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Entries in garden advice (4)


I Didn't Charge for My Gardening Advice.

My financial adviser Billy called me the other day and asked if I would offer garden design advice to one of his neighbors. The wife is undergoing chemotherapy and has determined that a revamp of her tired-looking garden would be an ideal project to put back some balance into her life. Their garden truly needs a major overhaul and I was pleased to offer suggestions; I even recommended the name of a handy man that can do it economically. The husband is on board with the project and eager to make it happen.

When I first heard the family name of these neighbors, I smiled. Their two children had been classmates of my two daughters in elementary school over thirty-five years ago; both children and parents are among the nicest people my wife and I had ever met. That our two families did not develop a long-term relationship was a loss. We lived at opposite ends of town and our paths did not cross outside the schoolyard.

Given the unusual three-way relationship between us all, professional fees seemed  inapropriate and my wife inquired how I intended to handle this matter. I replied in a nano-second and without deliberation. There would be no charge for this meeting.

My decision was not influenced by the fact that the wife is ill or by the warm disposition of these extraordinarily nice people. I took my cue from Billy. He is my role model for generosity of heart. If he asks for help on behalf of another person, I will offer it for the same fee that he has been charging me for the past twenty years, whenever I rely upon him to help me navigate through choppy and unfamiliar waters, i.e. there is no charge.

Before becoming a financial adviser, Billy was an architect with a background in commerce, housing developer, and renovator. In those roles, he took upon himself the responsibility of guiding some of his clients through financial crises that might have otherwise caused them to lose their homes. That serendipitous kindness, combined with a facility with numbers, led him naturally into his present career as a financial adviser.

During the past twenty years, he has worn several hats in our relationship with him. While renovating our home, inadvertently he became our personal therapist due to the trauma and upheaval that the project created. When I retired from industry, he guided me through the maze of bureaucracy so that I might ease into my golden years with dignity. Now, whenever there is maintenance to be done around my home, I ask for his opinion. That counsel is offered with enthusiasm and sincerity; usually, I receive instructions for a solution and the name of a handy man or contractor whom he has already vetted for competence, reliability, and affordability. Later, he will inquire if the recommended tradesperson satisfied my needs.

In all the years that we have known him, whenever my wife and I have leaned upon Billy, and it has been frequently, he has never asked for compensation. My calls to him are not screened and my email inquiries are sometimes answered late at night, on weekends and on holidays. At the worst, while communicating by phone, he will sometimes put me on hold in order to comfort another client in distress.

To ease my guilt for taking advantage of his kind nature, I once offered payment when time invested in my issues became excessive and to this day, I will insert a plant into his garden, at no cost to him, when I discover there is a difficult-to-find item or a flower color on his wife’s wish list. The irony is that Billy is a competent weekend gardener and there is very little that I am able to do for him. Recognizing that I have a need to be helpful, he will occasionally contact me for garden advice just to make me feel good.

Realistically, my gestures of appreciation to him will never sufficiently compensate for his accumulated generosity of self. Therefore, when he phoned and asked me to assist his neighbor, I was delighted to do as he does. I passed it forward by sharing my time and knowledge with them without motive, expectation, or compensation. That too, made me feel good.


Garden Mentors and Facilitators; A Love Story.

Image copyrighted by Sheila RobertsonScratch beneath the surface of many gardeners’ bio - graphies and one finds inspiring people who influenced and  helped them realize their dreams. Sometimes these pivotal characters are responsible for imbuing a love of gardening; sometimes they are mentors to those who have already discovered a passion for horticulture. Often they are simply generous souls who, by contributing time and energy, help gardeners achieve their goals. A magic occurs when they also become one’s friends for life.

Sheila Robertson, aka Orchard Annie, had left a lenghty commentary on one of my blogs. It was so comprenhensive that I reprinted it in a blog post of its own. Then, I decided that I needed to know more about her. How did she come to amass such a body of practical gardening information?

Inspired by my curiosity, she submitted an informal autobiography in which she pays tribute to the men in her life that facilitated her journey. Serendipitously, inside her narrative, I discovered a romantic thread.

