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.


I Love Plants. I Should Have Married the Doctor. My Next Husband Will Hate Gardening.

I’m a horticulturist, a gardener, a plant geek. I love plants. So do the people I work with. It’s literally all we talk about. We never discuss movies, or tv shows, or politics or art (unless it is art related to gardening). We only discuss plants and, though it is a pretty-far-off-second, sometimes food.

I once dated a doctor and when he was with his friends, who were also doctors, they only discussed medicine. I thought he was obnoxious. It was impossible to have dinner with these men and their spouses/girlfriends because the men (the doctors) monopolized the conversation with the world of medicine. I wasn’t interested in medicine. I was interested in plants. So, I stopped dating him and found a forester to marry who talked incessantly about plants, too. I thought that would suit me much better, though admittedly, I would be poorer for it. Sadly, sometimes one’s passions trump one’s reason.

It was years later, while reading Mrs. Whaley and Her Charleston Garden that Mrs. Whaley, a Charleston gardener and author of the book, made the astute observation that it wasn’t always wise to marry someone who shared your passion for gardening. That meant they would have opinions in the garden, and no one wants that. Instead, aim to marry someone who enjoys the garden, funds the garden, but takes no interest in the garden, i.e. they could care less if camellias would be planted that year, or the birches limbed up to allow more light in the perennial garden. Brilliant advice, but I was 20 years in, and the doctor was a confirmed bachelor by then. There was no going back. Reflection did force me to agree with Mrs. Whaley, and while hindsight is 20-20, I realized, conversation aside, the doctor cared little for gardens, and would have happily funded mine while pursuing his passion for medicine without a single opinion regarding the garden.

The forester had opinions in the garden. He was a naturalist who followed a Darwinian methodology of gardening–only the strong survive. I ascribe to the right-plant-right-spot common sense method of gardening, but I already knew what plants would survive in my garden–the ones I wanted. I am the gardener, not the observer, and I stated this during many of our heated “plant conversations” I’d been so keen to have.

We argued over the choice and placement of every tree, shrub, perennial and even vegetable. His stupid cantaloupes were planted exactly where my eggplant was supposed to be nodding their fat, purple heads. As if anyone wants cantaloupe instead of eggplant. He wanted shade. I wanted full sun with areas of dappled light. He wanted conifers. I wanted roses. One sad day of gardening arguing ended with two 25 foot tall Norway Spruces becoming topiaries. The forester and myself did not recover from the shock of that day, and neither did the spruces. When the snows came that winter, our topiaries were pitiful. Their snow-piled limbs hung down their bare trunks defeated and embarrassed to be reduced to that silly state, when only months before their beautiful swaying branches would have accommodated that snow with grace and poise. I couldn’t drive down the driveway without feeling shame when they came into view, because that mishap was mine. What was supposed to be a compromise on dappled light versus shade, became topiaries.

The one thing the forester and I agreed on? The native perennials. We had the loveliest stand of trilliums, trout lilies, Alleghany spruge, lady slippers, phlox, bloodroot and Virigina bluebells. For some reason, in the presence of mayapples, we were united.

Sadly, just about the time we got the garden established and firmly determined our prospective areas (and learned the polite art of staying out of said areas or even mentioning said areas), the forester discovered passions beyond our garden gate, and became the ex. The good news? If any future spouses present themselves, I will heed Mrs. Whaley’s advice. Future spouses will hate the labor of gardening but love the rewards, and be absolutely opinion-less on the subject. Future spouses will view it as a sort of hobby that keeps me out of their hair.

I will gladly listen to a future spouse (or spouses, you never know) rattle on about any subject from Fantasy Football to the History Channel–so long as they absolutely abandon the garden to me–while I continue my daily dialogue with co-workers wise enough to marry first-time-spouses whose passions range the globe, but always detour the world of plants.


Advice from a Blue Collar Girl

A guy asked me out recently. (Oh. Stop. It can happen.)

Anyway, when he found out I was a horticulturist, he lost interest.

I’ll quote him:

“I didn’t realize you were a blue collar girl.” he said, pausing to consider the ramifications of this on his personal life.  “I thought you graduated from Furman University.” Silence, while he pondered this newsflash a bit more, rubbing his chin a lot like my divorce attorney did. He concluded. “I don’t really want to date a blue collar girl.” 

My response:

“Oh good, because I didn’t realize you were an a**, but now that I know you are, I don’t want to date you.”

I know. We can’t all be as classy as I am.

So here’s my topic. I’m going to give ya’ll some career advice. The dating advice was a freebie that I just threw in. You’re welcome.

Career Advice from a Blue Collar Girl:

1. There is no shame in hard work, blue collar, or whatever collar you wear. Be proud of your job, and your hard work.

2. You can work in the pouring rain, melting heat, blowing wind, freezing cold, and baking sun. You think you can’t, but you can.

3. DayQuill will get you through even your sickest days.

4. Don’t wait to be brave to do something. Bravery comes with doing, not waiting (or reading a self-help book).

5. Get over the idea that you should be at the same place someone who has been doing their craft/job for decades is.  Stay focused. It will come. Don’t compare yourself to others. Just persevere.

6. And, while we’re on that subject. Perseverance is the number one thing needed to succeed at whatever you’re doing: work, career, family, marriage, hobby, gardening, writing, etc.

7. Most people quit way before the finish line; some quit when it’s in sight. Don’t quit.

8. Your body, no matter the age, can do more than you think. Push yourself.

9. Training matters. Not every job or every person needs a college degree. But, training is important. Take lots of extra-curricular classes to improve your job skills, and add to your resume (it is all about the resume these days).

10. If you don’t know, do ask. And, don’t bs your way through. Horticulture is a knowledge based industry and the knowledge changes daily. It is vast and wide. People often remark to me that they had no idea just how deep this industry is. I’m assuming the same could be said about your industry. So, don’t be a know-it-all, but do aspire to know it all. 

Advice from a blue collar girl.