High Ground 6

Nurseryman Michael Cunningham looks at the anxieties of brand-new gardeners

IT’S A JOY TO WATCH the veteran gardeners shopping at the nursery where I work, especially in the spring. Winter has been a hibernation for them, and they’re starved for growing things. They are eager, discriminating and appreciative.

Not all our customers, however, enjoy their time at the nursery. Most distressing and difficult to help are young couples venturing into gardening for the first time. They’re overwhelmed by so much variety, and don’t know enough to enjoy themselves. They seem as bewildered as illiterates trapped in a great bookstore. Yet how could they be expected to know anything? The traditional flow of garden lore and know-how from parent to child has been broken. The schools think horticulture not worth teaching, and biology class has forsaken nature study for the glamour of genetics and the biochemistry of cells.

I certainly don’t feel critical of these young couples; in fact, I’m gratified that they’re interested enough to be here. The curious thing is that it’s hard to help them. I can show them a plant, but they can’t trust their eyes to tell them if they like it. Perhaps they don’t trust their response unless someone in the know concurs. We live in an age of experts and are inhibited by them. My typical young couple wants someone to tell them what to buy, but not me, because salesmen are, by definition, not to be trusted. These couples are consumers in an age of Consumer Reports, but plants aren’t covered in that publication. They’re uncomfortably on their own and afraid of making mistakes. It scarcely helps that we guarantee the plants.

Often the young couples come with paper in hand: a gardening magazine with a picture they want to replicate in their own yard or, more likely, a professional designer’s blueprint. For a fee, they’ve had their entire gardening ambition prescribed. It may be plant-by-numbers, but they feel bolstered by the authority of a drawing. The plant names are provided, the numbers and positions indicated. It’s a kind of security.

They’re disconcerted when I tell them we don’t have all of the varieties specified. The drawing calls for nine Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’, and we’re sold out. I apologize for not having ‘Palace Purple’ and show them other purple-leaved coral bells. I show them ‘Stormy Seas’, ‘Can-Can’, and ‘Plum Pudding’, and assure them that they’re all good plants. I could show them more, but sense that I should limit the choices to make it easier for them. They hesitate. They look back to the drawing for help, showing the anxiety of lost tourists looking at a map. The map shows a street named ‘Palace Purple’, the street is supposed to be right here, but there is no street by that name. They worry out loud about whether the other heucheras would “go” with the Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ shown next to the ‘Palace Purple’ on the drawing. I realize they think I’m trying to assert my expertise over the expertise they’ve already paid for. I feel the absurdity of my situation: my effort to help is viewed with suspicion. Indecision is painful, and I’m only trying to erase their pain. I would like them to feel some of the same pleasure in acquiring plants that I do, to escape from the little tyranny of fear that spoils their pleasure. This is their gardening honeymoon, after all, and isn’t overcoming awkwardness and fear the traditional purpose of a honeymoon?

Fortunately, in a certain number of cases, curiosity and a sense of adventure win out over fear. This young couple came back to the nursery in the fall and seemed almost to enjoy themselves. The honeymoon must have been a success. They still had the designer’s drawing and were buying to complete the project, but I heard them exclaim over the profusion of bright yellow flowers on a Helianthus ‘First Light’, and, even though that plant was not on their list, they took one home. And who knows? In a few more years, the list might be gone altogether, replaced with growing knowledge and a true love of plants. H

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