Plants, Porch Cushions, and Designer Books

God made somewhere in the neighborhood of  297,000 plants, not including lichen or mushrooms. And, that figure comes from Plants, Plants, Plants, a kid’s book I got for my grandchildren (a surprisingly accurate book).

But, my clients do not want any of the 297,000 plants God made. No, they want a plant that MATCHES. Matches the porch cushions, the window shutters, the rug, the paint on the shed, you name it. To be specific, as one dear client described, a plant that grows to approximately 3 feet 10 inches tall and 4 feet wide, is yellow (or whatever color the cushions are), evergreen, doesn’t shed, blooms (all summer), needs no pruning, and oh yeah, it needs to go behind all the other plants in the front (very established) bed, which will require a crane to place the dang thing.

(Yes, this is me complaining. It’s that time of year when my clients hate me and I hate them.)

Here’s what I want to say to my mostly beloved clients:

How do you feel about silk plants?

Instead, oh wise woman that I am,  I use the universal language of all women. I say:

Your husband will say no to the crane.

They sigh. He will, won’t he? I shake my head that, sadly, yes, he will. I know their husbands, and do generally feel bad about making them the fall guys, but hey, a girl’s got to make a living.

Years ago, I was hanging out with my sister while she hung curtains for one of her clients (I do the outside, she does the inside). I was perusing their library, a room bigger than my house, filled to max with shelves of books. A certified book nerd, I was in heaven, until Kathy–quite callously I might add–broke the bad news to me. She was drilling holes into their $100,000 walnut paneling for the Roman shades she was about to install. (The husband had casually mentioned the cost of the custom woodwork after he spied Kathy’s drill, and suddenly understood that his wife had given her complete permission to mar the wood for the Roman shades that would adorn his entertainment room/library.) With drill bit in her mouth, Kat said, over her shoulder, “Those are designer books.”

Huh? What’s a designer book?

Designer books give you the look of a library without the mess of books that “don’t match” and heaven forbid, cause you to readjust book shelves to accommodate book sizes. Designer books can be ordered in the same size, and the same cover, but not necessarily in the same language or even the language of your choice. These particular books were in every language known to man. It was like the Tower of Babel had crashed in their library. Even if they chose to toss good taste out the window, and grab a book, who reads Ho-Chunk? I was so naive. For a woman who just donated several thousand books from my library to the local one,  I am still trying to wrap my brain around that. Why do that?

For the same reason we want plants to grow to 3 feet 10 inches, be a certain color and bloom all season, while being evergreen. Everything needs to MATCH. Heaven forbid if the blue of the poor delphinium doesn’t match the blue of the porch cushions. No matter that the delphinium is spectacular beyond compare, if it doesn’t match, well out it goes. Perhaps we’ve become consumers to the point that we are clueless about how plants grow or books are written. I am thrilled God was the creator and not my clients, or we’d all match. I’m talking clones.

If I’m asked once, I’m asked a million times by my clients, “Am I doing this right?” They’re worried what the neighbors will think, or the family and friends. Try as I might, I am unsuccessful in convincing them that gardens are about self-expression and creativity. If they like it, then it is right.

Do you like it? I ask them.

They do.

Then that is all that matters. And, it is.

Sometimes, my client’s taste is so not mine. Tightly clipped boxwoods, tacky yard art, or cottage-y fluff doesn’t excite me. But, watching a woman discover her own creativity does. Watching her find wonder in her garden is a dear thing. It is a hard won battle. Trusting ourselves is next to impossible when books are supposed to look uniform on shelves, or plants quit growing before hitting the 4 foot mark.

I want to scream, God did not make that plant! But, oh my goodness, look at what he did make. Roses, and shrubs, and trees, and ferns, and moss, and perennials of every color and size. Almost 300,000 plants.More than could be explored in one lifetime. And he made you. And he made me. And isn’t it wonderful that we don’t match? Now, let’s take what we’ve been given and make something fabulous out of that.




Frog on a garden flat

Finances, Fingernails, and Frog in a Blender

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Frog in a Blender (caladium, an annual for me, but so worth it)

This is Frog in a Blender. My new favorite plant. It’s a caladium. You have to love it and the name, right?

I worry a lot about finances. I guess most of us do. I often think I should work in an industry that pays more. Or isn’t seasonal. Or would make me rich but not famous. (I’d hate being famous.) I worry that I should have a “normal job,” whatever that is. And, then I get all stressed out and weird about “what I should be doing,” instead of remembering that I love what I do, and that I would die if I had to sit in an office day in and day out, and possibly not know (before everyone else knows) that a plant called Frog in a Blender exists. I’m not wired for an inside job, except on days when it’s windy, and then I am completely wired for one.

