What I Learned At The Nursery (Part 2)

I’m still  dreaming of watering in the garden center.

It was during that time, before the sun rose and I was pretty much alone in the nursery, when I did my best talking to myself. I put together a little Q&A with myself and paired it with photos from work. Here we go . . .

NGDM: Thanks for asking me to chat with you about your time in the garden center.

NGDM: My pleasure, but I really didn’t have a choice in the matter. I mean, you and I are the same person.

NGDM (chuckles): Very true. In your time watering, was there ever one special moment?

NGDM: Yes! There were several tables in full sun and bees and butterflies love them. In fact, I would water the plants with one hand and spread the foliage with the other so the water could reach the dirt, and the bees were so preoccupied with gathering pollen that they never noticed me.

The real magic, though, was when milkweed arrived on the tables. In a brief amount of time, monarch butterflies discovered the flowers — and after that, I’d spot caterpillars munching on the leaves. (If you’re a butterfly gardener, inspect milkweed plants for caterpillars. It’s like getting a free gift with your purchase!) Chrysalises soon appeared — and then one day, a new generation of monarchs would emerge and flutter everywhere. It’s absolutely magical!

NGDM: What’s the strangest question a customer ever asked you?

NGDM: The strangest question actually was a phone call. A customer called and said he was looking at the store’s website and it said we sold edelweiss. At first, I thought I didn’t hear him correctly since this is South Florida — so I said, “Did you say ‘edelweiss,’ as in The Sound of Music?” He said, “Yes. That’s it.”

I explained to him that edelweiss was an Alpine plant, and not at all available in South Florida. My best suggestion was to call Maine.

The whole conversation, though, was an important one about retail stores and their online retail services. Everything that’s displayed online may not be physically available in the store location closest to the consumer.

Similarly, shoppers will also go to the online store, click on the link for their closest location store, and see a count of how much of a particular product is on hand. For the most part, that’s accurate — but there is a “however.” At some point, despite all efforts, counts can be off. What the computer shows and what’s actually on-hand may differ. In other words, a computer count of two of an item can be the equivalent of zero.

Plants can also fall into this trap. A plant with different varieties often will have the same SKU number. For example, a store sells African iris in yellow and white. They have the same SKU number from the vendor. A customer will arrive with the intention of buying 5 yellows because the computer indicates the store has 20 African irises. The reality is  the store does have 20 African irises, but they’re all white. It’s another good reminder to read the labels.

NGDM: What was your biggest worry?

NGDM: Never having enough time to water everything, of course. I hated to see any plant wilting . . . And my other? Birds. Pigeons were notorious nesters in the rafters and pallets throughout the garden center. It was like a fort for them — enclosed on four sides, open sky above, and a large main gate to use as a flight path in and out. Because I’m someone who’s been hit in the head three times by birds, I would often be the first one flinching and ducking when they flew too close to me.

NGDM: After working in the nursery, is there anything that surprised you?

NGDM: Hmmmm. Actually, I think there were three things. Brace yourself. This is going to be a wordy answer.

NGDM: Shoot.

NGDM: At the top of the list would be customers — they always surprised me with their questions, especially when they wanted to have a garden but to not have to do any work. I still really haven’t figured out how to do that in my own garden — and I’m not sure if that sort of garden is truly possible. There could be a minimal amount of work, but I find there’s always something that needs to be done in a garden.

Mostly, though, I was struck by the number of customers with garden anxiety — they wanted a garden so badly, but believed they had a not-so-green thumb. I found myself using my social work skills from my previous life chapter to build up their confidence and to encourage them to garden in small, successful steps. Some plants and seeds are easier than others, so start there — and it was great when they’d return with an update! (One manager criticized me for spending too much time talking with customers. I took that as a compliment.)

