I have joked with a few of my friends that I hired a "personal house trainer" to help me overcome my house clutter since I seemed to be incapable of doing it myself. Now it seems I should consider getting a gardening coach. If I had one of these, I know they would pull out their whistle, blow it, and yell "WEED!".
Plant! Water! Weed!
By JOANNE KAUFMAN
Published: June 15, 2007
SINCE the early 1980s, when Arlene Kagle bought a weekend home with her husband in Stanfordville, N.Y., and began gardening, her flower beds have gone through more phases than the moon. “Things went from looking glorious to too many coreopsis to none, and from no black-eyed Susans to endless mounds,” said Dr. Kagle, a psychologist in private practice in New York and Dutchess County.
Then early last summer, to prepare for a 25th anniversary party, Dr. Kagle planted everything she could find that would bloom between June 15 and June 25, the day of the event, and then gave the garden the back of her hand in July and August. Needless to say, it was not a pretty sight by Labor Day.
“This year, I decided I needed either to burn it all down and start over or find someone to give me some perspective,” Dr. Kagle said. “I’m an old hand, but I needed a fresh eye.”
One option would have been to hire a landscape architect — someone who would have done all the rethinking and the replanting, leaving Dr. Kagle’s involvement to that of remitting a big payment. Instead, she chose to call Tim Steinhoff, a Germantown “gardening coach.” A new addition to the landscape, gardening coaches — or gardening mentors as they are sometimes called — are the personal trainers of the prune-and-plant set.
Their target audience — do-it-yourselfers in search of enlightenment — occupies a middle ground between the people who simply sit back and watch, while others do the planting and mulching, and amateur plant killers whose gardening strategy can best be summed up as trowel and error.
“Arlene knows what she likes, and she also knows that what she’s done could be better,” Mr. Steinhoff said of Dr. Kagle. “But she doesn’t know how to get there.” To help get her there, he’s recommended a carefully chosen selection of peonies that will keep the garden interesting from April to June, early-flowering annuals (like larkspur) and some later-flowering shrubs (like Japanese snowbells). Next up: frikartii, rudbeckia and nearly constantly blooming shrubs like Daphne transatlantica, with certain varieties of salvia carrying through till first frost.
People who have moved from a city apartment to a suburban home with an established garden, those who have just bought a weekend getaway and now have some acreage but don’t have a clue — Mr. Steinhoff has counted all of them as clients, along with aging baby boomers looking to simplify. “They may have gardened with what I call upholstered plants — annuals and perennials,” he said. “Now, they still want to garden, but they don’t want it to take up so much of their time, so they want to know how to modify their landscape.” The answer is to plant shrubs and small trees.
“Part of the problem is that there’s an excess of information out there, the Internet, catalogs, books and magazines,” Mr. Steinhoff said. “How do you winnow?
“I tell people none of this is magic,” he continued. “I don’t hold any secrets. My whole point in coaching people is giving them information and knowledge they can act on. It’s essentially an extended conversation.”
If life coaches help clients cultivate strategies to realize personal and professional goals, gardening coaches work similar terrain. “I think we give people a hand in setting realistic targets, helping them understand what is achievable and what is not,” said Robin Haglund, owner of Garden Mentors, in Seattle, and until recently a coach with Exteriorscapes, also in Seattle.
“I see so many people who have pie-in-the-sky visions of what they can accomplish,” Ms. Haglund said. Such people want to put in new trees and a patio and a fence all at once. “Putting in a patio is something they can do — but is it something they want to do if they travel a lot or if this is their weekend home. We help them develop a skill set like learning how to prune and how to tackle things in bite-size chunks.”
KRISSY MAYER, a garden coach at Natorp’s Garden Stores in Mason, Ohio, also deals with the overambitious. People who don’t know one end of a hoe from the other “suddenly think they’re going to make an intense life change like they’re going to be in their garden from morning until night every Saturday and every Sunday. I give them a scale of things that are 1, 2 or 3 in importance.”
Depending on their arrangement with a client, coaches may come on site only once, perhaps once a season or once a year, or simply serve as docents at the local nursery to help clients make appropriate plant choices. Fees are generally $65 to $100 an hour.
For a client in the Washington area who had a summer home in Martha’s Vineyard, for example, Susan Harris, a gardening coach from Takoma Park, Md., would suggest spring- and fall-blooming plants for the primary residence.
According to Sara Begg, the executive editor of Horticulture magazine, the emergence of coaches may have something to do with an increased interest in gardening as a hobby among the 30-something crowd — and an utter lack of grounding in it: “While I learned gardening from my mother and grandmother, I don’t know these days if most people have that training passed down.
“They want to learn from someone because they’re afraid to take the risk of doing it themselves, spending all that money for plants and watching them die.”
Ms. Haglund sends prospective clients a worksheet so she can get a sense of their skill level. On her first visit, she always walks the property with them, giving a botany tutorial along the way, and asks to check out their gardening implements so she can learn something about how they’ve worked in the past. “A lot of people don’t know about garden forks that help with hand weeding,” she said.
One thing Ms. Haglund has found “is that people will clean up their garden before I come because they’re embarrassed about how it looks. But I really need to see things in their natural state.”
The need for a coach became clear to Candis Litsey when her husband announced that he did not wish to mow the lawn at their main residence in Seattle (the couple also has a weekend home in Hansville, Wash.) O.K., so the lawn would go. But what was going to replace it? “We knew we needed a mentor,” said Ms. Litsey, a homemaker, who called Ms. Haglund, then at Exteriorscapes. “She had a great questionnaire asking what kind of gardening we wanted to take on, how much time we wanted to devote to it. It really focused us.” Ms. Litsey has two triangular chunks of land, each about 1,500 square feet, and another 800-square-foot section.
The result of the focus: Exteriorscapes took on the planting in one of the large beds; Ms. Litsey, with guidance from Ms. Haglund, took over the other one. So far, she has planted some ground cover and some annuals, built a trellis and taken a stab at pruning an apple tree. “I did a quarter of it and had Robin come back to check on my work,” Ms. Litsey said. “She told me I had cut back too much but that I was right to tie the sagging branches.” She said that thanks to her garden coach, she feels more comfortable about shifting plants around the garden and is coming up with better questions at the nursery. “Instead of being seduced by color or scent, I’m asking whether it’s appropriate for the terrain.”
WHILE Susan Harris is called on to deal with issues like soil conditions and basic plant identification, she sometimes finds herself more referee than coach. “I’ve had people call me to settle an argument with their spouse,” she said. “One wants to get rid of the lawn and one doesn’t. Somebody wants to go all native, and they want to do it in a sunny spot, which in this area isn’t practical.”
And sometimes, Ms. Harris and other gardening coaches are asked to be parent figures. “We had a very sticky bush, an Oregon grape, which we bought to keep a little neighbor boy from running through our flower bed 35 years ago,” said Kay Meek, a retired teacher in Silver Spring, Md. The bush had outgrown the bed and, Ms. Meek noted, was beautiful only once a year. “Susan just said, ‘You don’t like it. It doesn’t look good there. Take it out,’ ” she said, referring to Ms. Harris. “She gave me the courage to move it. She gave me permission.
“You can read gardening books,” Ms. Meek added, “but unlike a coach they don’t pat you on the back and say, ‘Go ahead and do it.’ ”
Oh, this sounds so much more gentle that the "coach approach"...I just need a friend to pat me on the back and encourage me--some days encouragement is needed in the garden, some days it is in the kitchen, and some days it is the rest of the house. Encouragement and admiration is so much more motivating than admonishment and guilt! But then I guess that is the difference between someone you pay for help and someone you live with who offers "free coaching".