geranium in clay pot, stunning, transplanted and still blooming, cinthia milner

Garden Coach Tip: Permission to Skip Stunning

You can skip the stunning factor in your yard. Here’s why: We’re losing the ability to be charmed. And, we’re spending all our time worrying how we look to others.

I live in a brick rancher that sits at a four-way stop. It’s a modest 1300-square-foot house that has been beautifully taken care of by previous owners. Along the west side of the house is a white picket fence that separates the house from the neighborhood sidewalk. That’s where my garden is. I have roses and salvia and veronica on the house side of the fence. Sedums, donkey tail, Shasta daises, Siberian iris, echinacea, and dahlias are on the sidewalk side. Oh, and salvia ‘Hot Lips’ which is a fun, silly plant. I have one slightly stunning factor at the end of the fence line, a hibiscus, ‘Cranberry Crush,’ though, I am officially declaring it dead, disappointingly so. Not even a hint of green has made an appearance. Hugely upsetting for my small garden and our neighborhood. We’re in a dither about it. Hellebores and primroses make up the rest of the garden in the back under the cherry trees because they’ll grow there, and I like them.

My clients say, “Your garden must be stunning.” (They feel their garden should be stunning or it just won’t do. They’re worried it won’t be.) “No, my garden is not stunning,” I say. “I don’t have the time, energy, or money for stunning.”

My garden is charming, which I prefer. I believe the world needs more charm. I consider stunning over-rated.

Here’s the garden coach question for the day: Is the big stun factor for you? If so, go ahead. Is it for the neighbors? If so, skip it. If the neighbors need to be stunned, then let their dime do the stunning. Setting boundaries not only applies to your personal self, but also your garden.

Here’s my garden coach tip for the day: Plant what you like.

My  mother-in-law always had pots of geraniums. I used to tease her that only ladies over 60 could grow them (I’ve killed every geranium I ever tried to grow). She kept them in clay pots, in clay dirt, in her basement, all winter, with complete neglect. Then, come warm weather, she gathered them up, and lined them along the side porch, where the rain watered them, not her. They were stunning. She loved them. When I visited, she’d point them out and say, “Aren’t they stunning?”

Yes, they were. And, not a neighbor for miles could see them. They were stunning just for her.

Why I Love being a Garden Coach, Aside from My Awesome Boot Collection

I seriously love being a garden coach. For one, it gives me reason to have an awesome boot collection.

Here are my new boots from Altar’d State. I only wear them on sunny, dry days in the afternoon. Here’s my totally waterproof and stylish (yes, those boots exist) Rockport boots. (These made the trek down the Oregon/California coast with me. I looked darn good standing in the Pacific Ocean in them.) My Land’s End snow boots (in black, not brown, hate that red stripe on the brown), and my LOWA boots which I admit I did not want to drop the cash on, but will also admit that they are handy in cold, wind, rain, sleet, and snow. Plus, all the guys are completely jealous of them, so they were worth the cash for that alone.

Boots aside, I love being a garden coach because I love strolling through gardens chatting with folks. I mean, come on. What a great way to spend a day. And, my folks are every bit as diverse as the plants we discuss. I never want our hour to end.

I want time to stand still while the 37 year-old autistic man gets his courage to ask for the instructions to be repeated again. He must be brave to say, “Will you go over it again?” I want to shout with delight, “YOU did it! You asked for what you needed.” And, yes, I will. I absolutely will go over it all again. And, so we do. How we measure ‘on center’ for planting. How the roots should be broken up to look like the spokes on a wheel when placed in the ground. How we determine color according to bloom time, and what deadheading is.

It isn’t just him. It’s too much information for anyone. When to prune what, when to fertilize, how to amend the soil, what is mulch and what kind to use. How to determine sunlight hours, and how those hours determine what plants we’ll pick. It’s a lot of material to remember, and no one gets it all the first time. Besides, he’s learning about more than plants. He’s learning to look out for himself. He’s learning to get his money’s worth. He’s learning to speak up and be heard. That is so terribly important, but even more important, he’s learning to listen. If I correct him, he makes the necessary adjustment. I watch him and learn, and make the necessary adjustment myself.

My personality is quiet and calm, so I’m a good fit to walk in the garden with the young father whose 8 year-old son recently died of cancer. “Everyone wants us to plant a tree to remember him,” he says, pointing to the place in the yard it’s supposed to go. “But I don’t want a tree. I never keep anything alive. What if I kill the stupid tree?” He’s wondering if he killed his son, somehow. If, as his father, he could have done something different, something more. Taken him to the doctor sooner? Asked the right questions? Found a different doctor before it was too late? Was this his fault? What if the tree dies, and just confirms his fears that he did not save his son? He’d rather have his son than the tree, anyway. I suggest a small statue. Perhaps the one of the boy reading a book. Didn’t your son love to read?

“You mean I don’t have to plant a tree?” he asks. He’s feeling so much pressure from God knows where or who. “No. You do not,” I say as firmly as I can, while looking directly into his eyes. You did not kill your beautiful son, and we do not have to plant anything you don’t want too.