Other days, it isn’t the finances, it’s the fingernails. I mean, as desperate as this makes me, a French manicure is not worth my money. It lasts about 15 minutes on my job. I can actually get stressed over this. I have conversations about it with my female co-workers (and my male co-workers who look like they want to shoot themselves or me). With Felco pruners and a Hori Hori knife attached to my belt, I’m bemoaning the fact that even with gloves on, a manicure is hopeless.

This causes much confusion for a girl who loves dresses and perfume. Sometimes, I wonder if I go to church every Sunday solely to justify buying dresses instead of Carhartts. I yearn for 2″ heels and good hair days while lifting and loading more weight than most 20-something-year-old girls actually weigh. I imagine myself with the desk job, wearing a great dress and having manicured nails. I’m like the people who tell me what a fun job I have. They don’t think about working in the rain (all day, pouring rain) or the heat, or the cold, or the physicality of it. They just think the plants are cool, and being outside is awesome. I don’t think about the reports that need doing, or attending meetings, or late night deadlines, I’m imaging how great I’d look.

I can get worked up wondering if I am doing the right thing or the right job. Which begs the question, what is the right thing? What is the right job? Heck, if I know. But, I stress over doing it quite a bit.

But then, something happens to jolt me back to my reality. Like Carol, a co-worker saying, Have you seen Frog in a Blender? (I thought she’d made drinks in the potting area.) No, I haven’t seen it. So, I go view Frog in a Blender, and am reminded that I am in the right place.

There is a lot to be said about being in your right spot, be it work or personal. But one thing cannot be said about it. Perfection. It is still not everything you need. If it was, I’d be wearing dresses while making more money, and spending my days outside playing in the dirt. We truly cannot have it all. And, if I had to guess, I’d guess that having it all is what we think the result of “doing it right”  is.

Finding that formula that makes the balance of all things work.

In other words, we wouldn’t have to make choices. We could have it all without feeling overwhelmed, overworked, or over-anything. But, we do. We do have to make choices.

Tomorrow, I will choose to work outside all day with plants, and birds, and bees, and critters of all sorts. Including this guy, who did not end up in a blender.

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Frog not in a Blender

And, I will sort-of be happy with that choice.

Instant Happy

After a race-to-the-finish day in the nursery or a client’s garden, I come home to my garden. My garden is little fuss (though still much weeding). I prefer simple. One plant makes a pretty big statement in the right place as is evidenced by this white azalea next to a white picket fence. Nothing beats a white azalea. Or a picket fence.


Delaware Valley White Azalea


Big stone retaining walls and elaborate landscape plans can’t touch something as simple as a Delaware white azalea (info on the azalea) tucked into the perfect corner in a small neighborhood yard. Charm can’t be bought but it can sometimes be planted.

After a long shower, and a dinner that resembles the feast of a 20 year old (manual labor has its perks), I go into the cool evening air to examine my garden. What needs watering? How are the new plantings doing? Are there weeds already in the newly mulched areas? How are the boxwood doing after a pretty severe pruning? What’s wilting in the containers? This is the part of gardening I love. The stroll before the work begins. The examination of each part of the garden to see how it fares.

The number one requirement most of my clients want from a plant is that it requires nothing of them. In other words, no maintenance, please. They want a garden installed. They want instant happy with no work and no waiting. They want bigger trees. Don’t you have something bigger?, they inquire. Yes, but do you have a crane to plant it?, I ask. They ponder this. I can tell they are considering the idea. They want the yard to look fully grown, immediately. The house is finished. The builders just gave them the key. Why can’t the landscape be finished? They don’t have the green thumb I do, they say. They just need everything to grow without the bother.

I can hear the stress in their voices. Here’s what they are really saying:

Please, can’t one thing simply be simple? Without needing something from me? There’s no more of me to give.

I understand this feeling. They’re asking if there is anything they don’t have to stay on top of. Something that will, for heaven’s sake, just take care of itself, and oh yeah, bonus, give them some instant happy. They haven’t the time to nurture along a garden for the next ten years into maturity. Kids have activities, jobs are demanding. Do they really need to spend all that time in the garden?

