My Life As A Waterboy


Watering Can

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.

Hose

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.

Monarch Caterpillar

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.

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.

Elephant Ears

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.

Hose

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.

Pink Orchid

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!

Sun

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.

Light In August


Sycamore.

Sycamores are the first to surrender their leaves to the subtle changes in daylight.

“Some days in late August are like this, the air thin and eager like this,

with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar . . .”

— William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

Faulkner almost had it right.

While August is the saddest month in the calendar, it’s also, I think, the most perplexing.

It seems as if August just doesn’t know which season it wants to be part of: summer or autumn.  The weather is still warm and humid, but each day grows shorter, second by second.  Leaves that were once fresh and green are now dull and drab.

Added into my August angst equation is my non-blogging life.  I work in a school, and in a little more than a week, classes will resume.  It’s as if August is the gate for my flight into September, and I’m too afraid to leave the area for fear that I might miss the boarding call.

And so I find myself plotting the demise of August while squeezing — choking — all I can out of the last bits of summer.  Surely, August must have some redeeming quality.

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Bloomin’ Update 44: The Good Ol’ Summertime


Candy Tuft.

Candy Tuft.

The recent heat wave may have been a bit extreme, but at this moment I’m sitting inside with a blanket pulled up to my chin.  It’s not that I’m feeling under the weather.  Instead, I’m feeling the weather.  I think when the heat wave broke, it also broke summer.  Clouds, rain, and cool temperatures have been the order of the day.  The last few days, actually.

What’s a cold gardener to do?

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Bloomin’ Update 43: Zinnias With Zing!


Zinnia

The Great Heat of 2013 has come and gone, and there is joy and gladness throughout the land — and when I say land, I mean my garden.  In fact, I think I can actually hear a collective sigh of relief coming from the plants (and maybe some of you) as more reasonable, seasonable summer temps return.

And when I look around the garden, it’s clear that some plants are still sporting nasty sunburns. Some of the hydrangea heads, for example, are tipped with brown.

Hydrangea

But it’s the zinnias that garner all of my praise.  I planted various kinds of zinnias this year — more than usual — because I knew that I would be unable to start my usual annuals from seed in the potting shed.  I needed an easy seed — one that could be directly sown — and zinnias were the obvious choice.

And I’m so glad I did.  As the temperatures rose, they stood tall and proud, empty of fear and full of color.  I like to think they were the cheerleaders of the garden, encouraging the other plants to hold on.  I’ll let their photos do the talking.

Zinnia

Zinnia

Zinnia

Zinnia

Zinnia

Zinnia

Zinnia

Zinnia

Zinnia

Zinnia

Zinnia

Which plants in your garden would you cheer for?

If You Can’t Stand The Heat. . .


Sun

Simply put, it’s hot outside.  Real hot.  The kind of hot that tries to sneak into every crevice of the house, that turns blacktop into water, that makes the simplest of tasks — like breathing — a sweaty mess.  It’s the kind of hot featured in Body Heat, the crime noir film in which the sultry weather was as much of a star as Kathleen Turner and William Hurt.

I happen to enjoy hot weather, mostly because a) I’m usually cold and b) I’m fortunate to not have to work outside for a living — and thankful for those who must.  I, on the other hand, can squeeze in any gardening duties before sunrise or after sunset.

And so each morning, I awake with a song buzzing around my head — and it’s not the cicadas.  It’s a classic from Marilyn Monroe:

“We’re havin’ a heat wave, a tropical heat wave. . .”

That’s my cue to begin my primary chore — delivering water to the garden.  I’m one of the few people in my neighborhood that does not have a sprinkler system.  Why have an entire system to deliver water when I can drag hoses and mobile sprinklers all over the yard, careful to not crush any plants or knock over any pottery along the way?  Besides, the old method gives me greater control — and the chance that I might get wet if I have to run through the sprinkler to fine tune my aim.

At least that’s how I approached the heat wave at its start. Since then, I’ve watched the news, and the reporters informed me — in their best end-of-days voices — that this heat wave is the longest one in decades.  People are dying.  Highways are buckling.  Power is failing.  Even my local supermarket is conserving energy by turning off large banks of lights.  Maybe I need to rethink my summer position.