Although she has always been sufficiently strong and independent to “go it alone” and has been proud to do so, several men contributed to helping her realize her garden dreams. By doing so, they also enhanced her horticultural experiences while she travelled abroad or gardened at home. In her own words, excerpted from a mostly unedited first draft, here is Sheila's story.

Image copywrited by Sheila RobertsonAs a stay at home mom of fourteen years living in an owner built home economizing a family of five on a joiner man’s wages, budget and sweat equity are dear friends of mine. I was spoiled by a husband who built cabinetry for the likes of the King of Spain at a world-class yacht works. I only had to envision it and he would create it for me. I learnt to expect quality in my goals: attention to detail is everything, the medium can be budget. My favorite free pastime was checking out books from the library and feasting my eyes on landscape and home design.

When I found myself single and moving 60 miles for work, I had to relearn everything I knew about gardening, such as rabbits in the country are kept in check by hawks, in the burbs they are a nightmare!

I had researched what would add value to the home as I planned to stay only the few years until my youngest was out of school, so I set to work on low maintenance, best value curb appeal: evergreens, flowering shrubs, long lived perennials and, because this neighborhood is chock-a-block with dense shade trees of gigantic potential, small ornamental trees to create privacy and dappled shade.

High volume at work meant 20 hours of overtime weekly; exhausting but it afforded me the indulgence of several trips to Europe.

A view of the RHS Gardens at Wisely; image copyrighted by Sheila Robertson.One of the most vivid and haunting memories of all my travels was touring the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens at Wisely in Surrey, acclaimed the best of all the RHS. No form of garden is unrepresented and each is done to perfection. At every turn there is a breathtaking surprise.... turn round to see where you’ve been, the changed perspective offers a whole different delight. Their extensive arboretum is also aesthetically laid out, not a hodgepodge of species as so many are.

So there I was, gob stopped with awe looking about me and wishing I had someone to share this with, someone who appreciated the beauty… someone who appreciated me.

A bus had arrived and the passengers milled past I noticed many were smiling white haired couples hand in hand, enthralled by the magic only a garden paradise can bring, so touchingly in love with the world and each other.  I said to myself, “That’s what I want. Of every wish in life, I would be exactly like them.”

On returning home, I signed up on Match UK with the headline, “Would you care to show a lady from the States around Surrey?”…, wonderful friends to be made online! The extraordinary glimpses into British life these friends afforded me can’t be found in any guided tour I’d been on through the Visit Britain website. 

Orla, a manageress at my circa 1600 hotel and now dear friend, introduced me to her friend Clive via a phone call. An hour later, this enthusiastic hiker and history buff was leading me through woods to a lonely disused Norman church upon a steep ridge overlooking a valley. In the UK, building is restricted to certain areas, the effect is awe-inspiring: islands of dwellings in a sea of green farmland with waves of crazy quilt hedgerows.

Clive showed me his favorite estates, a centuries old mill turned into a restaurant with water wheel on display in operation, obscure village museums and most importantly, before I owned GPS he would drive me through the route I’d be on the days I was alone. I never tired of fitting in several stops every day, each home unique, each garden a revelation of how the same plants in bloom can paint a whole different picture.

I had several outings with an exceedingly well-mannered Protection Officer from New Scotland Yard who had worked with the Royal Family. He was my personal tour guide at Windsor Castle, so amazing the attention to detail, plus the tale of a ghost he had witnessed! The moat surrounding the Round Tower is a steep bank of landscaped splendor with black swans in the water far below…

On a trip the following year, I truly thought I was destined to live in England when I met Franklyn…….so like-minded and in love with touring estates, hiking sheep-dotted pastures and oceans of bluebell-coated woodland… and letting a pocket guide to the best pubs in England direct us over hill and dale down idyllic country lanes to cross-road hamlets and fantastic meals.  Then the recession hit so hard that neither of us could travel and I haven't returned to Europe since.

