Dirty Deeds 

The trials and rewards of a landscape professional

I sold plants for a couple of years, and there's no better way to know them than to sell them. As persnickety, pouty, demanding, lazy or ugly as some of them are, they are, at the very least, somewhat predictable. Lobelias, for example, have been dished a few harsh words in this column, but it should be understood that if they weren't so desirable, we would be indifferent to their distinctively fragile nature.

I made similar observations about the personalities of some of the customers whose foibles gave us job security. When novice salespeople griped about a thick or indecisive shopper, I reminded them that if the consumer knew all they thought they knew, there would be no need for assistance and we would be flipping burgers. On perfect spring or fall days, workers and customers alike believed there were worse places to work than a retail nursery. Cold and wet or blistering hot weather diminished both the traffic and the spirits of the help, and nobody envied us our jobs on those days.

On one glorious May day, I had just parked my truck at the nursery after a quick and dirty installation. Feeling generous, expansive and horticulturally gifted, I diverged from my beeline to the restroom to respond to a question from a pair of resort wear-garbed matrons emerging from a pearlescent Cadillac. Squinting from the glare of the brilliant polyester elastic-waist pants, large acrylic floral-patterned tunics and sparkly shoe hardware, I offered to show them the magnolias they were seeking. I immediately became invisible, and one woman said to the other how much she enjoyed this organization's newsletter. Impulsive, impertinent and immodest, I thanked her. Looking pointedly at my muddy jeans and boots, she repeated her comment in a tone that dripped rebuke. I thanked her again, and explained that I produced the newsletter. Her eyes called me a liar, and the two of them pointedly ignored me for the duration of the visit.

They seemed to think it unlikely that a woman in a sweaty ball cap and filthy clothes might be articulate and computer literate. They weren't representative of most of the people who buy plants, and I took some comfort in my speculation that their landscapes probably reflect their social ignorance and taste in attire.

The people who assist shoppers at the nursery or garden center, at least the ones who survive the first week of 100-degree days or tagging trees in the snow, bring an admirable skill set to the work they perceive to be a calling. Demands on their physical stamina should be evident as they accompany botanical explorers on expeditions through acres of trees; arrange, tag and load plants; and stoop to prune, sort and water stock. Anyone who hasn't spontaneously designed nine beds, four borders, 27 large containers, low-budget curb appeal and a mutually acceptable privacy screen over the course of a single weekend hasn't tapped or zapped their creative potential. (On Sundays by 5, many nursery workers can't enunciate simple words like "marigold.")

On another occasion, a pleasant and enthusiastic woman marveled at the plant names and characteristics I was reciting. It was before noon and in the '70s. Not finding this feat at all impressive, I asked her what sort of work she did. When she explained that she was a physical therapist, I asked her if she knew another name for an elbow. She got the point right away, and didn't steal my thunder by reeling off binomials for my other aching parts. I gave her a discount for the ego candy.

The electronics field is spouting and sprouting hot terminology at a rate much too intimidating for someone like myself, so I ask my son to recommend the objects and programs I need. I halve that, and then ask him to translate. (Which goes in one ear and out the other; I'm just pretending to listen while he impatiently performs the prescribed function.)

The horticultural field is more stable and static in many ways. A perennial will always be a perennial. But there are new plant varieties to suit specialized demands and tempt sophisticated gardeners. Landscaping professionals should have a comprehensive understanding of any project they direct. Salespeople should ask prospective buyers where they plan to install a certain plant. Anyone presuming to diagnose a garden problem should be able to cite experience, a training course or certification before recommending a chemical. Installers should be fired on the spot for sinking a tree to the same relative depth as a tomato. Claiming that compost is the same as soil-aid is bagged steer manure.

Though all people learn on the job and require patience through apprenticeship, competent garden center managers remind their beginners to verify when unsure or do the research and report back. I'm easy to snow at the computer store, but I ask a lot of questions and listen carefully for a degree of certainty and fluency. I may take notes, and when the sales person has earned my confidence, my credit card beeps.

Home gardeners will have a swell opportunity at the Lunaria League's Symposium to hear about new varieties with which to stump even gray-haired and silver-tongued pros. This event, a resurrection of Michael Colt's University of Idaho presentation, will be at the Grove on Saturday, February 4. Registration forms and information are available at Edwards Greenhouses and at DG Nursery and Turf.

What should be of greater interest to green consumers is the Idaho Nursery and Landscape Association Horticultural Expo on Wednesday, January 18 through Friday, January 20. This training event presents current information on arboriculture, new plant varieties, bug and critter mutations, promising treatment methods and chemicals, efficient equipment, customer service, and the imperative element of knowledgeable workers. Ask the staff at your garden center if they were there.

Linda Jarsky is a master gardener, certified arborist and landscape designer.

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