Ernie Higgins was a man of the soil — different varieties of engineered soils, to be precise.
He and his partners at ItSaul Natural LLC of Dahlonega have supplied tons of special soils to clients ranging from the Atlanta Botanical Garden to major landscape contractors and garden centers. They also provide the soil mixes that green-roof visionaries have installed atop buildings across the Southeast, including City Hall and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Social Security Center in Birmingham, Ala., and the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark.
“Ernie got an early start in the organic movement and was way ahead of his time,” said one of his partners, Bobby Saul of Atlanta.
“For 26 years Ernie stayed with the business he loved, composting and blending organic planting soils when few recognized their importance,” Saul said. “Those who knew the man saw an endless determination to succeed, a master blender, a logistics genius and a salesman extraordinaire.”
Higgins would make a point of saying there wasn’t an ounce of dirt in his custom soils. Key ingredients included processed slate, worm castings fertilizer and high-nutrient hen manure compost, the latter treated so that it gave off no offensive odor.
A friend, Rob Jaeger of Gainesville, said his parents would make a point to swing up to North Georgia on their regular drives from Florida on their way to their Colorado home just so they could buy what they called “Ernie’s dirt.” It produced such wondrous results in their garden, they told their son.
Ernest Whatley Higgins Jr., 69, died Dec. 25 at his Murrayville home of a heart attack. His memorial service is Jan. 19 at 2 p.m. at Ed Cabell Theatre at Gainesville State College. Memorial Park Funeral Home North, Gainesville, is in charge of arrangements.
Nine years ago, while chatting at a party, Jaeger mentioned to Higgins that he had begun buying wine kits and making wine. Higgins showed an immediate interest because he had undergone heart surgery and had been advised to drink red wines.
Soon the two of them were meeting once a week to make all kinds of wines — merlots, cabernets, chardonnays, sauvignon blancs, and so on. Jaeger estimated the two of them produced 125 cases a year and as many as 100 varieties.
“One special ingredient Ernie brought to their product was water from an aquifer on his property — ‘sweet water,’ it’s called,” Jaeger said. “We’d add about 20 percent of it to each batch. It produced an uncommon smooth finish.”
Their reds and whites, labeled “Rob and Ernie’s Wine,” have been popular with friends from California to South Carolina, Jaeger said.
“Ernie told me he felt like a sorcerer’s apprentice, working magic with grape juice and yeast,” Jaeger said.
Higgins’ wife of 18 years, Chris Pepper, said he was hyperactive, a multi-tasker. He especially liked working outdoors and growing things: tomatoes, lettuces, corn, beans, squash, watermelons, strawberries and flowers. He was fond of animals, too, having run a pet store in Dallas, Texas, for a number of years before returning to his native Georgia.
Also surviving are his mother, Jane Higgins of Duluth; a sister, Betty Daniel of Johns Creek; a brother, Carl Higgins of San Diego; and two stepdaughters, Julie Sevardjian and Sara Tacket, both of Dallas, Texas.