Back in the USA, in 2009, Sheila met Steve through Steve is a cheerful, caring and athletic farm boy with degrees in engineering and project management. He admitted to me he usually hated helping in the garden; however, the example I set of loving the process just as much as the finished product (and the subsequent enjoyment of these private havens from the rest of the world!) caused my yard to become his hobby also. It’s just him and me creating these plans…

Image copyrighted by Sheila RobertsonSteve’s engineering skills and school of hard knocks land-use knowledge from the farm are invaluable. He also has a much better eye for fine tuning curves and proportions. The plant materials and placement are my forte; Steve offers suggestions but, as in all things, never insists. I very much appreciate he does not care how I spend my time as long as it’s his choice when he joins in.

Thus far he has designed and built concrete piers to clip the large shade sail over the deck to, a grape arbor with benches, a fountain, a potting bench, several fences and paths, and two 300 gallon water butts (an inch of rain fills both) are replete with pumps for hoses in addition to large taps to quickly fill watering cans.

Image copyrighted by Sheila RobertsonIn a soggy spot of the lawn we dug out an 18-foot diameter circle one foot deep, tiled it, and used up those yards and yards of that ugly stone mulch I detested as drainage gravel sandwiched between landscape fabric to keep the layers from migrating into the clay below and fine black gravel on top. It makes an impressive fire pit area.

What I had once fervently wished for at RHS Wisely is mine! Both Steve and my hair have faded to white, and smiling hand in hand, he takes me to all of the public gardens and museums my little heart desires. I love him dearly. We have many more phases before our own English gardens rival those I fell in love with in Britain; I have no doubt they will be achieved. In all my dreams, I never knew life could be this much rewarding and fun!

Sheila gardens in Wisconsin in USDA Zone 5a. Due to the severity and unpredictability of the Great Lakes weather patterns, she plants only USDA Zone 4 perennials. When I first met her online, I encouraged her to create a blog of her own. Here is a link to her cleverly titled “Scents and Centsability”.


How to Deal with Contradictory or Mythical Garden Advice; a book review for


Decoding Gardening Advice; the science behind the 100 most common recommendations, Jeff Gillman & Meleah Maynard, Timber Press

The benefit of this book to gardeners is that it takes advice out of the realm of folklore, and places it under the spotlight of horticultural and botanical science.

The authors maintain that the most serious drawback to successful and effective gardening is that people are ill informed. They believe that a lot of gardening advice is confusing, dubious, or bad.  Some well meaning gardeners unknowingly twist the facts, others are ignorant of them, and still others innocently hold on to stale-dated knowledge that no longer stands up to contemporary scientific scrutiny.

Is it possible that unsuspecting gardeners, confused when they are bombarded with contradictory advice, consider gardening a joyless activity? The authors believe so; and that has been their impetus to write this book.

Eight major gardening subjects are covered in an examination of the one hundred most commonly received  garden recommendations. The topics are related to soil, water, pest, disease, and weed control, mulch, annuals, perennials and bulbs, trees and shrubs, vegetables and fruit, and lawn care.

In order to evaluate the usefulness and worthiness of the most often-received guidance, the authors classify conventional gardening information into three categories: - advice that is good, advice that is debatable and advice that is just wrong. The reader will be amazed to learn how much erroneous information has been perpetuated as garden gospel, the amount of information that cannnot be substantiated as either true or false, and how much folklore is considered wise garden advice.

In the chapter on soil, an example of good advice is - Create an environment that is favorable to earth-worms. Earthworms are nature’s tilling machines. They do a great job of making nutrients, air, and water available to plants.

In that same chapter, debatable advice is to fertilize perennials and shrubs every year. We do not see a reason to fertilize perennials more than once every few years if the soil is good, meaning you add compost or other organic material on a regular basis.

Closing the chapter on soil is advice that is considered just wrong: add sand to clay to improve drainage. …when sand and clay are mixed together they blend in such a way that they create a dense, heavy mess – one with a consistency akin to wet concrete.

Advice that is good is confirmed with scholarship and research. Advice that is debatable, because science and experience can neither confirm nor refute it, is treated as a grey area for which there is no right or wrong answer. In such situations, choosing one way or another is a matter of personal preference. Advice is deemed bad when it is contradicted by science, or research, or fact-based experience.

