Helen’s Haven 2012 — a humble beginning — Part Two — The Speech
On February 22, 2012, I had the honor to give the keynote speech to the North Carolina State University Pi Alpha Xi (PAX) Horticultural Honor Society initiation banquet. At first, the thought of doing so was frightful, then delightful.
It all started with a glad – here is that speech:
Thank you for the kind invitation to speak to you this evening. I was genuinely surprised to be invited. As you may know, I’m not a horticulturist. I’m a wannabe, but I do not hold a degree.
When I went to undergraduate school, it never even occurred to me to investigate horticulture as a degree. I was a gardener, yes, a life-long gardener, but honestly it never occurred to me there was even a degree in horticulture to pursue. I just figured gardening, as I referred to anything we did in the dirt, was just a hobby.
So I became an environmental engineer instead, eventually earning a Master’s degree. I went to work for a large engineering firm, where I specialized in stationary source air pollution testing—or, as we referred to ourselves, I was a stack tester. We also affectionately referred to ourselves as air heads. We were the people who climbed smoke stacks, pulled and measured the emissions coming out, sometimes for compliance, sometimes for engineering or standard setting purposes, often for research purposes. I did a lot of work on developing test methods to set standards for industry, but first we had to develop a test method.
I had an illustrious career. I traveled all over the world, eventually becoming an expert in various kinds of emissions testing, particularly those emissions from burning hazardous waste in industrial incinerators and cement kilns.
I never liked office work.
Then when the kids came along, after 20 years of stack testing, I decided to stay closer to home. I tried to become an office engineer, but I couldn’t cut it, I just couldn’t. I was a field engineer. I needed to be outside working. There wasn’t much need for a stack tester where I lived.
While I worked as an environmental engineer, I would come home from a trip and relax by puttering in the garden. I never liked housework either. Not a minute of my weekends was spent doing anything but garden-related adventures. So when it came time to find something else to do, I hung out my shingle and became a professional gardener and also a garden writer. I did this part time at first, since I had three babies at home.
Now that my kids are older–10, 11, and 15–actually, since they have all been in school, I work full time, but at crazy hours, starting at 5:30 a.m. and pausing when they need to be taken or picked up from school or for other carpool rendezvous. During this time, I put my mom hat on. I’m the mom racing to basketball practice, soccer practice, driving from one school to the other, desperately trying to remember where the next game is and whose game it is.
My husband is a huge help with this, especially during the evenings and on weekends. But during the day, I am the responsible parent trying to make sure I show up with my Levis clean (that is, clean enough to be presentable). Often the knees are caked with good, friable soil. If the dirt is too thick, I try to chip it off. I’m not too worried about what people think of me; I don’t want to lose my good dirt. In case you didn’t know this about me, I have the best soil in four states.
I used to worry about this, about how I looked, but then I decided to make gardening clothes hip. I figured if I thought they were hip, then others wouldn’t see anything wrong with that.
I will say this: my kids have yet to be embarrassed by me over this issue. But make no mistake, I have embarrassed them, usually in the form of having my radio turned up too loud and singing off-key to the Talking Heads, or some such infraction. By the way, my kids’ names are Lara Rose, Lily and Aster. No doubt you see a pattern. I wanted to name my youngest Poppy, but my husband drew the line there. I still think Poppy is a good name.
I think of myself as an engineer who became a horticultural professional. My husband, wise as he is, thinks that I didn’t divert from engineering to horticulture, but rather I diverted into engineering from a delayed career in horticulture. I think he might be right.
MY FIRST HORTICULTURAL AH-HA
My first real horticultural experience was at a young age, during an early summer evening when my brother and I went for a walk through the new neighborhood we had just moved into. I was 7 at the time, and he was 10.
As we walked along, chatting and wondering if people were peering out the windows to see the new kids in the neighborhood, we were both stopped in our tracks by a house. The house looked just like ours, small with a big picture window out front. Under the window was the large ubiquitous brick flower box. It measured one-foot tall by two-feet deep and approximately 10-feet long, and was meant to be the border garden delineating the bed from the lawn.
Something caught our eyes at this house. My brother and I both stared for a moment, a long moment, neither of us saying a word. As we began to walk away, I spoke first.
Helen: “Did you see that?”
Brother: “Yes, I did.”
Helen: “It was so exotic.”
Brother: “Yes, it was.”
Helen: “I didn’t know they came in such a color.”
Brother: “Neither did I.”
What I saw that day was a pale purple gladiola. It’s not even something I grow today. Not to bash the pale purple pedestrian varieties, but I have traded up for the fantastic, like an Atom or an Abyssinian. But the sight of that purple glad changed me emotionally—I wanted to explore, I wanted to understand beauty more. I vowed I would learn about such exotic flowers one day.
I was always a gardener. My dad was a gardener because his dad was a gardener. That was a good thing because they had to know how to garden during the Depression in order to eat. My dad had a garden as a child during the Depression because he had to. As an adult, he grew tomatoes because they were symbolic of never going hungry. It gave him comfort to know if all else failed, he would have a tomato to eat.
I gardened because my dad was a gardener. While in the garden, we would talk about so many things. We laughed a lot while doing mundane, everyday chores. The comfort of the garden allowed us to share things when other settings didn’t encourage such conversation. I learned how he met my mom, why he joined the navy, and what it meant to him to be a dad.
When I was a child, it was a new era and we were rich. “Rich,” in that my dad had work, my mom stayed at home to raise the family, we had no debt, we owned our own home, and we were loved. Also, my youth happened between wars. No war precipitated the need to grow a tomato, like Victory gardens during World War II. I gardened for the joy of gardening.
