BK: Yeah, yeah. Of course.

GR:  Is Ann into plants?

BK:  No, not at all.  But she’s 100 percent behind me. She’s actually secretary of two of the societies that I’m in. Yeah, and when people like you ring me up and say can I come and I say yes, well, she keeps a tab of it and makes sure it’s on the calendar because I’ll say yes to everything and everyone and then people are coming all over the place and clashing with each other. She keeps me on the straight and narrow. Yeah, I’d be lost without her.

My dad, the farmer, would call Barry a doer. He’s also a thinker, player (in the most benign sense of the word) and a fixer. His greenhouses are incredible – full of Barry’s special innovations for cooling, heating and growing (his hand watering system – a beefed up, multi-pronged wand – is a vision to behold). It makes sense, then when he tells me he comes from a family of farmers. “Farmers seem to teach their young folk common sense, don’t they? And innovation too. If it won’t work one way, you do it another way,” Barry says. “So, as you move on, you learn a better way or different way to do something.”

This is Barry’s way. He doesn’t seem to be attached to any one way of being or thinking – he’s enthusiastic about it all and will play around with a plant, an idea, a solution, until he comes to something that works for him. He tells me that sometimes when he talks at different orchid societies people think he is a guru.

I’m no guru, I’m no expert,” Barry says with a laugh. “I’m just the idiot who’s dared to go out and try.”

His trying has paid off. Barry Kable grows fine plants. I’ve been told this by a very serious plant grower and collector. But, don’t worry, he kills things too. “They say I’m a good grower. And I say, no I’m not, I’m just the same sort of grower as you are. The trouble is that when I bring stuff in to the plant shows and meetings, I only bring my good stuff in. If you came to my house and saw my crook stuff, I’m the same as you. We all have crook stuff. I kill just as many as the rest of them. Oh yeah, I’ve killed quite a few plants.”

Death doesn’t stop Barry Kable, he just tries again. And again. His experimental plant love is all encompassing. “I love everything. Everything that grows. And if it’s a little bit rare or unusual I like it all the more.” As a result, he’s in somewhere between 10 and 12 different plant societies – he can’t quite remember the exact number. “I’m in so many societies! I’m president of two orchid societies, president of the Bromeliad Society of Queensland and an honorary steward at the exhibition at the Royal Queensland Show.

It’s a busy life,” Barry exclaims with a smile, as we sit down for morning tea. “But I love it, I love it!”