For each one hundred recommendations, the authors explain every practice, the consequences of following the advice under scrutiny, how they believe the garden task ought to be executed, and a summary opinion or recommendation.

There is a new generation of gardeners, who do not wish to toil in their back yards; nor do they  wish to spend a lifetime exploring and testing conventional advice in order to determine the correct way to do anything. These contemporary hobbyists find no pleasure in discovery. They are the antithesis of the traditional gardener who finds joy in trial and error. Members of this non-traditional generation want to do it only once; and they need get it right the first time.

This manual, therefore, will provide accurate information to help them make wise gardening decisions. As well, it will be clarifying to those who have been bamboozled with botanical folklore that is closer to fiction than the truth. The authors were prescient in choosing to write this book.  We should be grateful.

Jeff Gillman, associate professor of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota, lectures and conducts research on woody ornamental plants and the abuse of pesticides. His scholarly public-ations cover a broad range of topics, including spider mite control, soil amendments, and treating plant diseases using organic means.

Meleah Maynard, master gardener, journalist, editor, speaker, and garden columnist, writes regularly for regional and national magazines.






Can't Afford a Garden Coach? Read This Book!

Gardening Made Simple, Better Homes and Gardens, John Wiley & Sons.

If a new gardener would ask for my advice, I would recommend this guide in a heartbeat. Don’t let the “Better Homes and Garden” insignia mislead you. This publication may appear to target the mass market but its content is so authoritative and thorough that reading it is almost like hiring a garden coach.

Everything a new gardener needs to know – and more - can be found between the covers of this book. Information is delivered and illustrated in such an idiot-proof sequence, that an alternative title for this publication might be  “Amazing Gardening Results for Dummies”. The editor, Kate Carter Frederick ought to win an award for creating this systematic guide.

The secret to her success is graphic design. Visual presentation, where images tell a story, is the most powerful way to deliver information instantaneously. In many of the demonstrations, simply following the picture sequence will teach the gardener what to do.

Most of the images overflow with vivid colors, flowers, and intense texture. Yes, texture. The touch of the garden has been captured with such intricate close ups of the tactile side of nature that the reader’s eyes can almost feel the grains of soil or the silkiness of petals.

This book leads readers incrementally, into the world of gardening in that kind, generous, and gentle way that all new gardeners imagine they would be. In the opening chapter, the neophyte will be informed what a garden is, what grows there, how one’s geographic location affects what one can plant, the four basic looks of gardens, plans and layouts, allocation of time to garden, thriftiness, information exchange, and plant sharing.

The very detailed parsing of information is repeated in each of the chapters dedicated to a different aspect of gardening. Additional topics covered comprehensively include tools, soil, lawns, flowers and foliage, trees and shrubs, vines and climbers, edibles, propagation, mulch and fertilizer, irrigation, pruning, container gardening, and managing weeds, pest, and diseases.

At the bottom of an occasional page, the reader will notice a colored bar in which the editor asks and answers a question most likely to arise when discussing the chapter’s topic. Another page will display a colored banner providing a relevant gardening tip. Super- imposed on most of the attractive photographs is a text-filled cloud to draw the reader’s attention to an important gardening detail.

All of the ancillary information that a new gardener needs is appended in such an ingenious style that it is impossible for one to become overwhelmed with information. The delivery of detail is placed strategically so that readers may absorb what they can, at their own pace.

Another impressive aspect of this book is the contemporary and professional advice surrounding the technology of gardening. For example, one is instructed how to place an aggressive plant so that its roots do not invade the flowerbed,  a reminder to get a tetanus shot,  the importance of sharpening tools, and the need for compost.

In addition, the reader is instructed to clean up errant fertilizer granules to prevent chemicals from washing into water tables, to choose a single variety of foliage and plant to unify the design of an entire garden, and to select dwarf varieties of flowering shrubs for small properties. The self-taught might have taken years to accumulate this kind of advice, yet now it is available right at the onset of one’s gardening experience. That is invaluable.

This very easy-to-read handbook of expert advice is comprehensive. For every gardening topic, there is a chapter and for every chapter there are wise suggestions for successful results. I wish this book existed when I first began to garden.