My Gardening Story
My Gardening Story
by Diane Downey
I was taught to garden by my Grandmother when I was 7 years old and visiting her in the Summer in Bedfordshire. My first planting plan included snapdragons and marigolds. She taught me how to build a compost heap and how to layer greens and browns with some horse manure to accelerate it all, and how to over it in straw and plastic sheeting to cook it. She showed me how beneficial it was when she used it in her own garden to improve the soil and grow wonderful, fragrant roses. She and my Grandfather took me for long walks around the woods where he would come across a 'chocolate tree' just as the going was getting a bit tough. I remember seeing carpets of bluebells, and picking them to bring home, with their slippery, stringy stems and their haunting fragrance. My grandparents were my inspiration for learning about nature.
In 1974, my step father built his own vegetable garden from a bare piece of earth that was our back garden in our new house in Wigan, Lancashire. We kept a small flock of Bantam hens and Rhode Island Reds in a converted garden shed with an enclosed run. They gave us lots of fresh eggs, and much amusement as we watched their antics. I remember him pouring over seed catalogs trying to work out which exotic species he was going to try his hand at next spring. He taught me how to see possibilities in a piece of land.
My high school had a stags horn fern hanging up somewhere between the Biology department and the sixth form common room. It was the first time I had ever seen such a plant and it became one of those plants that I just had to have. I finally got two of them when I moved to California, some 20 years later. This was the beginning of me learning that the plant world was full of delights beyond my very limited experience to that point.
My A level (last two years of high school, for US readers) Biology teacher taught me botany, among other things. That's when I first learned about macro and micro nutrients, nodes, internodes, growing tips, stomata, xylem and phloem. I remember being so excited to see onion cells under the microscope for the first time, and doing the experiment that measured how much starch was in a leaf that had been masked from sunlight for 24 hours. This taught me the value of science and gave me a glimpse into the chemical reactions that surround us.
I spent my undergraduate days collecting sad looking, discounted house plants from places like Woolworths in Worcester town center. I would bring them home to my dorm room, prune, re-pot and nurture them into large, beautiful specimens. I would water them all by placing them in one of the communal bath tubs and letting them sit in water for an hour or so. Another hour or so to drain, and they would be just right for another week. When I moved into my first shared flat (apartment) with my best friend from college, I somehow forgot that trick and would water them with a small watering can. I always managed to over water them and had to run round with a cloth drying up after myself. Still do to this day! Watering plants is not as easy as you think and water needs to be managed.
My first real garden was in Faversham, Kent when my husband, our good friend Debbie, and I bought our first house. The back garden was long and thin, with a high red brick wall all the way around. When we moved in, the garden was in a really sorry state, so we came up with a design and set to work with a rototiller. We created new pathways using gravel, and we curved the planter beds to disguise the shape. We planted goldenrod, honeysuckle and a small flowering cherry tree. Good landscape design is key to getting the best out of any garden.
My favorite English garden was in Eythorne, Kent where we lived from 1994 until 2001. When we bought the house it came with a small greenhouse, a pond, and a detached garage. I would spend my weekends pottering in the greenhouse, starting vegetable and bedding plant seedlings. I recycled one of our old kitchen cabinets and some old worktop to make a potting bench, and my husband built me some greenhouse staging. I converted two old coal bunkers into compost bins, and used a shredder to chop up all the tree trimmings to add to the heap. I created an herb garden in the front by taking out a small area of lawn, and I 'hedged' it with thyme. One of my favorite plants was a ceanothus or California Lilac, and the other was a clematis (Nelly Moser) that just grew and grew and grew. Now it was my time to pour over seed catalogs and work out how to limit my seed order to a manageable budget!
My current Californian garden is now my favorite. Its not as big as I'd like it to be - we got that warning quite early on from our Realtor - but its where I try out ideas and plants. And boy, what a learning curve I had when I got here. The soil was just the wrong color - kind of yellow-brown, not dark brown I'm used to. The plant choices available were mind blowing and I felt like a kid in a candy store. It didn't take much time for me to realize that just because we can grow all sorts of exotics here, it doesn't mean we should. Once I had started improving my own yard, taking out the lawn, piece by piece, I realized that I needed some education to make this all work. I enrolled in the horticulture program at my local junior college, Mira Costa, and took a range of classes from Soil Science, Irrigation, Plant Science, Pest Control, and others. That experience shaped my thinking about our use of water, our guardianship of the environment, our impact on the ecosystem and our plant choices.
When I started The Yard Fairy in 2003, I knew I wanted to become part of the professional group for landscapers, the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA). After being a member for a year or two, but not really being very active I realized that the association could offer me much more if I became involved. I set myself a goal of attending the monthly board meetings, and while walking into that first meeting was not easy to do, I have found the CLCA to be a major influence on my business. The friendships and camaraderie in both the local San Diego chapter, and up and down the state, provided me with support, professional development and leadership training. I was exposed to landscape business of all sizes and flavors; I met and talked to politicians and policy advisers; we won multiple awards for our work and for our website; and I learned business skills from a wide range of green industry experts. I am so grateful that the group were so welcoming when I took those first faltering steps to that first board meeting.
My family have been a very important part of this whole journey - my grandparents, my parents, my husband and my children. They have been very tolerant of my need to visit garden centers, botanical gardens and nurseries. My husband, in particular, has been very good about handing me a towel on the way to the shower after a long and dirty day in garden. I'm so proud of my kids as they become more involved in the garden and the business, and they start to see why I'm so passionate about my profession. I hope this continues to grow for them, and they too have a lifetime of gardening joy ahead of them.