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Stymied? Huddle with a garden 'coach'

For those lacking a green thumb, help is on the way.

By April AustinCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 20, 2008

New leaf: Jim Freeman left a career as an environmental lawyer to become a garden coach. He says working with a coach is the midpoint between hiring a landscaper and going it alone.

Mary Knox Merrill - staff

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Gardens in magazines appear restful and serene. But talk to homeowners facing overgrown yards, and they use words like "intimidating" and "frustrating." Their backyards cry out for a firm hand and a Mr. Universe-style shape up.

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Enter the gardening coach, who acts as a personal trainer for the green-thumb challenged – people who don't know a pruning saw from hedge clippers. Coaches also work with more experienced gardeners who need a fresh eye on a problem.

When homeowner Janice Papolos finished decorating the interior of her house in Westport, Conn., three years ago, her attention was drawn to the outdoors. At a little over an acre, her property's parklike setting had potential, but "nobody had pruned, everything was leggy," Ms. Papolos says. Instead of bringing in a landscape crew to simply cut down trees, she hired garden coach Victoria Sec­unda, who walked the property with her and pointed out the valuable trees and the junk.

"It became like an odyssey," Papolos says. "Victoria helped me see into the future," to visualize what the yard could become.

Garden coaches, or tutors as they are also called, are on the rise. The phrase "gardening coach" has seen a marked increase in its use in published articles and online. While no formal organization tracks their numbers, a directory at www.thegardeningcoach.com lists 44 coaches in the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia. "It's just starting to become a phenomenon," says Susan Harris, a coach and writer in Takoma Park, Md., who manages the website and mentors other coaches.

Their backgrounds vary widely: Some hold degrees in botany or landscape design. Some have worked in nurseries, and still others are self-taught. Some arrived at coaching after years in unrelated careers. All of them prefer sharing their enthusiasm for gardening in a hands-on manner. And most feel a concern for the environment and for steering homeowners away from chemicals. Rates for their services run from $25 to $175 an hour.

But unlike a designer who comes in and plants a garden and may give only cursory advice on how to maintain it, a coach is concerned with teaching the skills necessary to whip a garden into shape and keep it thriving.

"People look at their garden like a woman looking at her face in the mirror – they only see the flaws," says Ms. Secunda, who calls herself the Gardening Tutor and works in the Ridgefield, Conn., area. Her job, she says, involves identifying the positive aspects of her clients' properties and helping them see where "edits" can be made. If a task is too big for the homeowner, she advises choosing a professional, such as an arborist to take care of trees. But she expects her clients to learn the basics of proper soil preparation, watering, and pruning.