And with that, my love for extreme heat melted away faster than a Fudgesicle in July.  Although the zinnias have held up beautifully (an upcoming “Bloomin’ Update” will celebrate them), the temperatures are starting to take their toll in the garden.  Not only is there no night-time relief, there just isn’t enough of me — or water, for that matter — to keep all of my plants sated.  Despite my best water brigade efforts, the new grass is burning, the hydrangeas are wilting, and the daylilies are more like half-daylilies.  Admire them before noon; they may not make it beyond 3:00.

Daylily

I also notice that I am eerily alone while I’m outside.  My neighbors are absent, although I see their automatic sprinkler systems continuing to operate.  I wonder if they’ve adopted a vampire life, emerging after the sun has set.  Or have they fled north in search of cooler weather?  I hope not, because they’re missing out on some very green lawns.

I shield my eyes from the sun’s glare as I look through the film of ozone that hazes the distance.  I’m looking for Rod Serling to appear to let me know that I’ve entered “The Twilight Zone.”

One of my favorite episodes from that series is all about heat.  In “The Midnight Sun,” a young woman and an elderly neighbor are trying to hold on as the world, knocked out of its orbit and headed toward the sun, burns up under increasingly heated temperatures.  (The kicker is that the earth was knocked away from the sun and the young lady is actually delirious with a very high fever.)

Fortunately, I have someone “The Twilight Zone” characters didn’t have.  I have Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel — who is a bit like Rod Serling.  Like Rod, if Jim shows up outside your door, you know some weird stuff is about to go down.

In a recent report, Jim explained that the heat wave is the result of an enormous high pressure system stalled over the eastern half of the country, acting like a bubble that was not only heating up, but trapping the heat inside of it — a kind of meteorological Under the Dome, if you will.

Whew, I say to myself, that’s a relief.  At least the earth is still in its orbit.

He then finished his report: “This thing is getting bigger!”

A few things, Jim.  First, when you say a sentence like that, it sounds like bad dialogue from a b-movie.  Second, your tone of voice really doesn’t make me feel calm.  I mean, I was feeling pretty good about the earth staying in its orbit, but you’re making this high pressure dome sound like the high pressure dome that ate the world.

Hope for relief came in tonight’s weather forecast, with promises of cooler temperatures by the end of the weekend.

Truthfully, I don’t want cooler temperatures.  I don’t want summer to rush away.

Besides, cooler weather will be coming all too soon.  It’s called autumn, followed by winter.  Speaking of winter, this was the view from my front window a few months ago.  It kind of looks like an earth moving away from the sun.

Snow

Until then, I’ll happily hydrate, wear light-colored clothing, and hope for the best with my plants.  And if Rod Serling or Jim Cantore knocks on my door, I’ll let you know.

Summer Serenade: The Cicada Song


Courtesy of Reuters

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

Just a few months ago, there was a lot of noise about the emerging Brood II Cicadas, the one that emerges every 17 years.  I was thrilled with the news because I happen to love Cicadas — maybe not the insect, but the sound!  Yes, the sound — because nothing screams summer like the shrilly screech of Cicadas.

And then came the end of the news reports: Long Island was not included.  Apparently, this brood’s parents decided 17 years ago that Long Island was no place to spend their summer season.

This doesn’t mean that Long Island is suffering from Cicada silence.  We have our share of these noisy buggers — it’s just that, well — it’s like that old saying: Always a brood maid, never a brood.

In celebration of this beautiful noise, I’m revisiting a post that nicely summed up my cicada love.

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#$&@! My Shed Says


I’m a fraud.  A fake.  A pretender.  And the proof is in the potting shed.

Yes, this is my jewel of a potting shed – the one that takes center stage in many of my photos, the place where I find peace in the middle of winter as I start my seeds, the backyard structure that allows me to believe that I have a Martha (no need for last names here) existence.

Clearly, though, nothing could be further from the truth.

I came to the realization long ago that I am not, no matter how hard I try, Martha-esque.  I get dirty when I garden.  I have a tendency to use every pot in the kitchen when I cook (although I now know to clean as I go).  And I have been known to step on the prongs of a rake, sending the handle swinging up into the side of my head — on more than one occasion.  But it’s the condition of this shed that really says, “You, sir, are no Martha.”

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