Next, are my co-workers. While some had a not-so-stellar work ethic (there were times I thought my head would explode while I watched them not work), many others were amazing employees — and the store was fortunate to have them. It’s just that — and I realize I may be stepping onto the slippery slope of politics with this one . . . This was a post-retirement, bucket-list kind of job for me. For many of my colleagues, this was a job they needed for their families to survive — and many were working two or three jobs to make ends meet or to afford healthcare or public transportation because their spouse needed to use the one car they owned. As a social worker in New York, I had counseled students and their families who were struggling — but actually working side-by-side with them, sharing a table in the breakroom with them, listening to their stories, put a whole new face and emphasis on what I think is a sad and tragic and ongoing crisis in this country: the working poor. It just shouldn’t be.

NGDM: You’re right. That is very sad . . . You mentioned three things . . .

NGDM: Finally, I guess what surprised me the most about myself was how much I cared about a part-time job. I never thought it would occupy my time, my thoughts, as much as it did, and I never thought I would build these relationships with coworkers, customers, and even vendors!

Watering was really so much more. It was people, me teaching, me learning. I even found myself developing my own garden center philosophy. Simply stated: a nursery should look as fresh at 6:00 pm as it did at 6:00 am. It should be a place of inspiration for customers when they enter the garden gate.

NGDM: Readers, thanks for humoring me with this piece. Now that I’ve gotten all these thoughts out of my head, I’ll be back to posts with at least a little more sanity.

Once Upon A Tomato

Tomato Seeds

If seeds could talk, I wonder what tales they would tell.

I’m sure they would recite their perfect equation of soil, light, and water for their optimum germination. They wouldn’t even wait for us to ask. They would just offer that info up at the start of the conversation. Seeds are funny that way.

I wonder, though, if they would be willing to share with us their story? That perhaps their great-great-great-great grandfather hitched a ride on Paul Revere’s coat on his famous midnight ride? Or that they, in fact, escaped from a research lab looking to build a better seed?

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After Sandy: Let Trees Be Our Teachers

We can learn a lot from trees.  I first realized this after visiting the Survivor Tree at Ground Zero — and now, in the wake of Sandy, trees continue to teach me.

Bradford Pear.

Take a look at this one.  It’s a Bradford Pear — or, rather, what’s left of a Bradford Pear.

It was planted years ago, along with two others, by a local business interested in prettying up a very busy street corner.   I remember when they were all planted.  I was thrilled — at last, a business was taking an interest in beautifying the community.

Besides, at the time, the Bradford Pear was the tree of the moment, planted by towns and homeowners because of its flowering beauty, graceful shape, and instant shade ability.  Their abundance in the landscape — both public and private — turned spring into a flowering tree extravaganza.

The trees planted by this business did what they were expected to do — especially on hot summer days when residents huddled under their cool shade while waiting for the public bus.

But one by one, the trees have disappeared.  One was badly damaged after being hit by a car.  A second came down in a storm.  Now, this is the sole survivor, and I know the story of each of its missing limbs — as if I am telling the tales of the scars on my own body.

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The Best Gardening Advice I Ever Got (and Blogoversary Giveaway)


Before I get into the heart of this post, let me get into, well, the heart of this post.  The Nitty Gritty Dirt Man blog is turning one today, and I want to thank all of you for helping to make this year inspirational and educational, as well as for joining me on a journey that I never imagined could happen by simply clicking “publish.” 

Perhaps the best illustration I can offer is the picture below, and it’s an image that completely astounds me.  WordPress recently added this feature to the stats page – a visual depiction of where the readers of this blog live and garden.

 This occasion has also brought to mind all of the lessons and tidbits of knowledge that I have picked up over the years.  In fact, it’s safe to say that gardeners dispense advice as if it is seeds – casting them about and hoping that one or hundreds will take hold and root and grow.

My earliest advice probably came from my mother.  I have very clear memories of being a child and pulling weeds from the yard and then replanting them in the beds of my toy dump trucks – a gardenscape if ever there could be one.   Mom’s advice probably went something like this: “Kevin, stop planting weeds in your dump truck.”

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