My favorite client ever is quirky, and tall, and gorgeous, and artsy, and lives in a pretty conservative neighborhood with her uber-conservative husband who was trying to get in on the garden fun, and so painted a rod-iron staircase magenta. What a complete shock for her (and myself) as party night drew near. But what a dear she was to love him more than the staircase or the party-goers. We got some super funky-fun chartreuse pots, and filled them with purple wandering jew, pink angelonia, and white bacopa (sounds hideous, but it was awesome). Then we added big pots of bright red hibiscus. If you’re going magenta on the rod-iron staircase against the brick-red house, all bets are off and the fun is on. Anyway, the whole family has a slightly, crazy bent that make them my loves for life.

I can’t leave out my boxwood client, whose yard is full of the most gorgeous boxwoods–years old, well established, pruned to perfection, and without a bare or brown spot to be seen, except on the two next to the driveway. He feared it was boxwood blight, which would mean all of them would have to go. He held his breath while I examined. “Does anyone park here that has a bad exhaust on their car?” The gardener does. Of course. The gardener is always the culprit in murder mysteries, why not in boxwood mysteries? Tell the gardener to stop parking where his exhaust is spewing on your pretty boxwoods, and, tell him to prune this out. We had a delightful chat in the perennial garden following our hour, complete with tea, and a very interesting talk about his hemlock hedge, and his last child leaving home for college. Really. Conversation about hemlocks is balm for the soul. Did you know that?

Sometimes, I think my job is so meaningless because I am not writing a brilliant novel, or using some new life-saving surgical technique on a patient, or teaching a child to read. It’s just plants and where and how to plant them, and the cultural care needed for them to thrive. But, if this were not my job, I’d have missed that moment when, the young mom who loves permaculture, showed me her first chicken eggs and her bright, red tomatoes she planned to serve her family. Pure delight. She was beside herself. Plus, she loved my new boots, and oohed and aahed as much over them as I did her fresh produce. We determined, we both love a compliment.


Garden Coaching (me) and Life Mentoring (not me)

I spent my morning in the most beautiful garden. Terraced and hosting gorgeous views, the quiet of this mountaintop garden was captivating. A high elevation, and an early hour (8 a.m.) allowed for a light sweater. To make the morning sweeter, my client was a charming lady, about 20 years older than I.

She is one of those rare women, that when you meet them, you find yourself squaring your shoulders a bit more, and holding your head higher. She epitomized grace and confidence, was kind enough to look past misplaced manners, and likely finds common ground with any individual.

We chatted as we surveyed the garden, discussing a new perennial bed here, cutting down a few trees there, pruning some shrubs in the corner, and wondering if a new design was in order for the front. Several times she mentioned a class she’d taken when she was in her 50s–my age now. When she did, I had to stop myself from grabbing her arm, and saying, “Please tell me about being 50.”

I wanted to her to tell me about the last two decades of her life. I had a billion questions for her.

Mostly, could you tell me that the next 20 years has more than just getting old in it? Is there joy or purpose over there?

She confided a few details of her life, enough for me to know it hadn’t been all ease. There was some deep pain tucked into the those two decades, and before. And though, I slowed my pace down considerably to meet her’s, and waited as she caught her breath going up steep hills, she was still there, creating her garden, wondering if the lavender should be replaced or we should replant with something else.

In case you missed it, I am in desperate need of a mentor. But few are found, and most are enjoying a retired life, and sadly, living in a retired community. They are separated from us! How I hate that. What wisdom this woman who has already traveled the next 20 years–my next 20 years–has for me.

I sometimes want to mentor the young mothers–not about parenting their children, they are doing an amazing job there–but in their marriages, I watch them, in my social and work settings, assuming their husbands are happy. (Is he? Or does he just dislike conflict?) They assume there is no limit to the demands they can put on their husbands, or that there is no demand he will not find a way to grant. Because men are so good at that–quietly going about getting the job done, while dying inside. I don’t want to criticize or judge them these young women, just instruct them. The fathers they currently raise children with, will be the husbands they grow old with. Why not be his best friend?

I so wish the woman who was ahead of me in her marriage, had stopped for a brief moment, and turned around to tell me that. What a difference it would have made. Maybe not a different outcome, but a different story. Perhaps one with more grace in it..

I so wish the woman ahead of me now, would turn around and tell me her story. What treasures could I gain?

I could use a mentor over a therapist any day The mentor has charted the path. She knows the stumbling blocks, the obstacles, the switchbacks. She knows that if you just keep going, there is life ahead, even when you think there isn’t.

I grabbed onto bits and pieces of my client’s life, as she kindly shared some stories. I did not interrupt her with my questions, but stayed with the garden talk because that was the day’s job. But oh, in a minute, I would have torn up that check, trading it for an hour of her wisdom instead of mine. Because, I have a sneaking suspicion, just an idea, that perhaps, she knows where joy lives.