Regular readers of this blog have no doubt noticed that my postings have been less frequent lately. You see, I have not been feeling well. My body has been plagued with mysterious ailments and pain. I can hardly straighten my back. I’m weary, weak, and a constant state of exhaustion appears to be the new norm. The joints of my knees are on fire and burn with every step my body takes. My feet are in agony and sometimes reject commands to carry me just one more step forward. My hands don’t feel normal and my fingertips can hardly clasp anything. It seems I’m losing my dexterity. The muscles in my legs are constantly spent, as if I just ran a marathon– ‘keep moving, keep moving’ a voice whispers in my head. Oh yes, and then there’s my head. Constantly swirling and racing as the list of things to do quickly outpaces the things that can be done. I’ve been feeling like I got hit by a truck. It’s not the flu though. No, I’m not sick this time. I’m working at a garden center.
If life were a game show, I made a stop on the garden center wheel. I’d wanted to do this for quite some time with the eventual goal of opening my own place one day. I’ve been watching and waiting, and on April 12, gave it a go. I can honestly say it’s everything and nothing like what I expected.
I selected my place of employment based on a private audit I had been making over the past couple of years. My choice came down to the place that offered a diverse plant selection, was tidy, and most important, exhibited signs of organization. That place is Sundown Gardens in Carmel, Indiana. Established in 1949 as a “mom and pop” peony farm, Sundown has transformed itself over many years into a sizable institution. Thankfully, it has retained that ‘small’ garden center feel. We are anything but small though. I have been placed in the Perennial department. Yes, there are departments, and separate staff (teams) for each: Annuals and Container Design, Perennials, Nursery (Trees and Shrubs), Garden Shop, Landscape Design, Landscape Maintenance and Installation, Irrigation, and Turf Management. Sundown Gardens runs about as efficient as any place I’ve seen. That’s what attracted me to it, and as a long time customer, was exactly why I chose to work there. I figured if I’m going to learn, I should learn from the best. And what an education it has been.
Going in, I felt comfortable with my tree and shrub knowledge, but was a bit surprised when I learned I would be placed in Perennials. I mean, I know a thing or two about shade gardening, but sun-loving perennials was a whole new world for me. Sundown carries such an extensive perennial selection that it rivals any of the major perennial mail order businesses. In peek season, we receive about 700 to 1000 perennial plants per week. And so the cycle goes: unload delivery truck, price each plant, stock the tables, place or create signage, design display vignettes, water, sell and repeat. That’s a lot of plants– and add to that, consults with the landscape design team and pulling orders for their projects. We monitor our inventory and bloom cycle, check plant availability lists from the growers, visit them if time allows, and place orders for the next week’s shipments. Simultaneously, the Annuals, Garden Center and Nursery teams do the same thing.
It’s now June, and the mad rush which spiked with Mother’s Day and Memorial Day has come and gone. Just like that, it was over. Our plant shipments are not quite as large now and customers are no longer in a frenzied state. The inner workings of a large garden center are anything but routine. Truth be told, I was not prepared for how physically draining it would be. For weeks, I ached. Consequently, the thought of working in my own garden seemed as appealing as a root canal. A cold hard truth had hit me. I was well-educated, well-read, and well-traveled. I could hold my own in most social situations. But when it came to this intense physical labor, I was soft. Slowly, my body has given into what I asked of it.
My interaction with the plants is teaching me way more than any book could. I have a great mentor who from the beginning has been so generous and patient. I look back on my first days and can hardly believe that she was asking me to make Hosta selections for the store. By day three, I did my first solo day in Perennials– on a weekend no less. I guess they saw something in me and realized that I wasn’t going to be a total mess. Who knows, maybe I do know more than I give myself credit for. In any case, my education continues, and I’m more eager than ever to see gardens, discover new plants, and most of all, connect with people.
I’ve learned much in the way of perennials since that first day. I now recognize more plants in the landscape and can even recognize traits in various plants and match them up by genus (ok, I’ve done this a couple of times and got it right). I’ve become more comfortable with those Latin plant names. Some even roll off my tongue. The “common” names still puzzle me though.
I won’t pretend to fully comprehend the business side of things, as it is a bit more intricate than I imagined. However, I am hopeful that I will succeed in this area. I have great mentors to glean from, and they seem eager to share their knowledge. Part of what makes this experience so fantastic is that everyone has been extremely supportive. So, I close this post in true Oprah style, “This is what I know for sure.”
- The garden center business is not a plant business, it’s a people business.
- People first, plants second.
- Nature is incredible.
- You can’t ponder a plants relationship to this earth without contemplating your own.
- Gardening and plants connect us, ground us, and teach us about continuity.
- A big smile can camouflage how dirty your clothes are.