Growing up, I dreamed of becoming many things. A paleontologist. A farmer. Not once, though, did it ever cross my mind to be a waterboy — probably because the only waterboy job I had ever heard of was attached to a sports team, and because of my athletic inability, well . . . Let’s just say I would never qualify for that position.
Yet, here I am: a waterboy — in essence, a boy who waters plants for a living.
I began this seasonal position at a nearby box store a few months ago. Joe, as well as my parents and even some of my current coworkers, thought it was an insane decision. Who, in their right mind, would ever want to work in a south Florida garden center during the hottest months of the year?
I would, that’s who. Perhaps it was a chance to do something less stressful than my previous job as a high school social worker. Perhaps it was a chance to marry a job with something that I love, in this case plants. Perhaps it was a chance t scratch off a bucket list item. Perhaps it was a chance to stray off the path, to find a new route as I create another life chapter.
More than likely, it’s a combination of all of the above.
So I here I stand, hose in hand, hat on head, and slathered in sunblock, watering plants and helping customers with mulch and soil, fencing and pavers. It’s definitely a far cry from my previous retail work — a thousand years ago — as a men’s cologne sprayer in a now-defunct department store.
Watering plants, no matter if it’s in one’s own garden or in a nursery, is a meditative experience. It’s a chance to think of the past, process the present, and plan for the future. It’s a time to reflect.
At least that’s what it is for me — and now that I’ve been doing this for a bit of time, I thought I would share some of what I’ve contemplated — about watering, business, and me.
1. Most Magical Watering Day: One day, milkweed arrived on the tables — and as I was watering, I noticed one monarch caterpillar nibbling on the slender green leaves. Then, another caterpillar. And another.
Meanwhile, monarch butterflies flitted among the nearby lantana — and as I moved my water wand to some neighboring canna, I noticed on the underside of one leaf, a small green lantern that looked as if someone had used the tiniest of brushes to paint the tiniest line of gold dots around the rim. It was the first time I had ever seen a monarch chrysalis.
2. The Music Loop, Part 1: Just like most retailers, this store has it’s own music loop. I barely pay attention to it, until I hear a familiar song from the ‘80s or anything by Adele.
One song, I noticed, always gets my attention — and this is the moment I have to make a very difficult admission. After years of fighting it, I have become a Belieber — all because of Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” and this one line: “My momma don’t like you and she likes everyone.”
3. Water, Water Everywhere: Watering is a critical gardening task, especially in the summer — and this summer, for many, has been a long and hot one.
For garden centers and nurseries, watering takes on a whole new urgency, especially since a) the merchandise has to be kept alive and b) outdoor gardening areas are the most unnatural environments for any plant to grow. There is lots of sunbaked pavement and little shade, which creates a desert-like world. Plants often arrive from vendors in growing media that drains quickly — and these potted plants are packed so tightly together on tables that not even rainwater can penetrate the leaf canopy.
For waterboys and watergirls, it’s imperative to get the water as close to the soil as possible while being careful to not wet the leaves and flowers, especially when there is the risk of leaf burn from the blazing sun. The general rule of thumb is to water until water flows from the bottom of the pot, no matter if that pot is on a table or hanging.
As a consumer, make note of how employees are watering. Pick up the pot and determine if it’s heavy (well-watered) or light (in desperate need of a drink). Stick a finger into the top inch of soil. If your finger reaches moist soil, that’s a good thing. If the soil is dry that far down, there’s a watering issue.
4. Favorite Plants to Water: Without a doubt, it’s a treat to water the herbs. As I aim the gentle spray of water into the soil, I let the tip of the nozzle brush against the leaves — and I’m rewarded with the most amazing aromas: basil, oregano, cilantro, thyme. It’s not surprising that after watering the herbs, I’m ready to eat.
5. Corporate Is The Answer: In my time at the store, I’ve made several suggestions about a) moving some part-shade plants out of full sun, b) creating a Florida native table, c) creating a table dedicated to butterfly gardening, and d) creating a watering log that’s meaningful. While coworkers, vendors, and managers listen to these ideas, the answer is always a single word: “Corporate.”
It’s there — wherever there is — where decisions are made about the overall appearance and layout of the store, including the garden center — as if all garden centers all exist in the same zone with the same overhead sun movement. It’s also where vendors are designated specific tables — and that’s why one vendor’s part shade plant cannot be moved to another vendor’s table in the shade house.
6: The Music Loop, Part 2: There’s another song on the loop that has completely consumed me. It’s “Chandelier,” by Sia, and each time I hear it, I fantasize about breaking out into an interpretive dance, a la the video, between the annuals and perennials.
7. The Plant Label: When reading those plants labels — the ones that outline the water and sun needs of your plant — be sure to know your zone. With corporations comes a homogenized selection of plants — which means, for the most part, I can walk into any box store across the country and find the same plants with the same labels.
For south Florida gardeners, “full sun” on a plant label should come with an asterisk, since our full sun is often brighter, hotter, and longer than in many other areas of the country. In other words, full sun plants in Florida can use some shade.
8. The Devil Wears Garden Gloves: One day, I was introduced to a vendor rep and I mentioned to him that customers — hungry for knowledge — are curious about two specific things: Florida native plants and butterfly gardening. I suggested it would be great to have tables dedicated to those plants.
He agreed with me — and then he schooled me. It was nowhere near Meryl Streep lecturing Anne Hathaway about a shade of blue in The Devil Wears Prada, but it was just as eye opening about the retail process. In short, it can take up to four or five years for an idea to move from the boardroom to fruition — and in that time there are meetings, market research, meetings, data analysis, meetings, and so on and so on.
9. Favorite Garden Center Moment: I love when new deliveries arrive, and racks and racks of plants are wheeled out of the cool climate-controlled air of the truck. There is a freshness that rises from each plant — a combination of soil and new greenery.
Some of the plants are wrapped in brown paper or, like orchids, in large boxes. Opening them is like Christmas morning.
It’s also an opportunity to work with the vendor as he sets about placing the plants on the tables and endcaps, arranging them for maximum impact. With one delivery, the garden center becomes a magnificent garden — and this is where my work ethic comes into play.
As the waterboy, I feel as if each plant is my own — and each customer who walks in should always look about them and feel as if they are the first people to enter this garden. That’s how I roll. That’s how I water.
10: The Customer Is Always Right, Most Of The Time: First, let’s discuss the customers at the top of my manure list — the customers who walk in and command me to get them what they need without a please or a thank you and without lifting a finger to help. I realize they may not want to get their clothes dirty, but please, stop texting and hold the cart in place so it doesn’t roll into traffic as I load your vehicle with fifteen bags of mulch.
Fortunately, for all us, these people are few and far between. Most customers shopping in the garden center are happy and pleasant — and I love talking to them, answering their questions, reassuring them that they do not have brown thumbs, and listening to their visions for their gardens. I’m always struck by how eager they are to learn and to share their own gardening experiences.
Their joy and excitement are contagious!
I admit that working in a south Florida garden center during the summer months is hot. Very hot. Getting splashed with water from the hose helps a bit, but the zone 10 sun tends to keep this water on the warm side.
Still, when I arrive home, I’m filthy, grimy, sweaty, and exhausted. I’m also happy, and that’s what this journey — for me and for all of us — has to be about.