09 April 2014

Fired Up

As April Fool's Days go, I give this year's a -7. Maybe even -7.5. And 3/4.

I got fired. And it was no joke.

The meeting lasted all of 10 minutes with no tangible reason given for the dismissal however I pressed for one. As I packed up my desk and said goodbye to a shocked subordinate, one thing became clear: it wasn't because of me.

I started with the organization just before the busy autumn and holiday period. Talk about diving in head first. I had to scurry to complete the requirements of a grant received during the year: create and install special plant labels for a collection of award winning plants and design an informative brochure. There was supposed to be a cell phone tour but I ditched it in favor of a QR code on the brochure linked to the grantee's website. Everyone loved it. Then my subordinate sprained her ankle and was assigned to desk duty for a few months. With only two full time staff to cover over 13 acres, that hurt (in more ways than one). Thankfully I had the most awesome intern (you know who you are! Hello!) start soon after I did and with the help of some volunteers we got things done.

Then there were the deer. During the storms a few years ago the fence was breached and deer got in. When the fence was repaired the deer were stuck inside and very happy to remain, noshing all the garden's vegetation to the ground. On one day I counted 8 in residence, which is 870 times over the ideal population levels for white tail deer in that community. The historic rose garden lost a full season of bloom, brand new plants in a newly constructed area were munched to nubs, the perennial border became a floral buffet, the understory of the 6-acre native woodland was history. Getting them gone was obviously a priority or the spring season would be a goner, too. Everyone said it couldn't be done but I started talking to people and managed to convince the city to approve the first ever bow hunt. I contacted members of a local hunt association who were beyond awesome and helped me manage a safe and incident free hunt (unless you were a deer, that is). In just two and a half months, hunting only one afternoon a week, all the deer were gone and 320 meals donated to a local food bank.

Through one of the coldest, snowiest winters in recent history I spent a lot of time moving snow, ordering plants, updating and creating policies, looking for grants (and got one for a rainwater harvesting system), writing a training manual for a new docent program, working with volunteers, and using social media to find ways to make the place stand out as a go-to destination. I emailed and talked to plant collections experts, wildlife experts, land stewards, government officials, fellow horticulturists and community residents to find ways to bring the historic garden back to its former glory.

I gave it my all - and my all is pretty damn good - but apparently they're looking for something else and you know what? That's ok, because now I'm fired up!

Sure I would have preferred to leave on my own terms but sometimes things happen that light a fire under you, get you going when you think you're not ready, and even though you may stumble when pushed out of the gate you find that your feet have been under you the whole time and you're soon sprinting down the track, ready for the next great adventure. Far from being idle, I'm making new connections, searching for new opportunities, and even mulling the possibility of overseeing my own little empire (heirloom veg and flower CSA, anyone?).

My resume is up to date with all the mad skills and interesting things I've done but resumes only tell part of the story. I've achieved a lot in my career as a horticulturist (and a corporate manager, and sign language interpreter, and shop girl), have been to many places, worked with the best in my chosen field but I've done a whole lot more: I took risks that many people half my age would be afraid to take, I acquired skills I didn't know I'd ever have (driving a tractor or wielding a chainsaw - awesome!), learned new languages (I speak Landscape Architect as well as Botanical Latin), met some rock stars in the plant world (and even got hugs from them), and forged life-long relationships.

I cultivated my mind (MA with Distinction in one year, anyone?), pursued hobbies (need a calligrapher? Want a hand-knit item to keep you or a loved snuggly in winter? I can do both, just not at the same time.), and continuously search for the beautiful in every day life (oooh! pretty flowers!). I'm really good at taking something and making it better, getting things organized, polishing, getting things done. And I have decades of life experience to offer. I can produce half a dozen references who can give three times as many reasons why any organization would be lucky to have me and I've reached the point in my professional life where I actually believe they're on to something.

So, yeah, the fire's lit and even though my feet are churning and my job search is officially in high gear, I'm not moving at the kind of velocity that will make me miss a good opportunity because I've learned all too well how to recognize the signs.

Hard as it may be to believe, getting fired is one. Exit here, it says, adventure ahead.

25 March 2014

You Say Tomato, I say

Spring is a time of heady anticipation for many gardeners and I'm no exception. Being as I am now on the east coast where everyone is longing for warmer temperatures, spring bulbs to bloom, and the grass and trees to shake off the dreary dun of winter in favor of lush green mantles, there is still one event, more than any other, that I look forward to as the real herald of spring: Tomatomania!
"What's that?" is what most people ask and I have to pause. How does one describe 'the world's largest (and most fun) heirloom tomato seedling sale'? 'A traveling tomato seedling circus' is one way. The New York Times called it 'the tomato freaks' Woodstock'. A friend of mine said it was like being an alcoholic let loose in a liquor store, only this addiction is good for you. All correct. It's the only traveling plant sale I know of that specializes in one type of plant but within that one genus offers over 300 new, heirloom, and hard-to-find varieties. Many people come looking for one or two and leave with a full tray. With sizes ranging from tiny pea-sized currant tomatoes to huge 4-pound giants, tastes from sweet to salty, a whole rainbow of colors, and names from Azoychka to Zapotek, it can be somewhat overwhelming. But it's also a whole lot of fun!
Professional, amateur, or shy yet eager first time grower, it matters not. Tomatomania! not only attracts a unique class of growers, it's staffed by a passionate and knowledgeable team who come together every spring to share this passion with you. While their day jobs range from professional landscape designer or horticulturist to graphic artist and interior designer, we all have one thing in common: we love growing tomatoes and we want you to love it, too!
Some of the 300+ varieties to choose from at Tomatomania's Encino sale