As an adult, I never grew tomatoes well. Maybe I stuck one in the ground now and again. But it wasn’t for any serious reason, like my dad did. It was just a tomato. It had no meaning for me. I understood that my dad never forgot the Depression, but I wanted to grow pretty flowers. I didn’t feel the pangs of hunger that motivated my dad. Give me ornamentals, give me beauty. Beauty is priceless. As my generation basked in the glory of the profits following the Depression and the war, a new era that was built on steady work and the power of compound interest, we didn’t want to grow our own tomatoes we wanted to buy them, because we could. We wanted to have pretty, manicured lawns and gardens around us. Tomatoes were bought, just like packaged beef was bought. We wouldn’t think of making our own hamburger, would we?
Fast forward a few decades. My kids look around the garden to see flowers, pretty flowers, everywhere. As they became informed, and they hear and learn about growing vegetable gardens, which is a hot trend now, they noticed I had no tomatoes. They wondered and asked why. I explained that, for the most part, my generation didn’t want to grow food. At least that was the impression I got from my suburban neighbors and friends. We wanted to grow beauty, which was our symbol of comfort.
A couple of years ago, after a request of my youngest child Aster, we put in a small veggie garden, dubbed Le Petit Potager. As a family, we tore up a patch on the front lawn and planted the potager we now tend together. We grow tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peas, lettuce, spinach, bell peppers, hot peppers, as well as carrots, radishes, collards, and more. We also grow sunflowers and zinnia and dill and cilantro.
As we harvested our first fresh tomato, I thought of my dad and his dad. I believe in the future, when my kids harvest tomatoes with their children, they will think of me.
I hope my kids will never need to grow a tomato, but if they had to, they could. It is my hope they will want to grow a tomato. It is my hope that the experience of our own little potager will instill a desire in them. In the meantime, I have three children hanging outside with me in our little potager, tasting the fruits of the vine, doing mundane chores, sharing, and giggling a lot.
HELP TO AND FROM THE HORTICULTURAL COMMUNITY
Because I’m not a trained horticulturist, there is so much I don’t know. I’m forever email, calling, or generally bugging the respected horticulturists here at the JC Raulston Arboretum. I often forget the answer and have to ask twice. Or it may not be so much that I forget, but I’m hoping they can explain it again, in a different way, so I might be able to better understand.
I’m forever learning. I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know. I garden with confidence. To me gardening with confidence means never being afraid to ask. People know or think of me as a gardening “expert,” but as I try to explain, my true value is in that if I don’t know something, I’m not afraid to ask. I’m so confident, I’m not afraid to hurting my reputation by not being able to answer a question.
I was never interested in becoming the best gardener in the area, but I wanted to be able to garden well. I also wanted to be able to give back to the gardening community because of all they did for me. As an avid reader of gardening magazines, books, and even shelter magazines with garden columns, I noticed that gardens in our area were rarely featured. I knew we had the gardens. We also had North Carolina State producing the next generation of horticulturists, designers, and landscape architects. We had the weather to garden year-round, and we had destination nurseries like Plant Delight Nursery. But we were rarely seen in the gardening magazines.
We were not thought of a city of gardens and that is how I thought we should be viewed.
So I devised a plan to give our area a reputation. I felt our gardens needed some pedigree. I noticed the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days tour was held once in 2001, but never again. Sadly, it wasn’t well received. The south, in general, was slow to take off in popularity. So in 2005, I tried again. This time I offered to be a regional representative. At the time, the Garden Conservancy shared proceeds from a regional tour with another non-profit. I chose to share these proceeds with the JC Raulston Arboretum. They have since stopped this sharing except for with a few organizations, including the JCRA. Today Jayme Bednarczk leads the area tour.
Once we had created this “pedigree,” I went to all the national media channels and began to promote the Triangle area’s gardens. “Come tour our area, come see our gardens, come write about us!” And they did–from the big national magazines to groups wanting to tour the area gardens. Our area gardens started to be regularly featured in many magazines. My plan, my hope and dream had worked.
Then I began a large social media campaign to further spread the word of our area as a place of great gardens. Outstanding weather. Plant diversity. Pedigree gardens. Through Facebook, I contacted national television networks to film here and got the media to write about our gardens and tour our cities.
It wasn’t my intention to become a writer, although I had been a garden writer for decades, having started out by writing a garden column for my corporate newsletter. But as I stepped out in front of so many people, I began to be asked to speak and write. My work has appeared in over 40 publications. I get to boast about our area on TV, radio, and in newspaper columns.
It’s a clear case of “If you build it, they will come.” And though I don’t like that overused cliche, it is in fact true.
Gardeners beget gardeners. Enthusiasm about gardening begins to spread. With 7 million new gardeners each year, and Raleigh often winning accolades for being the best place to live and work, we hope some of those attracted to move here are gardeners and want to learn. I say “we,” and that’s the royal we, because each and every one of us in this room will play a part in the building of the next generation of gardeners.
If you go out and pursue your dreams, you will be part of a huge industry for North Carolina, a $6 billion industry.
No matter how smart you are, ask questions. Never stop learning. If you don’t know the answer, don’t just say you don’t know, say you will find the answer. You will learn and you will also stay connected in the gardening community, opening the lines of communication by being able to answer questions from others.
Ultimately, this is just my scheme to gather new names of people whom I can count on to help me answer questions. But I also want you to know that if ever I can answer a question for you, I’m just an email, text, Facebook post or a tweet away.
I need to share with you a follow-up about my brother and me as we walked our new neighborhood on that summer day. I was spying my first glad, but I learned that my brother wasn’t seeing the same thing I saw. It turns out that the homeowner, a twenty-something mom in pink leopard-print leotards (as we called them then), was stretching in front of the curtain-less picture window. Beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder.
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