I don’t have an answer for that. Instead, I show them a beautiful rose in bloom because who can resist a rose? I’ve yet to meet the person. Or a pretty pot of salvia next to a creeping jenny. Look at those colors, I say, directing their eye to the pots on the table. How pretty is that? They step back and notice what they were about to walk by. Wow, they say, that is pretty. I smile. Sometimes, it’s not about finding a really big tree, it’s about smelling a really pretty rose. That’s the instant happy.

My hours are late during this spring season, and so my time in the garden is generally around dusk. The coolness of the air after a long hot day feels good and the garden is welcoming. There are no demands here, except what I might place on the garden and myself. There was a time, in my younger years, when I studied the garden, constantly trying to ascertain what could be done better, what plant was needed for the gaps, was the color scheme good or was it off, and so on. I failed to notice the foxgloves–over 500 of them–swaying in perfect colors in a slight breeze. Or the shasta daises so straight and tall. Or the roses blooming gorgeously despite the black spot or Japanese beetles. I only saw the beetles.

Now, perhaps age (and let’s face it, failure and suffering, which is good for us all), has softened my edges and given me eyes to see a perfect white azalea tucked into a corner just so. And, it is enough. It is my instant happy.

I try to educate my clients, ever so gently, that the fun part about plants is not necessarily finding one that meets all your requirements (can’t go over 3′ tall or wide, must be evergreen, must bloom all summer, and oh yeah, grow in shade…), but finding the one that takes your breath. If the yard is bare except for that one tree, shrub or perennial, it won’t matter. When you get out of the car, you’re going to be instantly happy. And that kind of instant happy is the best kind…



What’s Dead in the Garden…

This is not dead

This is not dead

This is not dead. Yes, it looks very dead, but it is not. I did the bark scratch test and it’s green as a gourd. Bark scratch test is simply scratching the bark of the camellia (what this is) at the crown, and if there is green, you’re good to go.

People are coming into the nursery worried sick because the winter “killed my tree, shrub (fill in the blank)”. We tell them to do the bark scratch test and wait till June for things to flush out prior to announcing its demise. Reminds of the Coastie Son. He sometimes has the morbid and sad task of picking up dead bodies to take back to shore. Although, he or his crew cannot declare them dead. The medics must do that. To the untrained eye, that person floating face down and bloated looks dead, but the trained medical professional knows that is not always the case. Plants and people are certainly not the same in this scenario (I’d much rather my camellia be dead than my loved one), but you get the point. What looks dead isn’t always. Hence the empty tomb.

Some of my customers do not care if the plant is dead or not. If it looks dead, they prefer to replace it. I am not of the same mindset. I’ll find it an enjoyable occupation to watch my camellia this summer, and see how it revives itself. I am curious to study the process. That is my relationship with most plants, While, I appreciate their beauty and their bloom, they also provide a delightful study for me. Curb appeal is not nearly as interesting to me as watching how nature will regroup after one killer winter (no pun intended).

The garden has always been a place of study and reflection for me. My garden need not be tidy or pretty to satisfy. It provides enough interest for me in observation. And, I adore anyone who can converse with me over the garden, and enjoy doing so. This morning at church, Debbie and I were thrilled to discover an (approximately) 4′ wide and 2 1/2′ deep roof right outside the Sunday School window. After some discussion, we determined it was a perfect place for a rooftop garden. And, after going below to study the sturdiness of said project, I concluded it was a go. I’d bet it was sturdy enough for small trees, not only adding beauty, but cooling a very hot building. I have no idea whom to speak to regarding this project, and I am famous for simply starting a project, and worrying about who makes that determination later, but the conversation surrounding the proposed garden was more interesting to me than the Sunday School lesson. This was no fault of the teacher. The fault lay with her student. It is simply hard to get the plant girls to focus when a new garden space is discovered. Truly, it was inspiring.

Here’s the point. I believe God made us to be passionate, to enjoy the study, the conversation, the ideas, the wonder of observation about a thing. Perhaps you are like my Coastie Son whose heart is found out on the water, navigating boats. Or my College Son whose fascination with languages is reflected in even the music he listens too. Or Bonus Daughter’s love of mothering, such that I have two granddaughters who are genuinely happy and silly little girls (as little girls should be). I am happiest in the garden. I have asked God to allow me to be the head gardener when I get to heaven (whoever it is now has been it for like, an eternity, so it is my turn). I don’t expect the way I am wired will change simply because I am dead. But please, don’t make that determination until the medics have arrived, just in case there is still green in me.

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