What started as a weekend event in a trendsetting Pasadena nursery called Hortus (people still mourn its loss over 10 years later), has become one of the most anticipated rites of spring up and down the state of California. It's even crossed the Mississippi and now appears at nurseries and garden centers on the east coast. Owner/producer Scott Daigre and his team oversee the entire production from selecting and buying seed, growing it, to organizing, designing the coveted annual t-shirt, and generally ensuring that your tomato season is the bountiful success it should be. The array of colorful tomato cages, t-shirts, signs, and umbrellas gives the event a decided party atmosphere and as if one party wasn't enough (well, actually, over a dozen parties now), there's a tasting held at the end of summer so you can share your success, try new varieties, and start planning what to grow next year!

I've been a proud part of this wonderful tomato circus for 12 years now and when a customer asked why on earth I would take vacation time from my job to work at a plant sale the answer was easy and immediate: it's a labor of love (that and I'm running away from the east coast winter). For me it's not just about selling plants, it's about the people. There are few places in this world where you will meet a more generous and enthusiastic bunch of experts who give such good hugs and who care so much about every customer's gardening success. I've seen it time and again: a fellow Tomatomaniac (for that is what we proudly call ourselves) patiently walking around the entire sales floor with a gardener, explaining the personality of every variety inquired about, recommending alternatives or new ones to try, explaining the virtues of good compost and organic fertilizer, admonishing gently not to water the things so darn much or the flavor will be lost, and for the sake of all that is good and holy in the garden put away the MiracleGro! The level of service you get at Tomatomania! is unmatched, in my opinion.

Veteran Tomatomaniac, Steve Gerischer, helps a customer with her selection.
Just in case you wanted all that good advice wrapped up in one place ready to put in your pocket, Tomatomania! offers classes and workshops so you know just what to plant and how to plant it. There's also a book and an iPhone app so you really can take the mania with you wherever you go!

The three-day flagship event at Tapia Bros. farm stand in Encino is exciting and exhausting but I'm already looking forward to next year. If you missed it, don't fret; there are several more events left this season. Just go to Tomatomania's website for information on the next one and head on over to see what the mania is all about. Trust me, you'll be glad you did!

Scott Daigre and his team of dedicated 'Maniacs at the Encino event

I am Fitz, and I approve this Mania.


18 March 2014

It's Official

Spring has arrived!

15 March 2014

Five Minutes of Garden Fame

I'm quite chuffed, as my English friends would say, to be featured in garden writer Helen Yoest's blog! She's been doing a wonderful series of profiles highlighting young garden talent, an idea she got from a similar series featured in Gardens Illustrated. I had the honor of working along side several of the gardeners featured in the GI profiles and, because youth is a state of mind, am thrilled to be in company with so many talented gardeners in Helen's series. I've copied her post here for your reading enjoyment and took the liberty of adding some links for people and places I mention because I love them so and want to share them with you! To see the original post and more fantastic content from Helen, give a click on her blog link below. Do drop in and have a look around. While you're there, tell her Debs sent you!

Garden Talent: Deb Wiles

Posted by on March 13, 2014
Meet Deb Wiles. Deb, thanks for sharing with Gardening with Confidence! And thank you for all you do!
Please visit the Gardeners going forward category (on this blog) for other interviews of bright young minds.
Deb Wiles
Name: Deb Wiles
Age: 45 on the outside, 25 on the inside

Occupation: Director of Horticulture, Garden Historian

Where you went to college:
California State University Northridge (BA Deaf Studies), UCLA (Horticulture and some Landscape Architecture), University of Greenwich, London (MA Garden History), and I was a Professional Gardener student at Longwood Gardens.

What is your earliest garden memory?
My earliest garden memory is of pinching the seed heads on Oxalis in my grandparent’s garden. I was probably 5 and didn’t realize they were weeds! I just liked how it tickled when the pods exploded between my fingers! We also had a Passiflora vine in our backyard that was annually covered with Gulf Fritillary caterpillars which then made their chrysalides all over the fences and walls of the house. Kind of eery but when the butterflies emerged it was magical! That was the first time I made the connection between a plant and an insect.

What made you decide to enter the field of horticulture?
I was a cubicle rat in a windowless office for years. On the weekends I spent all my time at a local nursery called Hortus, taking classes and drooling over the plants. One day I overheard the owner telling another customer about the landscape architecture program at UCLA and my company had a tuition reimbursement program! The rest is history!

