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Can you get by with a little help from a gardening coach?

click to enlarge Genevieve Schmidt. Photo by Amy Stewart.
  • Genevieve Schmidt. Photo by Amy Stewart.

I blog with a group of opinionated gardeners at gardenrant.com; one of my partners in crime on that site makes her living as a garden coach. At first I wasn't sure why the world needed one more kind of horticultural professional. We already have designers, landscape architects, arborists, engineers, lawn care services and landscape crews to choose from. But Susan's stories about her fledgling garden coach career fascinated me. A movie star who spends most of his time in New York asked her to go to his mother's house in the D.C. area a couple times a month and just garden alongside her, to encourage her interest in the outdoors and to help with the heavy lifting. Gardeners who had spent years filling their yard with plants felt frustrated with the results and called on Susan to help them rearrange and fine-tune.

Pretty soon the media was calling too, and Susan was talking to reporters all over the country about garden coaching. She didn't invent the concept, but she just happened to have a website (thegardeningcoach.com) that attracted reporters. One day I was reading about Susan in the Christian Science Monitor, and there was a quote from Genevieve Schmidt, a garden coach in Arcata. I had met Genevieve a couple of times — she created a lovely woodland garden for a friend of mine — so I invited her over to talk about why, exactly, a gardener might want to hire a coach.

Genevieve (she's online at genevieveschmidtdesign.com) got her horticultural education at City College of San Francisco and at HSU. She worked for many years as a maintenance gardener and gradually started designing gardens for her clients. In the last couple of years, she's added this new service: coaching.

"I kept getting calls from people who were not gardeners, but they had a nice garden professionally installed and didn't really know what to do with it after that," she said. "They were afraid to move things around or try something new, because it didn't really feel like their garden." She also heard from more experienced gardeners who just wanted a little professional help. "Gardeners really want to be part of the process," she said. "They might even want to work alongside the professionals they hire. Not everybody works that way."

So what makes a coach different from some other kind of garden professional? For one thing, a garden coach is primarily helping do-it-yourselfers to — well — do it themselves. "I might just go to somebody's house four times a year and work in the garden with them for the afternoon," she said. "One of the things I really like to do is to help people connect with the seasons and know what to look out for as their garden changes over the year." She'll even go to the garden center and help people pick out plants, then come back to their house and give advice on where and how to plant them.

I remember when life coaches first started getting attention in the media. I used to roll my eyes at the idea of paying someone to go have coffee with you and tell you what to do about your problems at work. Isn't that what friends are for? But as Genevieve talked, I realized that I almost never actually go to the garden center with a friend. I'm always insisting that I like to garden alone, but suddenly the idea of having someone else standing next to me in the garden helping me figure out whether I should uproot a hydrangea seemed really appealing.

Here's the other thing that appealed to me. You hire a professional for their hard-earned expertise, but that expertise often comes as part of a package. You define the scope of work, the professional writes up a proposal and names a price, you write a check, and at the end of the process you get the product: a report or a plan or a tax return or an irrigation system or a driveway. Usually that's a very satisfactory arrangement. I don't want someone to teach me how to pour a driveway or calculate the alternative minimum tax. I'm hiring someone else so that I don't have to think about it.

But gardening is a pleasure. It's something I want to do. So I wouldn't want to hire a professional who is going to keep her knowledge to herself and simply go about her work in my backyard. I'd want her to show me how to do what she does. Wouldn't a horticultural professional be reluctant to simply hand her knowledge over, knowing that I'll take what she's taught me and go do it myself?

"Not at all," Genevieve said. "It bothers me when people act like their knowledge is some big mysterious thing. I'm not threatened by people who want to know what I know. There's always going to be a need for gardening services — the more I can get people involved with gardening, the better."

Hmmmm. I confess that I was starting to like the idea of hiring someone to come over to my garden for a couple of hours to dispense wisdom, identify plants whose names I've forgotten and cast an educated vote about the removal of a troublesome shrub.

I also realized that in all the years I've been reading garden books and magazines, I've read surprisingly little about how to work with garden professionals. So tune in two weeks from now, when I'll be back with a list of ideas for how and when to enlist a little extra help in the garden.

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Amy Stewart

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