What I Learned At The Nursery (Part 1)


As some of you know, I’ve spent a little more than two years working as a water boy in the garden center of a local box store. It was a bucket list kind of a job, something to do part time, something to fill up a few hours of the day.

I really just wanted to water plants.

The job, of course, was more than just watering. It was stocking shelves, assisting with deliveries, putting together Internet orders, and answering customer questions and helping them lift fencing and pavers and bags of mulch and stone. Somewhere in there, watering was done.

My decision to leave was a perfect storm of reasons, the first of which was Joe asking me, “Do you have any idea when you’re going to get this working-at-a-nursery thing out of your system. It’s time to start living.” And he was correct — because waking up before the sun to get to the store by 6:00 am, often working alone for six hours, stressing if there wasn’t time to water, or completing unfinished tasks from the previous night was turning my part-time job into a full-time headache.

While there were aspects of the job that irritated me — show me a job where that doesn’t happen — there were huge chunks that I absolutely adored. As I reflect on the past two years and share some of my thoughts, I thought I’d also look back at some photos of the beautiful faces — hose in one hand, camera phone in the other — that greeted me each morning.

All plants are not watered equally

Watering plants isn’t the most glamorous or exciting job to have, but I found many people envious of it. Customers would often wish they could just water, if even for a day — and I would have to agree.

You see, I loved — love — watering. Not only is it one of the most important jobs in the nursery — after all, a nursery with dehydrated plants can’t call itself a nursery — I found it soothing and refreshing. I welcomed the opportunity to meditate about stuff — which is why I found it fascinating that some of my coworkers had no interest in watering!

Some would begin the task and then get bored or distracted and walk away from it; others would aim the water wand above the plants, a technique which wets the leaves for the scorching sun, smashes the flowers, and barely moistens the soil. The trick is to get the wand deep inside the plants so the water actually reaches the soil. Remember, the plants are packed so tightly together that the leaves act as a barrier to the soil. Sometimes, downpours can barely penetrate the canopy!

Not only are plants not watered equally, some have different watering needs. There re those that require water each day, while others can skip a day, and still others — especially in South Florida — benefit from water twice or three times a day. When purchasing a plant, don’t be embarrassed or afraid to inspect the plant for proper watering:

  • Pick up pots of the same plant and compare the weight. The lighter the pot, the drier it is.
  • Stick a finger — first knuckle-deep — into the soil. If it’s dried out, it’s in need of water.
  • If the dirt in the pot has moved away from the sides of the pot, that plant has severely dried out. Any watering at this stage will simply drain around the circumference and never penetrate the root ball.
  • If possible, try removing the plant from the pot for a visual of how far the water has penetrated the soil. If the bottom is dry or if the plant is easily removed as giant block of cement-like soil, consistent watering is an issue.
  • Of course, over-watering is just as critical an issue as under-watering. In either case, look for signs of distress: burnt, wilted, browned, or yellowed leaves. By the way, many garden centers will place distressed plants on a TLC rack — a great place to find bargains.

Understanding the layout of the garden center

When customers arrive looking for a full-sun plant, they assume they could be found on the tables sitting in the full sun — and they would be mostly correct. As my 9th grade English teacher once told the class, “Never assume anything, or else you make an ass out of you and me.”

In the case of a box store, the decision of which plants on which tables is one that’s made between the corporate office and the vendors. This way, a customer can walk into any location around the country and find  practically the same layout in each store.

For example, Table A is located in a full-sun area, and that table belongs to Vendor A, which supplies an array of full-sun plants and a shade-loving plant. No matter what the gardener in any of us says, that shade plant is going on the full-sun table.

I learned this when I noticed heuchera, a plant that was a partial shade-loving plant in my NY garden, on a full-sun table in South Florida. Not only did the plant require extra water, greater care needed to be taken to keep the water from hitting the leaves once the sun was up.

The bottom line: Read the labels. In my particular store, the plant tags were color-coded: yellow for full sun, orange for partial, lavender for shade. (For South Florida, I would caution customers that full sun in here is a lot stronger than full sun in Maine. Here, even full-sun plants need a break from the sun.)

Look for Part 2 in an upcoming post

This post appears to have violated the unspoken rule of appropriate post length. Oh, well. In any event, look for a Part 2. Stay cool, hydrated, and safe — and as always, happy gardening.

15 thoughts on “What I Learned At The Nursery (Part 1)

  1. My heuchera thanks you for correcting my watering the tops of her leaves. I now know better.

    And that hibiscus blossom glows!

    Hugs across the Eastern seaboard, Cathey

    • Hi CH. Most leaves hate getting water on them during high summer at peak sun times. The droplets of water magnify the sun’s light, which can cause leaf burn. Glad I could help. xoxo

  2. Thank you for educating us. I appreciate you and your writing. Maybe you will be able to share more often when you retire.

  3. We don’t call stores box stores in Australia but from your description I can guess what they are, and we do have a similar kind of shop. They infuriate me because they sell plants that are entirely unsuitable for our local climate, so there is an enormous amount of waste, both from plants that don’t survive in the shop, and those that people buy and take home, only to have them die before too long.

    • Hi Jane — and it seems like you have a firm understanding of a box store. I have certainly seen my share of waste — what I can only call horticide.

  4. I’m looking forward to hearing all the updates on what you’re doing now that your calendar is opened up! I have the feeling you’ll still be plenty busy though 😉

  5. It’s really nice to hear an update from you, Kevin, and I am hopeful that you’ll find really good watering rhythms in your own garden that will be satisfying, and ease you out of your fulfilling job at the garden center. I’m sure they were very sorry to see you go, given your expertise and enthusiasm! I LOVE to water, as well, and it’s been a very tricky balance given our almost continual drought conditions. I can spare enough water to keep things alive, but it’s more challenging to help them thrive. I almost always feel like I’m caught between being either wasteful, given restrictions, and pushing the limit of what a plant can tolerate with some degree of neglect. I think this is going to be an on-going problem and I’m trying to adjust my expectations. I’ll be eager to hear what you have to say in Part 2. Enjoy some mornings that don’t require getting out of the house so early! 🙂

    • Hey Debra. Although we’ve never met, I worry about you on a daily basis! Between water restrictions and fires, you and all of California are always on my mind. I do hope you, your family, and your garden is doing well. At this time of year, South Florida is in the rainy season — which usually amounts to a daily dose of rain in the area. I wish there was a way I could harvest a deluge and ship it to you.

  6. It would be nice to have a job where one would be around so many plants! When I lived in North Carolina, I also found that many of the labels were incorrect for the south. I think labels are done with northern gardens in mind, as ‘full sun’ plants were oftentimes not ‘full Southern sun’ plants.

    • Hi Indie. Plant labels — and I’ve learned — many catalogs are geared for northern gardeners. I think the belief is that southern gardening is easy because everything grows, but there are issues with which we have to contend: heat, sun, too much water, sometimes drought, and finding plants that can actually handle all that.

  7. I know exactly what you mean about working at a nursery, I worked at one for almost seven years and it was perhaps my favorite job, I loved it! Now I’m working in a horticulture department at a junior college and we tell the students the most important thing they will learn about plants is how to water. You were spot on, it’s not easy. Good to read your posts again, I’ve been on a break from blogging, but ready to get back into it!

    • Hi Elaine. Yes, watering is not easy — and I completely understand about taking a break from blogging. I look forward to catching up with you. Cheers!

  8. Pingback: What I Learned At The Nursery (Part 2) | Nitty Gritty Dirt Man

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