People hire personal trainers and life coaches, so why not a gardening tutor? After all, the Northwest is a hotbed of gardening. So it's not much of a stretch to imagine there are people here who want an expert at their elbow.
Such is the case of Deborah Binder.
Binder and her husband, Gaetan Veilleux, and their toddler son Jai moved to their half-acre lot in Edmonds in July. Binder, an art historian, had been an enthusiastic gardener back east, lots of vegetables and perennials. She and her husband love to work in their yard.
But now they live in a land of mists and droughts, a long way from the winters of Vermont, their previous home, or the steamy summers of St. Louis, Mo., where Binder grew up.
"We came here, and there were a lot of plants we're not familiar with," Binder says, looking over a yard filled with rhodies and Japanese maples, under a canopy of Douglas fir and alders.
"The Northwest weather is very different," she adds. "And things seem to take off here."
But Binder didn't just want to hire garden help — she wanted to learn to take care of her landscape herself.
Enter Linelle Russ, owner of Morning Dew Gardens. Binder connected with Russ through Plant Amnesty, a local gardening group with a referral list of landscapers and arborists.
The two literally put their heads together hovering head-to-head deep inside a large rhododendron.
"Is this branch dead?" Binder asks Russ.
"Parts of it are," Russ replies. "Take a look at the left side."
"It has a little bud," Binder says.
"Sometimes rhodies bud but then die and what you see is a dead bud," Russ explains.
"OK." Binder prunes off the branch.
And so goes a four-hour monthly session between teacher and student.
Getting professional help
Hiring a professional to work one-on-one with you can cost $35-$40 an hour. Is this cost-effective?
"There's so much information out there," says garden consultant Susan Papanikolas, "but it's difficult to know how to apply it to your own yard specifically. It's helpful to have someone to guide you through — kind of like hiring a personal trainer."
Landscape designer Jonathan Schwartz finds that clients are amazed at how complex doing a good garden can be.
Ingela Wanerstrand of Green Darner Garden Design says people get scared of just jumping in without help. "Trial and error gets expensive," she says. "They want you to stand there and make sure they don't do anything wrong." Also, some people learn better hands-on, and Wanerstrand is one. "You can read or go to lectures, but I need to do it."
One of Russ' students, Alice Goldberg, originally wanted help redoing her Wallingford front yard, a bank covered with low-growing evergreens. She was not sure whether she needed a landscape architect or a gardener.
More important, "I really didn't want them to do all the work for me," Goldberg says. "I wanted to do it myself to the best of my abilities."
The one-on-one approach intrigued her. "It appealed to me to have her do it alongside me," Goldberg says. Russ teamed with landscaper Brian Anderson to do a lot of the work in Goldberg's redesigned yard. "But I get to go out and do whatever part I want," says Goldberg.
Tracy Bell had just gotten the garden bug when she bought her Phinney Ridge home several years ago. "I bought a home to create a garden," she says.
"I wanted to do it myself," Bell says, "but it would be overwhelming, exhausting, and I would have made a lot of mistakes."
Yet she had read a lot about plants, knew their botanical names. "No way would I just turn it over to someone else," she says. "It would be meaningless to do that."
She connected with Russ, who with Anderson and the homeowner over the past year and a half have torn out the front lawn, removed old plants around the house's foundation and focused on planting the perimeter of the yard so it could be seen from the house. The old yard is now planting beds and pathways.
Creating the garden with a knowledgeable partner was a true collaboration.
"With help it would be doable instead of being overwhelmed by the scope of the project," Bell says. On her own, Bell says, she would have gotten stuck when a problem arose. "With Linelle, we got over those humps, there was a solution."
Teamwork is critical
Ask Russ what she does for a living, and she'll tell you: "I'm an educator." Indeed, Russ' background includes a hefty bunch of corporate/management training. In her role with her tutorial clients, she is coach, cheerleader, adviser, helping people become proficient about her own passion, gardening.
Russ' approach is very structured. Her students sign on for a year's worth of sessions, monthly or twice monthly, and it's no walk in the park — they share all tasks, and some take time off work to be in the garden with Russ.
She can tell when she walks through a garden with a client what the problem area is. "It's so funny — their shoulders go up, they start wrinkling their brow. You can see what's driving them crazy, yet they're afraid to do it alone."
The homeowner and Russ work together on whatever's needed: moving a shrub, pruning a tree, talking to an arborist or stonemason. She'll show them how to use and maintain tools.
Some clients make videos of the sessions, or Russ provides handouts. She insists that students arm themselves with the "Sunset Western Garden Book" and pruning guides from Plant Amnesty.
"My job is to give them the tools to work in the garden so they can enjoy it," Russ says.
Many garden designers will return to advise a client on the garden's progress. Several landscapers will work side-by-side with homeowners. Even though working at a client's pace is not the fastest way to, say, prune a shrub, some are so intent on passing on what they know to be good plant practices, they figure the time is well spent.
Papanikolas has developed her own way of educating people about their gardens. She does garden "portfolios," a plant-by-plant portrait of what's in a client's yard, including proper name and how to care for it. She also offers a garden "planner," a calendar tailored to a client's garden, with lists of what to do for plants each month and lots of detail about each plant, how to cultivate it, prune it, problems to look for, etc.
Wanerstrand works one-on-one with a half-dozen clients. Her tutorials are usually part of long-term garden projects she and the homeowner have been working on. "They're interested in how I do things, and why — learning the how and why of pruning."
It doesn't surprise any of these garden professionals that earnest amateurs will reach out for personalized help.
Schwartz and partner Emily Ross often work hand-in-hand with clients, ostensibly to help save costs by letting the homeowner pitch in, but there's more at work here than saving money, Schwartz observes.
"Gardening is like food," he says. "A healthy garden provides the underpinning of health in life. It reconnects people with the land that they worked so hard to own."
Russ has lived in Connecticut and California, and finds Northwesterners have a passionate connection to their landscape.
It starts with our weather. "In this area we are very tied to the outdoors — the only way to get light is to be outdoors. When weather is good, we're all outdoors," she says.
And what people see outside their window every day is critical to living well here. In a stressful world, a drizzling world at that, we have a "need to go out and do something simple like pulling a weed because it connects you to the earth."
More than that, "We have a spirit here of stewardship that you can't get in other urban areas," Russ adds. "It's nurturing to help a plant have the best life it can have"
That, in turn, nurtures the gardeners. And their tutors.
Rose O'Donnell is the owner of Bryant Gardening in Seattle. Contact her at 206-525-0744 or firstname.lastname@example.org.