Please tell me about your specific horticultural position?
I’m Director of Horticulture for an historic estate turned public arboretum. Right now that means I shovel a lot of snow! There are only two of us on the hort staff to manage 13.5 acres of formal gardens, wildflower meadow, and woodlands so my job is very hands-on. I also have the dubious distinction of successfully organizing the first ever deer hunt on the grounds (and I’ve only been there 6 months!). I write the monthly garden tips article on the company website, teach classes and workshops, write grant proposals, and launched the Arb into social media. Currently I’m helping to develop our first garden docent training program.

How long have you been in the horticulture business?
Unofficially, about 15 years. Officially, not quite 10.

What is your personal garden style?
I studied the gardens of the late 17th and early 18th century for my MA and really love the calmness that order and geometry bring but my own personal style is very haphazard. When I had a garden of my own, I would wander the nursery and grab whatever was new or unique or a plant I’d seen on my travels just to see if it would work in my garden, so it was quite varied! Luckily my landlord didn’t mind the experiment!

Tell me about your first plant love?
I try to be an equal opportunity plant geek but I would have to say Sweet Pea since that’s my birth flower. The blossoms are so elegant yet playful, and the scent! I’d fill my house with them if I could!

Who inspired you in your career and how?
Oooh, lots of people: Gary Jones, who owned Hortus; Scott Daigre and Catherine Downes, who worked there as well as fellow Hortus devotee Susan Drews; my colleagues in the windowless cubicle who cried, “Take me with you!” when I left; Fergus Garrett, head gardener at Great Dixter, who I met for the first time in 2006 and whom I am honored to call friend and mentor, and pretty much everyone I met while I was at Longwood! And, of course, my parents.

What is your favorite garden setting?
I love a garden with a broad view across a body of water, with a seat to enjoy it on, lots of heavenly scents carried on soft breezes, sunshine, shade, something to explore, and something to discover. A cafe with tea and scones doesn’t hurt!

What is your favorite planting style?
Right now I’m into what William Robinson called the Wild Garden.

What advice can you give others considering entering the field of horticulture?
DO IT!!! I took a drastic cut in pay when I left my high-powered corporate job to work in the garden and have never regretted a moment of it! Yes, it was a scary move, especially since it’s technically my third career, but I’ve made the best friends, have seen the most amazing places, met the most remarkable people, and have learned more than I ever imagined. If it’s where your heart is, go there. You won’t be happy until you do!

If you could go anywhere to see gardens, where would that be?
I’m not finished with the UK yet!

If you could go with any one person, who would it be?
Celia Fiennes (1662-1741). This woman traveled to every county in England between 1685 and 1710, an accomplishment very few men could claim at the time. She kept a travel diary describing the gardens and interiors of the great houses she visited as well as the local trades and commerce. Not much is known about her apart from her diary and her family connections so I’ve started researching her biography and hope to retrace her journeys one day.

What was your most valuable training?
Longwood introduced me to the world of public horticulture on a bold scale and Great Dixter introduced me to a world of wonder and historical reverence! Both were invaluable in preparing me for my present position.

How can people contact you: email, fb, LinkedIn, Twitter, website, etc.?
Facebook: Deb Wiles
Twitter: @dawiles

Helen Yoest

20 December 2013


I love reading interviews with gardeners. Being in the gardening world, as I am, and visiting so many amazing gardens, I always find myself wondering about the gardeners behind them: Where do they find their inspiration?  What training have they had and from where? Why did they use a particular technique? What was their favorite tool? and If I asked nicely would they give me a cutting of that plant!?

One gardener who constantly inspires me is Jimmy McGrath, who is partly responsible for the path my own gardening life has taken in recent years. It was through him and his Longwood classmate, Mark, that I learned about the PG Program there. After Longwood Jimmy went to Great Dixter, where I met him one unusually snowy April morning. He went on to the Jerusalem Botanic Garden, then spent time gardening at DeWiersse in Holland. After a brief return to the States, Jimmy and his other half set off for England and I was able to reconnect with him there, chatting and catching up next to the colored fountains playing in the park next to Marble Arch that reminded us of the fountain terrace at Longwood. While in London, Jimmy worked on the fantastic landscape scenes featured in the Olympics opening ceremony - a once in a lifetime dream job! Then he was off to garden at Gravetye Manor, with the colors, forms, and textures of William Robinson's wild garden buffeting him with inspiration. Jimmy is a gifted artist and I always love when he posts his drawings on his blog, wishing I had the discipline to develop my own artistic ability more. Now he's gardening in Spain, enjoying the warm Mediterranean climate while I shiver through a cryogenic north east winter!

I have such admiration for Jimmy so I was truly surprised when he asked to interview me for a new blog that he and a friend here in the States were setting up. Me? Really? Aw, shucks! I don't know why I still find myself surprised by the way own garden path has meandered, and am constantly in awe of the company in which I find myself. Gardeners truly are remarkable people! So grab a cup of tea and go visit Jimmy's blog. There you will find beauty, art, horticulture, and inspiration.

Thanks, Jimmy! I'm proud to call you friend!