Stymied? Huddle with a garden 'coach'

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

julia gran
Mary Knox Merrill - staff
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.

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.

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 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.

Homeowners today come at gardening with little or no experience. Unlike previous generations that grew up on or near farms, they have limited exposure to how plants grow or how natural cycles operate, says Genevieve Schmidt, a coach in Arcata, Calif. A client phoned her once to complain about a rose dropping its leaves. "I told her this was what plants did in winter when they died back," she says.

Ms. Schmidt says that people's expectations get blown out of proportion. They see images of perfect gardens in magazines and demand similar results. Gardening "used to be about the experience, now it's about the having," she says. People expect plants to behave like technological gadgets – to bloom all year, never need pruning, and thrive in sun or shade

More people buy their plants from the big box stores, such as Home Depot and Lowe's, instead of from local nurseries, Schmidt says. Homeowners may save money in the short term, but they are buying plants that were grown in other regions and often shipped long distances. They also miss out on the advice and experience that local nursery staff provide. The result: Plants that founder in the homeowner's garden and often need replacing after a single winter.

Coaches can save homeowners money, time, and aggravation by guiding them toward plants suitable for their particular conditions, climate, and level of expertise. Coaches take the long view of a landscape, and can warn a client against planting that cute little maple sapling so close to the house, for example, or advise on how far apart to space plants for optimal growth. But more important, they are willing to get their hands dirty along with the client.

"Hiring a coach is the midpoint between giving yourself up to the landscape designer's vision and doing it completely on your own," says Jim Freeman, a former environmental lawyer turned coach in Brooklyn, N.Y. "It empowers people, gives them confidence to do it themselves."

The camaraderie that develops is a large part of the appeal for homeowners like Ms. Papolos. She enjoys working with Secunda because, "We have fun together; it's intellectually stimulating, and I learn about art and color," she says.

Like any coach, Secunda is used to playing the role of "mother, mentor, and font of information," not to mention family mediator. Usually one spouse is more involved in the garden and the other spouse needs to be brought in, or at least given a say in the decisionmaking. For example, "it's hard for married couples to take down trees," she says. The men generally don't want to part with them, while the wife is saying, "This has got to go."

It's not unusual for the foot-dragging partner to bow to an outside expert. One woman had for years been urging her husband to help her rip out some overgrown mountain laurels next to the house. A garden consultant took one look and told the couple that the shrubs should go. The husband dug them up the same weekend.

Resolving conflicts and teaching people how to garden gives coaches like Secunda "immediate gratification." She often finds herself working with a person who's at the beginning of a life change – retirement, birth of a child, death of a spouse. These life passages draw people out into nature, to what Secunda calls the poetic experience of gardening. They start to pay attention to the natural cycles that pattern their own experience. They begin to care about the environment. With a little coaching, they become real gardeners in every sense.

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